Moving Forward, Looking Back / Remnants of Fairfield farming tradition survive
Published 8:10 am, Monday, August 5, 2013
A casual visitor to present-day Fairfield, after seeing our army of commuters, low buildings, shopping centers, multiplex theaters, and countless banks, could not be faulted for sizing up our town and calling it a "suburb."
Even 36 years ago, I reached the same conclusion when I arrived in Fairfield, but one thing struck me as odd. At an intersection not 100 yards from our new home, two cows would amble up to a fence along the road and watch the traffic go by. In a year or two, they were gone. I didn't think much of it then, but I know now that I completely missed what those cows represented.
Beneath Fairfield's suburban skin are the bones of a centuries-old agricultural community, and there are people alive today who still remember a Fairfield that most of us can't. They remember horse-drawn wagons, outhouses, root cellars and water pumps.
They remember corn fields and orchards where schools and shopping centers stand today. They remember pastures and hay fields that have given way to golf courses, condominiums and single-family subdivisions.
In 1870, Fairfield's hundreds of farms and pastures totaled 13,740 acres. By the first half of the 20th century, farming was in steep decline. But today, if you look just beneath the surface, the farming life reveals itself. Our roads were laid out to service farms, and often named after the farmers who used them. The stone walls that crisscross Fairfield were built by farmers. And we still have farms -- 96 of them -- tucked into the nooks and crannies of Fairfield on a total of 435 acres, or less than 2 percent of Fairfield's land area.
The largest "farm" is 100 acres, but you'll never see it unless you have scuba gear. It's an oyster bed just off Fairfield's coast controlled by Hillard Bloom Shellfish in Norwalk. As an aside, the Bloom family has been farming oysters since the 1940s, and they work an astounding 24,000 acres of oyster beds from Branford to Greenwich. Fairfield's smallest farm is a 400-square-foot sliver of pasture that was passed along from an adjacent pasture.
The other 94 farms average about 3.5 acres and are more specialized than traditional farms. Among other things, they produce fruits, berries, vegetables, hay, flowers, honey or eggs. Farmland includes pasture for livestock or horses.
Land classified for farm use is assessed at a fraction of non-farm land, translating into a very substantial break in property tax. A 1963 Connecticut law, familiarly known as PA 490, requires that towns tax its farmland at its "current use value" rather than its "highest value." This means that farmers are protected from the exorbitant assessments of their land that could in theory be developed for homes or businesses. This keeps farmers in business, and preserves open spaces meant only for animals and plants.
I know what you're thinking -- but before you stick a few chickens in your back yard and call yourself a farm, let me tell you that there are some hoops to jump through first. The town's Planning and Zoning Department must first certify that a farm is a "permitted use" where you live. Then, you apply to the tax assessor's office. Most towns follow the guidelines set down in PA 490. There are no hard and fast size requirements, but the size of your property used for farming must be consistent with the intended use of the land. Oh, and your farm has to have a business plan to turn out products "for gain," and has to do so continuously. Tax assessors will weigh all these factors before granting farm status.
As for your backyard chickens, you can keep them as pets as long as your chicken coop (you will need one of those, and you'll have to clean it) is 60 feet from any property line. But you'll also have to make some steady money from those chickens if you want to be an official chicken farmer.
There are two farms in my neighborhood. Each is in its third generation of ownership. Wyatt Whiteman, for example, grew up in a farmhouse built in 1760 by Levi Jennings that his grandfather bought in the 1930s.
Wyatt has a carpet store in Bridgeport, but, as he puts it, he and his wife have a second full-time job maintaining the house and turning out eggs, tomatoes, and giant pumpkins. Wyatt is one of those people who savors memories of playing in the open field that is now a school and picking the best apple he ever ate in the orchard across the street that is now a condominium. He's trying to hold on to those memories, and in his own small way, trying to pass them on to us.
Some of us might scoff at the notion of farms in modern-day Fairfield, but for most of its long history, Fairfield was a giant collection of farms. Your house likely sits on repurposed farmland. When you stop at a roadside stand in town to buy juicy, flavorful tomatoes or fresh, sweet corn, you're carrying on a Fairfield tradition of eating seasonal food grown by your neighbors. Hey -- that makes you a locavore! How 21st-century of you.
This column was inspired by Dr. Robert Gerety, a longtime Fairfield resident now retired in Vermont. Thanks to Jim Wendt, assistant planning director; Ken Carvell 3rd, deputy tax assessor; Don Ross, tax assessor; and Wyatt Whiteman for background and guidance.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.