Senator Murphy steps up to help small farms

By:  Karen Bartomioli
The Lakeville Journal

EAST CANAAN — U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D) was knee-deep in manure this week. That’s not a polite way of saying he was in some kind of trouble. He really was standing in a vat of (partially composted) cow manure as part of a day at Freund’s Farm in East Canaan on Monday, Aug. 11.

Matthew Freund, who had some past farm help from“Dirty Jobs” television host Mike Rowe, said the full day for Murphy was about him getting a chance to get a real sense of the diversity needed on farms today in order for them to survive. This is especially true at dairy farms, where government-regulated milk prices have made it hard for New England farmers to make a profit.

The senator arrived, wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and a smile at 7 a.m. A few hours later, he was still smiling as he climbed out of that compost vat at the farm’s highly successful Cow Pots operation, where pots for plants are made from manure.

“Let’s see, it’s 10:30. I’ve already checked for cows in heat, picked raspberries, made pickles and shoveled manure. But I’m sure Matt has a lot more for me to do,” Murphy said.

And a lot more to hear.

Freund is very much on top of and involved with ways to help farmers survive. Matt and his brother, Ben, run the family dairy farm started by their father. They have had to diversify and come up with creative new sources of revenue so they can keep doing what they love.

Matthew’s wife, Theresa, started the farm market and bakery, out of which a catering business has evolved. Methane from a manure digester supplies heat for barns, greenhouses and homes. Liquids become fertilizer, and solids are made into the unique planting pots that they now make annually by the millions.

Start-up costs are high

“There are an awful lot of different little pieces that come together,” Freund said. “We’ve come a long way with added-value agricultural products, but that all takes a big investment. You can’t do it on the kitchen stove.”

Freund said a lot of the equipment used in the Cow Pots factory came from other local industries.

“They had good, old stuff they knew we could adapt for our use. It was their way of supporting us.”

Fighting ‘big agriculture’

From the legislative standpoint, Murphy said government regulations continue to plague farmers.

“The Department of Agriculture, the EPA and consumer protection all tie in. Every corner of farming is heavily regulated and dependent on sensible government,” Murphy said.

Recent changes in milk price regulations have been a big help, Freund said

“Connecticut has stepped up to the plate. The convenience tax allows for a high enough price floor so that when prices do go down, we’re not in dire straits. It’s one of the better states, but the fact is if you really want to make money, you have to get out of New England.”

Murphy said he has to fight for federal regulations that make sense here, against the needs and wants of “big agriculture” in the rest of the country.

When asked about the 22 percent increase in farmland in the state that Gov. Dannel Malloy talks about on the campaign trail, Murphy and Freund had some qualifying to do.

The added farm land, they said, represents only a 3 percent increase as a food source. The statistic includes a lot of very small farms and co-ops. Some are no more than large backyard plots.

“But if they make at least $1,000 in income from it, they are considered a farm,” Freund said.

The rise of the tiny farm

A backyard garden movement is spreading across urban parts of the state, Murphy said, with Freund adding that contaminated soil, particularly with lead, is an issue.

“You can test it, but you can’t clean it, so people need to be careful about where they are planting their food.”

The upside, Freund added, is awareness. Small farming may be the way to go here, where food is already plentiful.

“At least people are starting to understand where their food comes from, and why they should support farming.”

After getting the full tour of the Cow Pots plant from a worker’s viewpoint, Murphy said he was anticipating an afternoon spent back in the dairy barn, feeding cows and doing types of work that were best left uncontemplated. He could distract himself with pondering the “Aha! moment” that had already come.

“I was talking with Matt’s kids, who said they would love to spend their lives working here, but they see how unstable the revenue stream is. They worry about making a living. I know that I have to continue pushing for pricing stability. We can’t lose our dairy farms, just because it can be done cheaper elsewhere. It’s part of our heritage.”