On a cold day in February, Chip Dahlke said he can think of a number of things he'd rather do than get up at the crack of dawn to work the family farm. This past Sunday, however, you'd have been hard pressed to find a more bucolic and inviting setting than Dahlke's Ashlawn Farm in Lyme as it hosted the 12th annual Celebration of Connecticut Farms to benefit Connecticut Farmland Trust.
Gleaming white tents were set up on the field under which top chefs from 28 restaurants from all over Connecticut were preparing tempting and creative dishes using fresh ingredients from local farms.
Ashlawn Farm in Lyme has been in Dahlke's family for 102 years and his children and grandchildren are already planning to keep it going well after he's gone.
"The farm was preserved in 1974 so it would never be developed," Dahlke said.
That's exactly the kind of scenario that Connecticut Farmland Trust hopes to help perpetuate but it's not achieved without great effort. Although many Connecticut farms have been owned and operated by the same family for a century or more, there's a generation gap that puts a lot of them at risk.
For every farmer who is 35 or younger, there are six older than 65, noted Connecticut Farmland Trust Executive Director Jim Gooch. What's more, he stated, available farmland is disappearing faster than new farmers can enter the field.
With land prices in Connecticut averaging more than $11,000 an acre, it costs a pretty penny to protect working farmland and keep developers at bay. That's where the Connecticut Farmland Trust comes in.
As a private nonprofit with about three quarters of a million dollars on hand, Connecticut Farmland Trust President Mike Fotos said, "We can move quickly, faster than a town or the state, to secure the property and help with permanent funding. It's like an ecosystem. Our niche is to provide the private leverage needed to provide land protection."
In the 10 years since it was founded, the organization has permanently protected 27 farms and secured more than 2,120 acres of working farmland. Connecticut Farmland Trust also partners with local land trusts, and with town, state, and federal agencies, and offers flexible easement terms to farmers that allow them to keep their operations going.
The Celebration of Connecticut Farms is the nonprofit organization's largest fundraiser. With tickets at $150 per person, it wasn't a cheap date but hundreds of people turned out for it.
"This is our one big event of the year," said Fotos. "It's obviously a fundraiser but it's also a friend-raiser. This is the granddaddy of the farm to table events."
There was certainly plenty to graze on, including dishes prepared by The Bee And Thistle Inn in Old Lyme, and lots to drink, with nine Connecticut vineyards, breweries, and distillers on hand, not to mention Ashlawn Farm's own fresh-roasted coffee.
Although Onyx Distillers of Manchester was offering moonshine, this event was definitely more high society than hoedown. The whole shebang was co-hosted by "food schmoozer" Faith Middleton, host of WNPR's Faith Middleton Show, and actress Christine Baranski of CBS's The Good Wife. Bone Dry provided the music and members of the Connecticut Plein Air Painter's Society set up their easels to capture the scene.
There was a silent auction, which included such items as a script for "The Good Wife" signed by Baranski, a chef's coat signed by Jacques Pepin, a farmscape oil painting by Eric Forstmann, plus tours of local vineyards and five-course dinners at some of Connecticut's finest restaurants.
At the end of the day, however, it was all about the dirt.
"You don't really own the dirt here," Dahlke said. "You're just a steward of it."
Fast Facts About Connecticut's Farms
- There are 4,200 farms in Connecticut
- 60 percent of these farms are 49 acres or less.
- About 11 percent of Connecticut's total land base is farmland.
- Connecticut's agricultural industry contributes $3.5 billion annually to the local economy.
- Farms require less than 50 cents in town services for every dollar they generate in local taxes.
- Forty-four percent of Connecticut's prime farmland soils are forested.
- About 40,000 acres of farmland are permanently protected in Connecticut.
- Farmland accounts for 357,000 acres of Connecticut's total 3.1 million acres.
- About half of Connecticut's farmland is used for dairy.
- The top three crops are greenhouse and nursery, dairy products, and chicken eggs.
- Connecticut leads New England in the production of eggs, pears, peaches, and mushrooms.
Source: Connecticut Farmland Trust