Advocates lobby for conservation of state-owned Savin Farm

Kim Abell of M&K Dairy in Lebanon feeds the cows Friday on the farm. The dairy leases 160 acres of the 575-acre Savin Farm property from the state. A bill pending in the state legislature would permanently protect the land from development.
Kim Abell of M&K Dairy in Lebanon feeds the cows Friday on the farm. The dairy leases 160 acres of the 575-acre Savin Farm property from the state. A bill pending in the state legislature would permanently protect the land from development. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Inside the barn, facing a huddle of the big, docile "Ladies of Lebanon" that are her livelihood, Kim Abell ticked off their names.

"This is Blue, this one's Madeline, that's Penny, that's Sweet Ann and this is Rosie," she said, patting the nose of one of the Holsteins as she gestured toward the others, all content to refrain from mooing.

A few steps away, a comparatively dainty cow, brown rather than black and white like the others, stuck her snout through the stall.

"This one's LB," Abell said, smiling as she revealed that the first initial stood for "little," and the second for a word not repeated in polite company. "She's the smallest cow in the barn, but when we first got her we could barely milk her."

Abell and her partner, Mike Shaw, have been running M&K Dairy for three years on 160 acres considered to be some of the state's best farmland, after moving their herd of 40 milkers and 30 heifers from a smaller spread they'd been renting in this town where 70 percent of the land is actively farmed.

Since coming to the property known as the Savin Farm, Abell and Shaw have begun raising corn and hay for the cows, making cheese, adding free-range laying hens and pigs, and selling their products - sausages, hamburger, veal, eggs, cheeses, yogurt and milk - at a small store next to the barn and at local farmers markets under the "Ladies of Lebanon" label. They've also made some major improvements that are sustaining sound agricultural practices on land that has been farmed since the 1800s, such as adding miles of fencing to corral the cows for rotational grazing through the pastures.

"We're never going to be a large farm," Abell, a petite 43-year-old, said this week. "I wanted this farm so we could do rotational grazing. That was my dream. I wanted it for the cows. They're happier and healthier, because they're grass-fed and getting more exercise. I could tell how happy they were as soon as we let them off the truck from the other farm."

The success of M&K Dairy is one reason advocates of permanent preservation for Savin Farm say their effort deserves widespread support. The state Department of Agriculture purchased the entire 575-acre property, named for a former owner who both farmed it and mined gravel there that was used to build nearby Route 2 and other state roads. The state paid $2 million in 1993 to a bank that had obtained the land after a failed proposal that would have turned it into a golf course and subdivision, said Jay Dippel, head of the agriculture department's Development and Resource Preservation Bureau. The farm is on Roger Foote Road, off Norwich-Colchester Turnpike (Route 616).

The state, Dippel said, recognized its highly productive agricultural soils and its natural resource value, with a 70-acre pond and three streams that form the headwaters of the Yantic River. Last year, 14 miles along the Yantic were designated a state Greenway, because of its recreational and environmental significance.

Hunters and fishermen use about 214 acres of the property managed by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Much of the remainder is leased to Abell and another farmer, Jim Cushman of Cushman Farms - part of The Farmer's Cow cooperative - who raises corn there for his large dairy herd. The agriculture department plans to seek proposals from "incubator farms" to bring currently fallow sections of the farm, called the Lebanon Agricultural Reserve, back into production, Dippel said. M&K rents its portion of the farm for $1,000 per month, plus another $700 per month for a house where Abell, Shaw and their three children live.

As with most households, the couple has two sources of income - the farm and Shaw's job with a construction company.

"It's the only farm the agriculture department owns outright," Dippel said. "It's a very special piece of property."

Formal protection

Though the state's current stewardship of the land isn't being questioned, farmland and natural resource conservation advocates have joined forces to push for a bill pending in the state legislature to ensure protection of the Savin Farm. The bill is modeled after a 2013 law that is placing conservation easements on the 825-acre state-owned Southbury Training School farm, which will become the second farm fully owned by the agriculture department once land surveys are complete.

Like the Savin Farm and 200 or so acres of other farmland once part of state prison or Department of Developmental Services properties, the training school property is rented to private farmers through leases overseen by the agriculture department.

"This is a great opportunity to protect an outstanding piece of farmland," said Lisa Bassani, project director for the Working Lands Alliance, the Windsor-based nonprofit group that is spearheading the effort to preserve Savin Farm. "People assume that because land is held by the state, there are protections on it, but that isn't the case."

Cushman, who has been renting about 90 acres of the Savin Farm for over 10 years, said he hopes the bill passes in this session.

"It's a great idea," he said. "Any state land is vulnerable."

Like another bill seeking new protections for state park and forest land, the bill for the Savin farm would ensure that the state would not entertain any future proposals from developers to buy or swap all or part of the property, Bassani said. Both bills, she added, are a reaction to a recent proposal to swap state conservation land along the Connecticut River for a developer's plan that was never realized. She also wants to build on the success of the training school bill last year.

State Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky, in testimony during an Environment Committee public hearing on March 7, said his agency supports the intent of the bill, but would prefer to wait until the training school transaction is complete. Bassani and other supporters disagree.

"We'd like to build on the momentum," she said. "We see no need to wait. There's a window open to seize this opportunity."

Members of Lebanon's Conservation and Agriculture Commission and local farmers also offered testimony.

"The need to maintain this important and strategic land mass is critical to both agriculture and flood management as well as protecting the watershed quality of the Yantic," Lebanon First Selectwoman Joyce Okonuk said in her testimony. She also noted that 5,000 of the 10,000 acres of active farmland in town are part of the state farmland preservation program, more than any other town in the state.

"The town, through its various policies and planning, has identified the preservation, promotion and expansion of agriculture as its number one priority," she said.

Other testimony from farmland preservation groups noted that the Savin Farm was identified in a 2010 report on state-owned farmland as having the second-highest agricultural value, after the Southbury Training School land.

"Other preservation projects can take years to complete and come with high price tags," wrote Jim Gooch, executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. "The state can protect the Savin farm in a short time at minimal cost."

Two natural resource conservation groups, the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club and the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, joined with the farmland protection advocates in urging for passage of the bill. Only one speaker argued against it.

"It's nice to recognize the farming community, but let's spend our time and money on things of more significance than this," said Frank Magill, who identified himself only as "a Connecticut taxpayer."

As debate continues on HB 5419, which has been voted out of the Environment Committee and is headed toward consideration by the full House, the business of keeping M&K running never stops, from the twice-daily milkings to transporting livestock to the slaughterhouse in Rhode Island to hauling hay, grain and corn silage into the barn for winter feed.

Now that spring is finally here, Abell said she's looking forward to getting her cows back outside for daily grazing. She plans to install water lines to provide fresh water in all the pastures and hopes to attract more shoppers to the farm store.

"We have an amazing number of people driving to the farm now, and we just started a CSA for our meat," she said, referring to a Community Supported Agriculture program in which customers pay a preset amount for a specific quantity of farm products throughout the year.

"We're a very sustainable operation. I'm perfectly satisfied right here."

j.benson@theday.com

Kim Abell heads to her truck after finishing her morning round of chores Friday at M&K Dairy in Lebanon. Abell said she and her partner Mike Shaw moved their small dairy operation to the state-owned Savin Farm to establish rotational grazing in the pastures. The cows are
Kim Abell heads to her truck after finishing her morning round of chores Friday at M&K Dairy in Lebanon. Abell said she and her partner Mike Shaw moved their small dairy operation to the state-owned Savin Farm to establish rotational grazing in the pastures. The cows are "happier and healthier, because they're grass-fed and getting more exercise. I could tell how happy they were as soon as we let them off the truck ..." Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
Cows graze at M&K Dairy Friday on Savin Farm in Lebanon. Dairy owners Kim Abell and Mike Shaw lease a portion of the 575-acre Savin Farm property from the state. A bill pending in the state legislature would permanently protect the land from development.
Cows graze at M&K Dairy Friday on Savin Farm in Lebanon. Dairy owners Kim Abell and Mike Shaw lease a portion of the 575-acre Savin Farm property from the state. A bill pending in the state legislature would permanently protect the land from development. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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