LOOKING BACK AND AHEAD
Steven K. Reviczky, Commissioner
Over the last eight years, the Department of Agriculture (DoAg) has made tremendous progress in its mission to Grow Connecticut Farms. These successes were made possible by the unyielding support of our governor and state legislators, the hard work of DoAg staff, and the effective advocacy of key stakeholders. As a stand-alone, cabinet-level agency, DoAg is positioned to advance Connecticut farming and agriculture.
Critical to the agency’s ability to serve the agricultural community and its consumers are the programs funded through the Community Investment Act.
These monies not only make matching grants available to farmers, municipalities, and nonprofits, but also fund portions of our farmland protection efforts and provide critical support to Connecticut’s dairy sector. Through our robust portfolio of grants, programs, and services, DoAg has been able to support the growth and diversification of Connecticut’s farm families and businesses.
As I complete my eighth year serving as your commissioner, this is a perfect time to reflect on what we have accomplished together and to look forward on what the agricultural community might tackle in the months and years to come.
One of the areas of work where I take great pride—and we have made a lasting mark—is the permanent protection of our state’s farmland.
Working closely with our many partners in municipal and federal government, and those in the private not-for-profit community, DoAg has, over the last eight years purchased the development rights to more than 9,250 acres on 90 farms, increasing the number of farms enrolled in the Farmland Preservation program by 25 percent.
In addition to purchasing development rights to working farms, DoAg also has provided $3.9 million in grants to farmers to restore more than 1,100 acres of prime and important soils for active production. These grants have been matched by over $5.6 million from farmers and farmland owners.
Over the same timeframe, the agency has awarded 147 Farm Transition Grants to help diversify and expand farm operations, and provided 165 grants to municipalities and non-profits for projects supporting agriculture through the Farm Viability Grant program.
In terms of public policy, the designation of DoAg as the lead agency for the enforcement of the new Produce Safety Rule (PSR) under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) promises to have far-reaching impact on the future of fruit and vegetable farming in Connecticut.
Under FSMA’s PSR, cultivation, harvesting, and holding will be regulated for the first time in our nation’s history. Through funding under a cooperative agreement with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), DoAg has established a new produce safety program to monitor the growing, harvesting, and holding of produce in Connecticut, hiring and training staff to extend its food safety mission onto fruit and vegetable farms.
The agency’s work will be guided by the mantra to educate before and while we regulate. DoAg is working closely with UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources to fulfill its outreach and education responsibilities.
The agency also has worked with stakeholders and the state legislature to strengthen Connecticut Grown laws in an effort to protect Connecticut farmers from unfair competition from those who simply buy and sell.
New provisions in state law require that sellers clearly state the farm of origin when selling agricultural products as Connecticut Grown. This change supports farmers who work hard to cultivate, grow, and harvest crops, and provides consumers important information when making choices in various market places.
After hearing from stakeholders, farm-of-origin requirements were extended from direct sales venues to farm-to-school programs to assist food service personnel in their efforts by helping assure they are getting the products for which they are paying.
With the assistance of the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services, DoAg was able to acquire rights to nearly 1,000 acres of shellfish beds along the Thimble Islands.
This area is targeted as an incubator opportunity for small and start-up companies to plant, cultivate, and harvest shellfish and kelp. Through licenses to private business concerns, these beds provide a chance of these small and new operations to generate jobs and bring Connecticut Grown product to market.
In recent years Connecticut has experienced extreme weather events ranging from hurricanes and super storms to tornados and historic snowstorms.
Recognizing the severe negative impact these events had on Connecticut farm families, Governor Malloy directed the agency to develop a relief program for producers negatively affected by devastating weather in 2013.
As a result, the State of Connecticut established a one-time emergency-relief effort known as the PLANT Grant that made $5 million available to farmers to ease the loss of crops, infrastructure, and feed.
Some other accomplishments of the last eight years:
- Developing legislation that supports Connecticut’s craft farm breweries and farm wineries
- Developing an Avian Influenza response plan
- Passage of legislation to transfer the 925-acre Southbury Training School Farm from the Department of Developmental Disabilities to DoAg
- Placement of a permanent conservation easement on Southbury Training School Farm to keep the 925-acre farm available for agricultural use in perpetuity
While managing a wide variety of programs and initiatives, I also had the good fortune to be elected by my peers to lead the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). This is the only time in the 102-year history of the organization that a Connecticut commissioner was elected to serve as president of this well-respected national organization.
As NASDA president I had the opportunity to lift up issues important to Connecticut and Northeast farmers and to showcase Connecticut and Connecticut agriculture when we hosted the 2018 NASDA annual meeting in Hartford in September.
As we look ahead, there are a number of challenges and opportunities on the horizon that should be addressed.
In the next legislative session, Connecticut should consider establishing an industrial hemp pilot program, and ensure industrial hemp is recognized as an agricultural crop. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed for this in limited ways, but as state and federal laws on this topic continue to evolve, Connecticut and its farmers must be positioned to capitalize on market opportunities. The legislature should consider strengthening DoAg’s statutory authority as we ready regulation to stand up a program that empowers Connecticut farmers.
There is also a need to address growing crises in the agricultural community in a meaningful way. Friends in Colorado and other states have established programs that ensure appropriate support is available for those in agriculture who are struggling, whether that be with mental health, financial planning, or transition planning.
All too often we miss the signs and, sadly, the opportunity to help. We must commit to working across agency lines and with each other to do what we can to provide assistance and a helping hand. We can and must do better.
The last eight years have been a period of great forward momentum in agriculture in our state, but as is always true with farming, our work is never done. The employees at DoAg are excited to support your success and the growth of Connecticut farms.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your commissioner.