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March 20, 2023

Small CT farms diversify with agritourism to survive, grow

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED South Farms in Morris hosts “Thursday Social” gatherings in the summer, featuring food trucks and entertainment.

John and Carolyn Torello are looking to add a new revenue stream to their farm by building a little sunshine in Cheshire.

The owners of Old Bishop Farm recently gained approval to host events such as weddings, wine tastings and parties.

They are now seeking separate permission to build “the Sunshine Barn” events venue to diversify the land’s offerings.

It’s a trend that many agree is vital to help keep small farms alive.

Project proponents say there are no similar venues in Cheshire, and that farmers must continually seek new ways to diversify.

Old Bishop Farm dates back to the 1700s. Torello bought the 15-acre property in 2016, bulldozed the crops and replanted nearly 600 new fruit trees, mostly apple.

He reopened in 2018 selling homemade ice cream and baked goods out of the existing on-site store. He is now looking to offer more products and experiences — like weddings, pick-your-own fruit, farmers markets and maybe farm yoga.

His idea for the Sunshine Barn is a tribute to his late son Michael, whose nickname was Sunshine and who died last year but inspired the farm transformation.

John Torello thought the farm would be a way for his disabled son to work in the family business, greeting customers or cutting flowers.

The Torellos purchased the land for nearly $1 million, “but the real investment was bulldozing and replanting, and rehabbing the buildings,” something he was happy to do for Michael.

Now that the family’s motivation for running the farm has shifted, the property has to at least be profitable, Torello said.

“With the costs of everything increasing, including labor, farms always have to figure out a way to get revenue,” he said.

New generation of farming

Since 2009, Ben Paletsky has been running his family’s farm in Morris that dates back generations, now dubbed South Farms as a nod to the town’s origins.

Paletsky said his grandfather, who started out as a cattle dealer and dairy farmer, had the foresight to diversify back in the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s a need that continues for many farmers today.

The fourth-generation farm continues producing cattle, hay, corn and pumpkins in cooperation with other local farm partners.

But in 2015, Paletsky started hosting weddings, wine tastings, and other events in the farm’s centerpiece attraction, the White Barn at South Farms.

The South Farms in Morris hosts weddings as a way to generate extra revenue.

In 2018, he invested in outfitting the barn with a commercial kitchen for on-site food preparation, and additional gathering space for larger events.

“It’s not a trivial undertaking,” Paletsky said. “The intent was to build a state-of-the-art venue in a historic space,” and it’s been a success.

With “margins too thin in farming,” the agritourism business allows him and others around Connecticut and New England to increase their recognition and revenue.

The sad reality, Paletsky said, is that farming alone isn’t going to sustain his 150 acres, but agritourism events on just 1 to 2 acres is supplemental, and imperative.

“If you rely just on farming, you’ve lost your farm,” Paletsky said.

A changing landscape

Since 2012, Connecticut has lost nearly 8% of its farms and 13% of its farmland, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

It’s a trend mirrored nationally: Between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of U.S. farmland and ranchland were converted to urban and highly developed land use or residential land use, according to the Farmland Information Center.

Connecticut farmers have re-imagined their land for other uses as well like clean energy, including solar fields.

A recent survey of 175 Connecticut farmers by the American Farmland Trust found that 47% support solar fields on farmland.

The state Department of Agriculture has said it supports the duality of farming and agritourism.

Connecticut has about 5,500 farms that contribute more than $4 billion to the state’s economy, according to the department, which promotes on its website agritourism attractions, including a petting farm in Simsbury, and the Thorncrest Farm in Goshen, which offers chocolate and homemade cheese samples.

The website also highlights East Lyme’s White Gate Farms, which allows visitors to learn about chickens and organic growing, and Creamery Brook Bison in Brooklyn, a property that features roaming bison.

According to a 2015 study conducted by the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, the total economic impact from local agricultural industry food sales and agritourism was $90 million, creating approximately 800 jobs in the state and almost $30 million in wages.

Apple and berry picking is a popular activity in the northeastern U.S., and fruit and tree nut farming makes up almost half — 44% — of the revenue generated by the agritourism sector in Connecticut, the report said.

Livestock production accounts for the next largest share at 22% of revenue, according to the report.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development said it’s nearly doubling its tourism funding, with a push to promote more diversified attractions, including agritourism hot spots for pick-your-own fruits, seasonal corn mazes, pumpkin patches, live music and farm-to-table dinners and Connecticut-grown food.

Paletsky, who serves on the executive committee of the Western Connecticut Tourism District, said “it’s great that they’re recognizing the value of marketing what we have to offer.”

The state Department of Agriculture also has a grant program that offers funding to farms looking to diversify their operations. In February it awarded $549,649 to 30 farms, including Rogers Orchards in Southington, which is using the money to help pay for hard-cider kegging equipment and a cider concession truck with a custom bar and tasting area.

Adversity and cooperation

Paletsky said there are occasional roadblocks when farms try to diversify their business, including from state or federal regulations, local land-use boards or even neighbors.

For example, a concert promoter held large-scale concerts on his South Farms property in 2020. The events, which were allowed due to COVID executive orders, drew opposition from the community. South Farms no longer holds events on that scale.

Instead, they now host weekly “Thursday Socials,” which are small gatherings, as well as weddings and music on weekends.

“Farmers need to have the ability to try new things and see what works,” Paletsky said. “We need options.”

The Sunshine Barn project has gotten support from the town, including Cheshire’s Coordinator of Economic Development Andrew Martelli, who said “The property and its agricultural heritage is a character-defining element of the Cheshire landscape.”

“In today’s business climate, rising operational costs have reduced a businesses’ ability to survive,” Martelli wrote in support of the project. “Providing additional tools for revenue generation is what government can do to help support and sustain a local business.”

Joan Nichols, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said towns are continually working on zoning to support agritourism, which benefits farms and educates the public on the agricultural industry’s important role.

“Farming is hard, the key is diversification,” and if it’s done right, it works for everyone, Nichols said.

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