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Local family farms thrive in southeastern Connecticut

We often hear complaints that family farming in Connecticut is only a bit of the past, now swept away by suburban sprawl and by the takeover of food production by international agribusiness. Yet in southeastern Connecticut, a younger generation is helping family farms to thrive, due partly to technical innovations, but primarily to their creativity in adopting new business models and their willingness to respond to changing social attitudes about food and where it comes from.

Two New London County farmers, one from Bozrah and one from Griswold, discuss how they work with their families to adjust to the demands on farms in the 21st century.

Richard Campbell III, 43, who with his sister Rhonda represents the sixth generation on Campbell’s Farm (his and his sister’s children are the upcoming seventh), points out that one of the major changes in family farming in the last generation is an increase in direct sales to customers. Sitting in the family’s farmstand on busy Route 138 in Griswold, Rich says, “The farm stand itself is nothing new. Farm stands have existed for generations. What’s new is the number of people who come here and the variety of products they can get.”

Once, farm families would set up stands on the side of the road to sell their own excess produce in season. Today, Connecticut farmers cooperate with one another to expand the range of products individual stands can offer.

Groceries available at Campbell’s include not only their own beef, pork and fresh vegetables in season but also Connecticut grown milk, fruit, honey, maple syrup, preserves and eggs, among other food products and crafts.

“I always tell people who come in that when they buy from me they are not just supporting Campbell’s Farm but they are supporting about 30 other small local farms whose products I sell.”

Dixie Moon, 21, fifth generation at Brush Hill Dairy, agrees. However, she and her family have even more direct customer contact than do the Campbells.

The Brush-Moon family also operates a farmstand, on Brush Hill Road in Bozrah. Like that at Campbell’s, their farmstand also features products from other local farms in addition to the milk, eggs, meats and vegetables they produce themselves — goat milk soap, honey, maple syrup, pottery and the latest addition, dryer balls made from alpaca fleece from neighboring Lebanon. However, unlike Campbell’s Farm, Brush Hill Dairy also sells at several regional farmers’ markets and runs a community supported agriculture program (CSA), sometimes known as a farm share.

Members pay a flat fee at planting time as an investment in the crop, then they get a variety of fresh produce each week. The Brush Hill summer CSA, which runs from June through the beginning of October, has grown from a handful of regular customers to the maximum capacity they can currently handle.

Thirty-five families have already signed up for next spring.

Then two years ago they added a smaller winter CSA that runs from mid October through the week before Christmas. However, the farmstand is open for individual purchases year round.

When Moon was born, her family’s farm, founded in 1887 by her great-great grandfather George Brush, Sr., used to raise dairy cows and sell milk wholesale. When she was 5 years old, they began selling raw milk at farmers’ markets in southeastern Connecticut.

That same year, they also opened a small honor-system farmstand next to the dairy barn on Brush Hill Road, where they sold milk and eggs. The stand was unattended because her father, Texas Moon, was busy with growing hay and managing the dairy, while her mother, Sarah Brush, was growing vegetables for the family, raising chickens and keeping track of three young children, April, Dixie and their younger brother Levi.

Brush soon learned that raw milk was a niche market and that to make the farmers’ market trips profitable she would have to expand her offerings, so she got busy planting larger vegetable gardens and involving the children in the business.

Both the Campbells and the Brush-Moons have seen the blossoming of interest in locally sourced foods in recent years. Increasing numbers of restaurant chefs and home cooks alike subscribe to the “locavore” movement, that is, their principal diet consists of meat, fish, dairy products, fruits and vegetables — even wines and beers — that are grown or produced close to home.

Food provided from farms in Connecticut or in nearby Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey can get to consumers more quickly than products that come by ship or truck from the Midwest, the West Coast and abroad. Therefore, they are fresher and require less fossil fuel to transport.

Farmers’ markets, CSA memberships and visits to local farmstands have grown in proportion to this movement, and so have “farm to table” events put on by area restaurants and sometimes towns themselves.

Before COVID, for example, the Bozrah Agriculture Commission and the Maples Farm Park Commission, which runs the Bozrah Farmers Market, sponsored an annual community harvest supper in the fall, with families bringing dishes to share, all made with locally sourced ingredients.

The popularity of buying and eating local has made some question how consumers shopping for salad vegetables at a farmers market or fruit at an orchard can be sure that the food is really locally grown. Beginning in 1989 with Public Act No. 15-245, the state runs a Connecticut Grown program that certifies products at roadside stands and farmers’ markets as local.

At a farmers market, vendors can sell only those agricultural products that were raised or produced on their own farms. At farmstands, however, they can sell the produce of other Connecticut farmers as well.

The state provides blue and green “Connecticut Grown” signs that farmers can display above their goods to alert customers that the meat, vegetables, fruits, and other products are guaranteed to be from Connecticut.

Not everyone understands the meaning of these signs. Campbell chuckles when reminded about an incident that took place a few years ago but that is fairly typical, he says. A woman passing through the area was holding up the line, asking about each of the products she was considering. From a bin clearly marked “Connecticut Grown,” she pulled a tomato and asked, “Is this local?”

Then she queried Campbell about corn, beans and bell peppers, all of which displayed large “Connecticut Grown” signs. Finally, her eye fell on an unmarked bowl of lemons and limes Campbell keeps on hand for the convenience of his customers. “Are these local?”

Behind her in line, a regular customer to the stand quipped, “So, Rich, how is that lemon-lime tree doing this year?” and he fired back, “Oh, it’s growing fine. I found just the right kind of fertilizer.” Satisfied, the woman left the store with her purchases.

Every once in a while, regulars to the stand will ask Campbell, “How’s the lemon-lime crop coming?”

Both Campbell and Moon have seen a surge in shopping at their farmstands during the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are nervous about going into a crowded grocery store, so they come here looking for food,” says Moon. At the beginning of the lockdown, in the spring of 2020, many of the farmers markets never opened, opened later or opened with a drive-through system. With supplies of fresh meats and groceries dwindling at supermarkets, Campbell noticed that new customers came in to “stock up, especially on beef.”

Moon put it differently: “People were panic buying, just grabbing up any food they saw, whether or not they had ever cooked it before.”

Moon and her mother, Sarah Brush, who are primarily in charge of the farmstand, were barraged with questions: “What is this? What does it taste like? How do you cook it?”

At the end of a typical week, they had sold everything from the farmstand.

“It was great because there was no waste,” Moon says, “but at the end of the week we had to buy feed for the animals that normally are fed farm scraps. There just weren’t any scraps to give them.”

Certainly, the younger generation of farmers relies on technical advances that allow them to work more efficiently, save on labor and extend the growing season. At Brush Hill Dairy, some of the traditional fields are being replaced by high tunnels, structures shaped like Quonset huts.

Unlike a greenhouse, a high tunnel allows the farmer to plant crops directly in the ground, and they are protected by a cover that allows light and air in and keeps the temperature warmer for a longer period. The introduction of high tunnels, together with a wide variety of plant varieties now available, has allowed the Brush-Moon family to supply fresh local lettuce and other leafy green vegetables through most of the winter.

When raising beef cattle or dairy cows, growing hay and silage is necessary, not only because of the steadily increasing prices of purchased feed but also because consumers prefer meat from pasture-raised animals supplied with natural food, such as grasses, rather than with processed feed.

At Campbell’s Farm, new equipment has streamlined haying into a single operation. Instead of using machines that make bales and leave them in the field to be picked up by a crew later, the family uses a machine that bales the hay and loads the bales directly onto a trailer. Watering and fertilizing systems at both farms have been updated in recent years as well.

When asked who actually runs the farm, the younger generation or their parents, both Campbell and Moon gave similar answers, answers that provide one of the keys to what makes a successful family farm, here or anywhere. Not only does everyone on the farm contribute their labor, but also major decisions, such as a change in what is raised or planted or the purchase of new machinery and technical equipment, are made cooperatively.

According to Moon, the idea of installing high tunnels was “definitely a joint decision” made between her mother and herself, with input and help from the rest of the family. Campbell, too, says that he and his father are partners and talk over ideas, such as the move from raising dairy cows to specializing in beef cattle, before acting on them.

Both Campbell and Moon grew up on their farms, and neither can remember a time when they didn’t have chores and weren’t taking part in the day-to-day business of farming. As each graduated from school and came of age, their responsibilities as well as their participation in decision making grew.

There is a lot of work, worry and uncertainty that comes with running a farm, and the work is endless. Even in the winter, farmers are milking, caring for animals, repairing equipment, buying seed, sprouting seedlings and running breeding programs.

In spite of these things, both farmers love their work and are committed to full-time farming as their only career. Campbell took some time when he was young considering other options before he committed to the life of a farmer. But as for Moon, “I never wanted to do or be anything else. I just wanted to raise animals and grow things,” she says.

Mary Elizabeth Lang is a freelance writer living in Bozrah.

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