"Farmers ponder changes planned for ag agency"
(The News-Times)
By Donna Tommelleo, Associated Press Writer

WINSDOR, Conn. (AP) - Farmers and their advocates fear a cost-saving plan to merge the state Department of Agriculture with the Department of Consumer Protection would weaken support and resources for an industry already under severe economic stress.

"There's not a farmer out there who doesn't understand fiscal responsibility," said Bonnie Burr, a lobbyist for the nonprofit Connecticut Farm Bureau.

The state's agriculture landscape has changed in the past decade. According to the Farm Bureau, about 360,000 acres remain in farmland, down from 420,000 in 1990.

There are currently some 3,600 farms of all kinds, ranging from nurseries _ Connecticut's largest cash crop _ to pick-your-own enterprises. That's down about 400 farms in 10 years.

The biggest drain is on dairy farms that struggle against high land and production costs. They dwindle year by year _ and with them go hundreds of acres of cropland, often giving way to urban sprawl.

"When the land gets so valuable it makes sense to plant the ultimate crop _ houses," said Salem dairy farmer Stu Gadbois.

Now some farmers fear they will lose their voice in the Capitol with consolidation.

"I think it's a bad idea," said Gadbois. "We need somebody that's interested in us."

The Agriculture Department currently administers the farmland preservation program, paying the farmer for development rights to protect the land from commercial or residential development. Since the 1980s, the state has preserved about 28,000 acres.

"That's tremendously important," said Jamie Jones, who helps run a family owned pick-your-own farm in Shelton. "Ideally we'd like to see the Department of Agriculture stand on its own as an independent. If it did come down to becoming merged, hopefully it could even be strengthened."

Gov. John G. Rowland proposed the merger earlier this month in his budget address, noting that both agencies have regulatory duties that sometime duplicate each other. The administration estimates the merger will save about $500,000. A similar proposal was rejected eight years ago.

If the merger is approved by the legislature, Connecticut would join Rhode Island and Arkansas as the only states without an agriculture department.

"The role of the agriculture department has changed over the last several decades as our economy has changed," Rowland spokesman Chris Cooper said. "One of their primary functions now is regulation. Since the Department of Consumer Protection already regulates a wide variety of business and industry, it seems like a pretty good match."

Some lawmakers say there are better matches out there.

State Rep. George Wilber, the former state commissioner of agriculture under Gov. Ella Grasso, has introduced a bill to merge agriculture and natural resources in one department.

Wilber said the state stands to gain $8 million a year from timbering through his plan, which would manage about 180,000 acres of forestland more like an agribusiness.

"Here is a source of revenue to bring a service to the state of Connecticut," said Wilber, D-Colebrook.

Burr of the Farm Bureau agrees that some realignment may be needed, but wants to make sure that the industry has solid input in how those changes are made.

A poll of Farm Bureau members indicates that remaining economically viable is most important, and members want a department that will continue to help them find markets for their products, Burr said.

Incorporating biotechnology on the farm is another chief concern.

"There's also a tremendous need for biosecurity," she said. "Not only is it regulation but it's helping farmers to become aware of all the things out there that they need to be doing to protect not only their plants and their animals but the community around them."

That role became highly visible in the last two weeks when an outbreak of avian flu spread through 3 million hens in eastern Connecticut, threatening the egg supply in the Northeast.

The outbreak prompted Japan to temporarily ban all U.S. poultry imports. Japan lifted the ban after receiving assurance that proper steps were being taken; however, a ban on Connecticut poultry remains in effect.

Agriculture officials immediately quarantined the flock at Kofkoff Egg Farm and worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on testing and broader surveillance. The farm is the biggest egg supplier in Connecticut and among the largest in New England.

Acting Agriculture Commissioner Bruce Gresczyk said because the strain was a mild form of the disease it was more prudent to vaccinate the flock than destroy it. The decision to vaccinate may also have saved hundreds of jobs.

Like many state departments, agriculture recently lost some employees through layoffs. None of the cuts, however, fell among the regulators and inspectors who were out in field during the avian flu outbreak.

"In a perfect world the Department of Agriculture would remain by itself," Gresczyk said. "But the state has significant budget programs and we have to look at all the options."