Editor’s Note: For our 20th anniversary, founding writer Joanne Neilson agreed to describe how farming in Suffield has evolved since the first Observer issue.
Two decades of farming has provided the local farmers with many challenges. Each year is different and constantly evolving. While some types of farmers thrive one year, and some struggle to break even, the diehards just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
The dairy farmers have been hit extremely hard in the past five years. Here in Suffield we are down to just three dairy operations. Each dairy has found a way to keep going in hopes of better days ahead. The Hastings farm has gone to robotic milking and a farm store. This approach was designed for the challenges of low milk prices and more female employees. The Coulter farm strives to produce a high quality milk product for their quality herd. The Bielonko farm has a dairy herd but also raises field crops. This period is a difficult time for all dairy farmers.
The beef farmers are also dwindling. The price of beef on the hoof makes it challenging to make even a small profit.
The tobacco farmers are using all of their collective, creative thoughts to stay in the game. Hydroponics has been used for the past decade, and each year growers are gravitating to this method. The seedlings grow in Styrofoam trays that float in pools of water, which eliminates the need for constant watering. The fertilizer is added to the water so the plants get even nourishment and no burnt leaves. Due to a strong market for small, cigarette size cigars, the Connecticut Broadleaf tobacco is in demand today. The reason for the shift from the traditional cigarettes to slim cigars is that the taxes on cigars is much less, making them more affordable. There are a half–dozen farm operations growing over 100 acres of broadleaf today. The smaller growers and the second occupation farmers change in number as the price of the crops rise and fall.
There are still some farmers growing produce around town. Produce is not easy to get rich on. With the right crop on the right year, you can put some jingle in your pocket. By having a bumper crop of pumpkins when everyone else went heavy on winter squash, makes you the smartest and richest crop farmer of the week. I always find it hard to understand why it is so hard to make a living raising produce when the most basic need is food.
One big change in farming in the past twenty years is the lack of youth that want to be employed in agriculture. Small farms around town depended heavily on the high school kids to harvest crops. This has become a problem for the small operations.
Farmland preservation has been such an asset to those who want to continue farming regardless of the obstacles. Suffield really stepped up to the plate in preserving some of the most precious farmland in town. We farmers thank those who have given their time to making this program a success.