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Connecticut's Tobacco Farmers Face Land Use Choices In A Disappearing Industry

Amar Batra
Connecticut Public Radio
The harvest at the Foster Farm in East Windsor

Tobacco has been grown in Connecticut for hundreds of years. But the number of acres has shrunk dramatically, from more than 20,000 a century ago down to do 2,000 today. Now, growers are facing economic pressure to develop their land.Tim Shepard is driving around a 50-acre plot of farmland in South Windsor. His family has owned it for over a hundred years, and, for much of that time, the family harvested tobacco for use in fine cigars.

But times changed. Eventually, his family moved out of the growing business. But Shepard still wants to keep this as farmland -- and out of the grip of development and sprawl.

“I think it’s one of the most important assets," said Shepard. "All of us are going to be here and then we’re going to be gone, so that’s it. But you know, land is land, it’s always going to be there.”

So, instead of selling the land, he’s done two things. First, he leases it to other farmers. And, second, he’s sold the development rights to 110 acres to the state’s Farmland Preservation Program. That land can only be used for agriculture.

The state created the program in 1978 to help farmers keep their land and stop farmland from being lost to development.

Andrew Urbanowicz is a local tobacco grower and one of the directors of the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum. He said the state’s program has been vital to farmers.

“Connecticut has been a leader in farmland preservation among the New England states and it has been very helpful to the farmers, all kinds of farmers, but especially in the valley where our soils are so valuable and the pressure is so high to convert them to something else,” he explained.

And Urbanowicz said it’s better than looking at the alternative.

“It’s a pretty nice thing to be next to a tobacco field, that, might have a crop on it for 70 or 80 days and then the rest of the year you get to look at a beautiful open space and enjoy it," he said. "Certainly a lot nicer view than a housing development.”

The Farmland Preservation Program has a long-term goal to save 130,000 acres in Connecticut. As of 2018, 43,500 acres across about 350 farms have been added.

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