The revival of New England farming

Pauline Lord's White Gate Farm in East Lyme grows produce in summer and in winter, thanks to a growing demand for fresh produce and thousands of feet of greenhouses.
Pauline Lord's White Gate Farm in East Lyme grows produce in summer and in winter, thanks to a growing demand for fresh produce and thousands of feet of greenhouses.

It has been centuries since New England was a major agricultural area. The frontier began its westward push about five minutes after the Pilgrims landed, and then accelerated toward the Great Plains and beyond with stagecoach, steampower and rail. Large-scale farming, especially in the Middle West and in the Central Valley of California, took over.

That made 19th Century America a time of wondrous techno-optimism, and the price of food began to fall with associated mass production. This trend accelerated in the 20th Century with ever-cheaper energy.

In 1900 the food budget was 43 percent of family income, in 2010 less than 10 percent. As those costs were plummeting, the workforce engaged in agricultural production dropped from 50 percent of total employment in 1900 to under 2 percent in 2000.

Anyone who buys groceries knows that food shopping has gotten pricier lately. For that matter, commodity prices as a whole have jumped. Consider that the price of gasoline/diesel fuel was well on its way to $4 a gallon before the Middle East exploded in the last few weeks.

Unlike the Pilgrims, who grew their own food, we live in a highly organized globalized distributive economy. The food at your store may be processed, canned, bagged and shipped dozens of times before it gets to you - every step fueled by (once) cheap petroleum. But the era of cheap energy is over.

It gets worse. New England is at the end of the national shipping chain and its goods are 95 percent dependent on trucking and 5 percent on rail; the rest of the country averages around 80/20. (Thankfully, the region does have better rail passenger service than the rest of the country.)

What can we do? There is a glimmering of hope.

On a recent sunny but cold day, Pauline Lord of White Gate Farm in East Lyme, harvested fresh carrots from one of her planting beds. Brilliant orange, with a bright topping of green, they looked far more appetizing than the supermarket version. I'd already had some of her winter broccoli (very crisp and delicious) and miner's lettuce, a West Coast green that has taken quite nicely to Connecticut soil.

The temperature outside was freezing, but Pauline, who with her husband, retired volcanologist Dave Harlow, wore short sleeves as we stood in one of two large greenhouses, covering several thousand square feet, each with bed after bed of greens and other vegetables merrily growing away - in February - in New England!

A whole new generation of farmers, highly educated, and some from non-farming backgrounds, have begun year-round agriculture in New England in greenhouses, using some very clever heat-retention systems that keep crops from freezing at night.

Yes, some have propane or fuel-oil-fired hot water for the planting beds, but perhaps surprisingly, many do not. A godfather of this winter harvest, Eliot Coleman - he wrote a book by that name - uses almost no petro-heat, yet produces winter crops - in Maine! (www.fourseasonfarm.com)

In Groton, the Groton Family Farm, run by Warren Burrows, has 500 hens producing eggs. Instead of just wholesaling his eggs, Burrows has a self-service operation where you can pick up a dozen eggs, leave some dollar bills in the strong box, and be on your way.

The eggs at Burrow's farm are fresh that morning, but have a stamped two-month sell-by date as required by law. Do Warren's hen's eggs cost more than industrial eggs? I checked the price of organic local eggs (so labeled) at a supermarket: they were $4.99/dozen - a buck more than Warren charges. And they were four weeks old.

Art Costa, the founder of Ocean View Associates LLC, a consulting firm expert on process management software/technology, promotes locally sourced food through New London Local First and other organizations.

"While New England has a naturally short growing season," he told me, "it should be noted that much of what we need can and is grown within the Northeast. The extension of the growing season to provide basic staples has been underway for the past several years. The demand has grown substantially year after year as witnessed by the sprouting of farmers' markets and a growing number of [direct] customers, such as hospitals, school systems, and college/university campuses and restaurants."

"We are seeing a rebirth of local agriculture… through larger scale, but local, purchasing." This is possible via online food providers connecting with online purchasers, a route "… still in the early stages but we see it happening throughout New England," Costa said.

Indeed, major direct-to-consumer produce sales as found in colonial New England are coming back, and thus a revival of towns and cities' public squares.

"In a number of urban and smaller town centers," he said, "the public square has become a major attraction for farmers' markets…These markets engage the community with food producers and one another. This is an experience that far exceeds going to a local chain store where price is the primary experience."

Will all this have a big impact on New England? Your comments are invited.

James P. RePass (jprepass@gmail.com), writes the "New England Rising'' column. He is chairman and chief executive of the National Corridors Initiative.

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