Published March 31. 2014 4:00AM
Kerry Taylor, 38, and her husband, Max, 27, decided three years ago to leave western Massachusetts and start their own farm in Connecticut, braving the state's notoriously rocky soil because it brought with it the opportunity for more independence and less competition.
"It's super rocky, it's awful," said Taylor, but "you just learn how to weld and fix equipment."
The Taylors' move to Salem made them part of a statistic recently publicized by the governor: a preliminary report of the federal census of agriculture shows that the number of farms in Connecticut has increased by 22 percent in the past five years. The full report will be available in May.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture, which documents a national decline in farmland, shows that Connecticut boasts the highest farming increase in New England. The average size of a farm, however, decreased from 83 to 73 acres, and the average market value of agricultural products sold decreased by almost 18 percent (from $112,195 per farm to $92,120).
The state Department of Agriculture confirmed that farming seems to be becoming more popular but also noted the trend may be somewhat exaggerated.
Department of Agriculture Chief of Staff George Krivda said the last five years have been an exciting time for agriculture in the Connecticut, but he doesn't want to draw hard and fast conclusions from the census numbers.
The census relies on self-reported data, and the department worked hard to encourage local farmers to fill out the paperwork this year, said Krivda, so the increase may be artificially large.
Nevertheless, the state has a long history of farming, and that's not going away anytime soon, he said.
"Agriculture was firmly planted in the state before Connecticut was a state," said Krivda, referring to the "three sisters" planted by Native Americans: corn, squash and beans.
He said the department has noticed an increased interest in agriculture over the past few years, especially from young people. The census reflects that trend: The Connecticut farmers younger than 25 years old nearly doubled between 2007 and 2012, jumping from 24 to 55. And the number of farmers between 25 and 34 years old increased from 161 to 226.
The DoA also is receiving more and more inquiries from people just out of college about the price of land and farming apprenticeships. Their youth may be a bit surprising those who picture farming as an old-fashioned, aging profession, but Krivda isn't terribly shocked.
There was a whole generation that grew up not really understanding where vegetables came from, he said, but today's young adults are more environmentally conscious.
"I think there's a certain panache to it" among young people these days, said Krivda. "I think farming is a little bit romantic from the outside."
And perhaps it is. Kerry Taylor grew up in Providence and studied biology at Mount Holyoke College. She never planned to become a farmer but found herself drawn to the idea when she "happened upon" Pomykala Farm in South Hero, Vt., on a post-college road trip.
She worked at Pomykala for a season and "really, really, really liked it."
Taylor went on to do agricultural work in Togo with the Peace Corps and spent several years at a large vegetable farm in Amherst, Mass. Now she and her husband - who grew up outside Chicago and studied sustainable agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst - operate Provider Farm in Salem, where the smell of cabbages still reminds Kerry of tending her grandfather's garden as a child.
Both Krivda and Taylor, however, were quick to stress that it's not all romance.
"Farmers are like artists," explained Krivda - they must make difficult and imprecise judgements about how to nurture plants every day.
And they always have to work, even when they're tired or sick. With vegetables to grow and animals to take care of, vacations can be nearly impossible. The natural world dictates the farmer's schedule.
"Farmers don't really go by clocks, they go by the sun," said Krivda. "The elements are your boss."
Certain people adapt to the lifestyle and wouldn't have it any other way, he said. But for others, it's too much.
Fortunately for Taylor, she had no trouble adapting. And she's thrilled to hear that the number of farms in Connecticut has increased.
"Right now farming's pretty trendy and a lot of people are talking about it," said Taylor. "There's a lot of great energy around it."
But she cautions against young people starting a farm without getting experience first.
"It's a really hard job," said Taylor, adding that her five years learning how to manage a vegetable farm at Brookfield Farm in Massachusetts were critical. She encourages apprenticing farmers to stay at one farm and volunteer to help with anything they can, getting a depth of experience in one place, rather than jumping from farm to farm.
As she made her way across Provider Farm last week, wearing worn jeans, a camouflage baseball cap, wetland boots and a thinning sweater over multiple layers, Taylor said New England farmers are fortunate because they don't have to deal with the droughts plaguing their peers out west.
But farmers here have their own challenges. Taylor spoke as she thinned out beet sprouts for spring planting in her warm and slightly humid greenhouse, but outdoors the late March weather was still blustery and cold - not the ideal situation for growing plants.
The Taylors are able to help sustain themselves through the long winters by offering customers winter Community Sponsored Agriculture shares. CSAs invite customers to share in the risk and unpredictability of farming in return for weekly portions of the produce harvest - in winter, "all the roots you can think of," squash, onions, garlic and spinach, said Taylor.
The number of CSAs has taken off in recent years and farmers markets are springing up everywhere, said Krivda, who said their popularity is probably related to the locavore movement.
"What we're seeing is more of a connection between what people eat and how they feel," he said.