July 21, 2011The right to grow food and raise animals in one’s backyard could become the new battleground in Connecticut.
States across the country, including Connecticut, have “Right-to-Farm” laws to protect farmers against nuisance complaints or lawsuits resulting from farm operations. Nuisances may include noise, odors and visual clutter — all part of standard farming practices.
As the small farm movement continues to grow, some of Connecticut’s 169 towns are either considering or changing their right-to-farm ordinances. Towns such as Monroe and New Haven have adopted right-to-farm ordinances that are supportive of farming, while others, including Middletown, have changed their ordinances, reducing the land residents have to use, citing concerns over health and safety. Other towns in Connecticut are supportive, but don’t have right-to-farm ordinances.
Some Town Right-to-Farm Ordinances Outdated
Connecticut has had a right-to-farm statute in place since the 1980s to protect farmers against potential litigation related to nuisance complaints, says Joan Nichols, government relations specialist at the Connecticut Farm Bureau.
“Towns have adopted right-to-farm ordinances, and we suggest they model it after the state law.”
Nichols suggests towns consult with the Farm Bureau before they implement an ordinance. Sometimes town planning and zoning and other non-farm committees will draft the ordinance, which may not be beneficial to farmers, she says.
“Sometimes towns write their own ordinances and then they come to the Department of Agriculture and say, ‘What do you think?’, Nichols says. “Towns have to remember that agriculture is fluid and that it doesn’t fit into the ‘neat’ zoning laws. If we’re brought in from the beginning, we can work together.”
Towns such as Monroe and New Haven have adopted right-to-farm ordinances that are supportive of farming, while others, including Middletown, have changed their ordinances, which some farmers say aren’t as supportive to farming and people who want grow their own food. Other towns don’t have right-to-farm ordinances, but are still supportive of farming.
“Ledyard is pretty friendly toward farming,” says Sharon Stegall, who built a chicken coop with her husband in their backyard. “Sometimes you might see a stray chicken or goat cross the street in the middle of town. We don’t think much about it,” she says.
During the spring the unmistakable sound of baby chicks can be heard coming from the post office. Many residents, including Stegall, order their chickens through the mail. It’s not a crazy as it sounds, says Stegall, who recommends the Internet site Backyard Chickens as a great resource for new chicken farmers.
“A lot of Connecticut towns are embracing farming, such as New Haven, which passed an ordinance allowing backyard chickens,” says Ben Bowell, New England’s field representative for American Farmland Trust, a national non-profit whose mission is to preserve farmland. “People are allowed to have six chickens, but no roosters.”
Towns Aren’t ‘Evil’
Other towns are dealing with “outdated” planning and zoning regulations, which can be restrictive because agriculture is fluid and changing, says Bowell. “In most towns you can grow vegetables in your backyard. But problems arise when people start selling what they grow, and now towns have to start looking at the rules. So I don’t think towns are necessarily evil when it comes to ‘right-to-farm’ issues; it’s just that they haven’t considered how to deal with these issues.”
Communities don’t necessarily understand farmers and the role they play in the community, says Patrick O’Hara, owner of O’Hara’s Nursery in Monroe. O’Hara, who was behind the push to pass Monroe’s right-to-farm ordinance earlier this year. Although he says people want to understand farming and famers, he says, some people can be misguided in their beliefs. For instance, in 2007, Monroe’s Planning and Zoning Commission, of which O’Hara is now a member, tried to “ban” roosters in the town.
O’Hara waged an offensive, drawing over 400 residents together one night at a local school, to shoot it down. “I asked the police, ‘How many complaints have you had over a six-year period?’” O’Hara says. “Maybe one a year, versus the number of complaints for dogs. So why not ban dogs? It’s just plain silly. So put the roosters in at night so you don’t have a [noise] problem.”
Communities have to remember that farms were here before suburban developments, O’Hara says. “People think if they put up an expensive house, it supersedes everything else.”
O’Hara recently started selling eggs from his 15 chickens and like many new chicken owners he asked local farmers and did research over the Internet to learn how to raise chicken. “It’s not hard,” he says. “They’re like pets and not noisy like many people think.”
They greet him when he comes into the cage, and there is no hysterical and constant chatter. Does he name his “pets?” No, at least not yet, he replied.
Middletown Farmers Not Too Happy
Other towns are changing their ordinances, including Middletown, but farmers in that town aren’t too happy with the changes. Stephen Devoto, an associate professor of biology at Wesleyan University, who has a 4.5-acre “hobby” farm, says some of the changes don’t make sense. Middletown’s Common Council in March approved an amendment to the ordinance regulating livestock.
Devoto, his wife and two children, raise much of their food on their land, including meat. Devoto, who writes extensively about local issues on his blog Middletown Eye, says animals have to be at least 25 feet from the property line, which takes a “huge swath of land” from farmers.
In addition, grazing is now prohibited near water, Devoto says. There are other problems with the new ordinance, he says, including a reference to a federal law that doesn’t exist. Middletown officials didn’t return calls.
Emily Brook, of Edibles Advocate Alliance and author of Connecticut Farmer & Feast, says that the very people who have a dispute with farmers are the very ones who want to preserve the land because they like the bucolic look. If you just rewind the clock, everybody had a garden and chickens in their backyard,” she says. What we need to do is educate people.”
Misconceptions About Farming
In Connecticut, the farming isn’t large scale, Brook says. “We’re not talking about massive scale productions that are going to reduce property values. We’re talking about small farms, sustainability, and working with the eco system.”
City and town officials need to revamp their zoning codes to incorporate the increasing presence of agriculture, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Nestle, who also blogs at foodpolitics.com, says “It doesn’t take much land to grow food, and people love doing it once they catch on. It makes for much livelier community interactions.”