farms

Local Food and Agriculture

Connecting Farmers and Consumers in the Northeast Corner

Local food and agriculture took a spotlight in 2020 as residents avoided grocery stores and sought out contactless and close to home food options during the unfolding of COVID-19. Coincidentally, just months earlier, UConn Extension launched a new federally funded project to increase direct-to-consumer sales for farm businesses in Northeast Connecticut.

woman reading sign at farmers marketWorking with farms across 23 towns in the region (see map), the project aims to increase direct-to-consumer farm sales by 15%, increase customers by 20%, and expand market opportunities for at least 70 producers over the course of three years. A 12-member Farmer Advisory Board is guiding project activities, which include new marketing tools, trainings, and branding.

The project tracks farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) to see if there is an increase in customers and sales over time. “Everyone who lives in Northeastern Connecticut knows it is a beautiful place to live, but many miss out on supporting local farm businesses because they lack information about what farms offer and where to purchase their products,” explained Jiff Martin, Extension Educator in Sustainable Food Systems.

As part of this work, UConn’s team is developing a brand to capture the unique identity that agriculture has in the region. With over 100 farms in the 23 towns, there are a wide variety of products consumers can purchase, and the region takes great pride in its agricultural landscapes. In June 2020, UConn Extension put together a guide that showcases this strong agricultural identity, while helping consumers see the variety of what farms offer and how accessible it is for them to purchase locally. This guide has seen a fall update in September and a winter iteration in December.

Printed versions of the summer guide were quickly snatched up by the community from farmers markets, local business, and community centers. The online magazine version has seen plenty of traffic as people looked to this resource on the go, or to plan out their purchasing of weekly groceries. A postcard mailing to thousands of households in the region and strategic social media marketing around #heartctgrown helped broadcast messaging about local farm offerings in the region.

In addition to consumer education and outreach, three marketing training sessions were held in late fall to help farmers acquire new skills to reach more customers and expand their product reach. The topics included online marketing, using point of sale to increase your market, and relational marketing for farm stands and farmers markets.

Looking ahead to programming for 2021 and 2022, plans are in the works to start promotions of the area’s CSAs, including a searchable online map and a postcard mailing to targeted households. The project will continue to offer marketing trainings for farm businesses, publish shopping guides, and distribute marketing materials. When the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided and public events are safe, the project will employ local food ambassadors to travel the region educating residents about the reasons to buy local food and where to find it.

Article by Rebecca Toms

Students’ IDEA Grant Will Showcase Innovative Agriculture

collage showing photos of three students, Jon Russo, Ally Schneider and Zach Duda
Jonathan Russo, Alyson Schneider, and Zachary Duda

A group of students from the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) received an IDEA grant from the UConn Office of Undergraduate Research. Their project will help bridge the communication gap between agriculture and consumers. Approximately two percent of the population is involved in agriculture, but we all need to eat every day. There is a growing disconnect between agriculture and consumers because they are not involved in agriculture. Misinformation about food and agriculture is also increasing. Connecting consumers to farms expands their access to relevant information.

Zachary Duda, Jonathan Russo, and Alyson Schneider are producing a documentary film, Completely Connecticut Agriculture: Agricultural Innovation. Their goal is to show consumers examples of innovative agriculture in our state. All three students are Agriculture and Natural Resources majors in CAHNR, graduating in 2021. Jon has a double major in Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems. Stacey Stearns of UConn Extension is serving as their mentor, and other faculty and staff from UConn Extension are serving in advisory roles on the project.

“Around the world there has been a large disconnect with consumers and producers regarding basic knowledge about agriculture,” Zach says. “We want to highlight some farms and programs in Connecticut that target that disconnect and better educate the public while helping them connect to agriculture.”

The idea for this project formed several years ago, when Zach, Jon and Ally were all serving as state FFA officers. Their experiences have shown them many aspects of Connecticut agriculture. The students understand how innovative and resourceful agriculture in the state is and wanted to bridge the disconnect between consumers and agricultural operations. They have also witnessed how Connecticut agriculture helps support a sustainable food supply for residents, and how uncommon commodities diversify and enhance farm profitability.

The three students will visit various farms across the state, meet with agricultural leaders, and film day to day operations as well as thoughts from farmers and leaders on the future of agriculture in Connecticut. The video will showcase innovation in Connecticut that breaks barriers through diversity, education, and disproves misconceptions about agricultural operations. The students will lead viewers through the film and connect with the consumer as they learn about each of the innovative agricultural operations along with the audience.

Filming will take place later this summer and into the fall. Social distancing guidelines for COVID-19 revised some plans. The students selected fifteen farms to include in their documentary – and each of the farms showcases one or more of the three theme areas:

  • Sustainable Food Supply,
  • Consumer Disconnect, and
  • Uncommon Commodities.

Local food is a buzzword that has gained popularity in recent years. Many consumers associate fruits and vegetables with local food. “We want to highlight how producers are using innovative techniques to yield more local food so we can show that there is so many more products for Connecticut residents to purchase when they are looking to buy local,” Ally says. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of local food for many residents, and agricultural producers throughout the state have risen to the challenge by pivoting their business and finding new ways to deliver products to consumers.

A sustainable food supply is also environmentally balanced. It ensures that future generations can continue producing food and enjoying their lifestyle. “Through various practices such as no-till, renewable energy, fishing quotas, soil amendments, and crop selection we want to show consumers that Connecticut agriculture is becoming more environmentally friendly even as production is on the rise,” Jon says.

Some audiences view agriculture from a traditional mindset. The video will dispel traditional agricultural myths by showing uncommon commodities that farms are producing and selling. Examples of unique products on Connecticut agricultural operations include popcorn, chocolate, and flowerpots made from cow manure.

UConn CAHNR Extension has more than 100 years’ experience strengthening communities in Connecticut and beyond. Extension programs address the full range of issues set forth in CAHNR’s strategic initiatives:

  • Ensuring a vibrant and sustainable agricultural industry and food supply
  • Enhancing health and well-being locally, nationally, and globally
  • Designing sustainable landscapes across urban-rural interfaces
  • Advancing adaptation and resilience in a changing climate.

Programs delivered by Extension reach individuals, communities, and businesses in each of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities. Our Extension educators are working with the various agricultural operations featured in the documentary to help them adopt innovative practices and create a sustainable food supply.

Our students are helping bridge the communication gap between farmers and consumers with their documentary that will showcase the innovative agriculture practices happening right here on farms in Connecticut. Farming has many positive aspects that will be the focus of the film. The students plan to address agriculture’s challenges as well and share Connecticut agriculture’s story with consumer audiences. Film screening will be in the spring of 2021.

SBA Relief Program Q&A for Farmers

SBA powerpoint on relief programs for farmers opening slide

UConn Extension hosted a Q&A session with the Small Business Association (SBA) on relief programs available. You can view the powerpoint presentation slides and video of the full presentation.

This powerpoint from SBA does not include updated information that farms are now eligible for EIDL loan, so please disregard info on slides 13 and 19 that say otherwise.

Looking for Open Farm Stands? Use this Map

map of open farms and farm stands in Connecticut

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, CT Northeast Organic Farming Association has partnered with the CT Dept of Agriculture to expand the list of farms, farmers’ markets, and farm stands beyond the current CT NOFA membership – free of charge and online. It is a joint effort to promote the availability of all Connecticut farmers who can provide food and other farm products in this time of crisis. Note: Read all signs and use caution when visiting farms, markets, and grocery stores and be sure to stay away from all food establishment if you feel sick. View the interactive map.

Why We Need Local Food in our Schools

Robert Schacht photo of him talking about local food in Connecticut schools

Who wants local food in schools, and why? We’re partnering with 81 school districts in Connecticut through our Put Local On Your Tray program, and helping them to source local food from Connecticut farms. This short video explains the importance of local food in our schools:
 
#UConnImpact

Job Opening – Communication Coordinator

rows of vegetables with black plastic

Job Opening – Communication Coordinator

(Accepting applications until Feb 12, 2020)

 

UConn Extension’s Sustainable Food Systems program is actively seeking to fill a newly created position of Communication Coordinator. This is an exciting opportunity for the right person who is versatile, responsive, and demonstrates an interest in local food and farms in Connecticut. 

Download the full job description and application instructions.

Connecticut Grown Strawberries Ripe for Picking

fresh Connecticut grown strawberries in containers at a farm standFresh from the field, Connecticut Grown strawberries are now ripening and ready to eat. Strawberries are the first fruit available in Connecticut and signal the arrival of summer for many residents who look forward to visiting one of the state’s pick-your-own farms.

“Visiting a Connecticut strawberry patch to pick your own is a wholesome, family fun activity,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “This type of activity supports local farms and farm families while generating millions of dollars in agritourism for the state’s economy. And, the best part of it all is that you get fresh Connecticut Grown strawberries to eat at home.” 

While it’s early in the season, producers are reporting that picking is quite good. “Despite the amount of record breaking rain in April and early May, the strawberries crop is now experiencing excellent weather for maturing to ripening. The season is off to a great start and it appears that the production will be right in line for a successful strawberry season,” said Nancy Barrett, owner of Scantic Valley Farm in Somers, CT.

It’s a good idea to call ahead, or check the farms website, for daily updates as weather conditions impact availability. Sweet and juicy strawberries are also available now at farmers’ markets and farm stands throughout the state. Find one near you at www.CTGrown.gov/strawberry.

When ripe, strawberries smell wonderful and taste even better. As members of the rose family, this perennial plant is a good source of vitamin C, manganese, folate, and potassium. They are also loaded with antioxidants.

Strawberries should be plump and firm with a bright red color and natural shine. The color and fragrance of the berry, not size, are the best indicators of flavor. Once you get your strawberries home, wash them and cut the stem away to store in a cool place. If you plan to keep them in the fridge for a few days, wait to clean them until you plan to eat them. Rinsing them speeds up spoiling.

Strawberries can be used to make jams, jellies, shortcake, pie and more. They can also be pickled, especially when picked green or unripe, or frozen to use later in smoothies. Find more recipe ideas to create your own delicious dishes by visiting our Pinterest page at https://www.pinterest.com/GrowCTAg/.

Make plans to visit a Connecticut strawberry patch this weekend to create lasting memories and delicious, healthy dishes.

Article by Connecticut Department of Agriculture

Welcome Abby Beissinger to UConn Extension!

Abby BeissingerUConn Extension and the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture are proud to announce our newest team member, Abby Beissinger. Abby has accepted the position of Plant Diagnostician in the UConn Plant Diagnostic Laboratory. Her first official day was May 28, 2019.

Abby attended the University of Wisconsin and received a B.A. in Anthropology in 2011. During her undergraduate studies, she focused on agriculture and sustainable development, and implemented development projects in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uganda. Abby spent two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer teaching urban agriculture and gardening to youth in Massachusetts, and a summer with the Student Conservation Association leading trail crews in Chicago. From her work, she realized she was drawn to plant pathology and how plant diseases impact human livelihoods.

In 2016, Abby graduated from Washington State University with a M.S. in Plant Pathology. Her research focused on how management decisions of Potato virus Y impact the epidemiology and etiology of the virus. She then relocated to University of Connecticut to run the Conservation Ambassador Program in the Department of Natural Resources & the Environment. She fostered a statewide volunteer network of 90+ community partners including schools, non-profits, and government agencies to mentor high school students conducting long-term conservation projects. She enjoyed helping students make an environmental impact, and was drawn back to plant pathology to support growers and agricultural networks.

Abby is an example of the winding path people take to discover plant pathology, and is excited to serve as UConn’s Plant Diagnostician. In her spare time, Abby can be found in her garden growing food and flowers, painting, dancing, or exploring cities and their greens spaces.

Please join us in welcoming Abby to UConn Extension! Please visit our website for more information on the Plant Diagnostic Laboratory.

Authors: Karen Snover-Clift and Abby Beissinger

Risk Management Technology: Robotic Milking Machine

Article by Evan Lentz

On October 26, 2017, UConn Extension and CT Farm Risk Management program teamed up to host the Robotic Milking Conference at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT. The conference program boasted an impressive lineup of farmers, researchers, and industry professionals. All seemed to advocate highly for the incorporation of the technology into the dairy industry. The event was attended by a range of local CT dairy farmers, most of whom who have already employed the technology in their dairy farming operations.

Robotic milking machines are hardly a novel technology, being commercially available since the early 1990’s. Since then, the technology has evolved to include a range of benefits to both the farmers and cows alike. The robotic milking machines are voluntary meaning that the cows only get milked when they are ready. Upon entering the system cows are weighed and the teats are cleaned. The systems utilize a quarter-milking strategy, allowing for each teat to be milked individually. After the milk has been extracted cows return to the herd.

 

Much data is provided during the milking process that gives farmers a better idea on the health of the cows as well as the quality of milk collected. This information allows farmers to make more informed decisions about the herd and provides for the early detection of health problems. Measurements such as somatic cell count, total plate count, and milk fat percentage determine the quality of milk. Farms which have adopted the use of robotic milking machines tend to see an increase in both somatic and total plate count within the first year. This is especially important for larger farms where somatic cell count tends to be lower than in smaller operations.

 

As times change, it is important for businesses to evolve. Robotic milking machines are playing an integral role in the evolution of this industry. The availability of reliable labor in agriculture is becoming incredibly pressing issue. This technology provides for the adaptation to a changing environment and allows farmers to spend their time doing more important things such as marketing and developing plans for the ever-growing agrotourism industry. For more information on this technology please visit the UConn Extension or CT Farm Risk Management website.