How to start homesteading in Connecticut

Photo by MaryRN via Morguefile

When it comes to farming and homesteading, Connecticut is small but mighty. After you figure out the basics of how to start homesteading in Connecticut, you may find that the Nutmeg State is right for you.

Farmland is valued in Connecticut. Even though Connecticut is the third smallest state in the Union, 60 percent of the land area in Connecticut is in farmland, open space and forest. 

Farming in Connecticut has generally been growing for the past two decades. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2017 Census of Agriculture for Connecticut, the small state boasts around 5,500 farms, an over 50 percent increase from the 1982 count of 3,580 farms. The state is especially lucrative to small farmers, as the average acreage per farm in Connecticut has shrunk with the increasing number of farms. Currently, the average farm is about 69 acres.

The “buy local” movement is popular in Connecticut. Nearly a quarter of Connecticut farms market human food products directly to consumers. About 10 percent of the farms in the state now market their products directly to retail outlets such as restaurants, stores, and institutions rather than selling wholesale. Moreover, Connecticut both possesses and abuts nearby metropolitan markets for farm-fresh produce, including New York City, Hartford, New Haven, Providence and Boston. 

If the proximity to urban markets and the presence of fellow small farmers appeal to you, here is what else you need to know about how to start homesteading in Connecticut.

Buying farmland in Connecticut

According to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, the average cost of farmland per acre in Connecticut was $11,200. Connecticut farmland costs well above the national average of $3,080 per acre and ranks third most expensive in the Northeast. 

If you plan to establish your homestead in Connecticut, though, the state has programs to help support farm owners. Connecticut’s Farm Reinvestment Grants provide matching funds to Connecticut farms to expand, diversify and improve existing working farms through projects with a projected timeline of 10 years or more. (Note that the entire project must be completed prior to receiving grant funds.)

There are federal grants available as well. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency offers Direct Farm Operating loans to start, maintain and strengthen a farm or ranch. For new agricultural producers, FSA direct farm operating loans provide an essential gateway into agricultural production by financing the cost of operating a farm. All FSA direct loans are financed and serviced by the Agency through local Farm Loan Officers and Farm Loan Managers.

The FSA’s “Beginning Farmer” direct and guaranteed loan programs include Farm Ownership loans, which provide access to land and capital, and Farm Operating loans, which help beginning farmers pay normal operating or family living expenses and costs associated with diversifying operations.

Through the FSA’s Microloan programs, beginning farmers and ranchers have an important source of financial assistance during the start-up years. The focus of Microloans is on the financing needs of small, beginning farmer, niche and non-traditional farm operations, such as truck farms, farms participating in direct marketing or those using hydroponic, aquaponic, organic and vertical growing methods.

While FSA is committed to serving all farmers and ranchers, but it targets a portion of all Guaranteed loan funds, Direct Operating and Direct Farm Ownership loan funds, Microloan funding, and Youth loans, to historically underserved farmers and ranchers, which include women and ethnic minorities.

If you plan to make money from your farm or homestead, you will also have to register it with the state. Any business activity, defined as the sale of products or services with a physical presence in Connecticut, requires business registration. There are several requirements, including developing a business name that is unique and verify no other business is using the name, establishing the location for your business, meeting local requirements, registering for state and federal tax ID numbers and (depending on the business structure) registering with the town clerk or Secretary of the State. Registrants must also pay a registration fee

Growing crops in Connecticut

Connecticut’s hardiness zones range from 5b in the upper northwest of the state, zone 6 throughout most of the central and eastern parts of the state to a thin zone of 7a along the state’s southern border.

Compared to other New England states, the relatively mild climate in Connecticut allows for a longer growing season. The first killing frost generally occurs in mid-October and the last happens in mid-April. The state has moderate rainfall, with an equal distribution of precipitation among the four seasons. 

In general, Connecticut soils were formed by glacial processes, which means they are deep, excessively drained and made of rapidly permeable solids formed in glacial meltwater sediments. The richest soils in Connecticut are along the Connecticut River in the Connecticut River Valley. That said, some Connecticut soils contain red clay or sand, which will require amendments like compost or potentially the use of raised garden beds in lieu of direct planting. Contact the University of Connecticut cooperative extension for a soil test to determine the composition of your soil and the best course of action.

Cold-hardy crops will do best in Connecticut. Cabbages are a great early spring crop and fall crop and will continue to thrive up until the first frost. Lettuces and other leafy greens like mustard and collard greens can be started before frost or early in September for a late fall harvest. Squashes and also do well in the Connecticut area, as they also enjoy an extended season and appreciate cooler weather. Certain herbs will thrive in Connecticut as well; biennial parsley will even produces through much of the winter.

Root vegetables like carrots, beets, radishes and turnips are also excellent, productive crops for Connecticut gardens. They are hardy, disease-resistant and many of them can be overwintered for a sweeter flavor come spring.

If your land has space and sun, sweet corn can be easily grown in Connecticut. Choose corn that matures in a shorter amount of time if you can, like the delicious, disease-resistant Marai series. 

Perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb will also thrive in Connecticut year after year. Raspberry bushes produce well in Connecticut as well.

For warm-season crops like tomatoes, choose varieties that have a shorter time to maturity. Season extenders may also be helpful for less cold-hardy vegetables, or for extending your season beyond the projected frost dates in general.

Water use laws in Connecticut

Connecticut’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Act (IWWA) provides for the regulation of wetlands and watercourses by each town. Any entity or individual must obtain a permit before conducting regulated activities affecting wetlands and watercourses. 

However, the IWWA recognizes the special role that farmers and foresters play as stewards of the land and provides some special exemptions from permit requirements. For example, grazing, gardening, construction farm ponds of three acres or less and building roads next to farm buildings do not require permits, but filling inland wetlands or watercourses to build said roads does require a permit.

Raising animals in Connecticut

In Connecticut, regulations on the type and number of livestock you can keep are generally set by municipalities, so check with your local town office to see what those restrictions are. A municipality’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) will likely refer to agriculture and farming. Zoning regulations may contain information about livestock as well. 

State laws and regulations that govern agriculture place the authority to regulate farm activities with various state agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health. State policies are intended to strike a balance between protecting natural resources and ensuring public health, while allowing agriculture to grow as an industry. State law related to livestock production provides useful guidance for town officials seeking to develop municipal land use regulations. 

By Connecticut state law, the owner of any herd will house, feed and care for such herd under sanitary conditions for the health of the animals. Livestock owners also must keep a record that includes a description of each registered animal in such herd. Each animal will also be marked by a tag or other marking approved by the Commissioner of Agriculture.

In Connecticut, the state regulates livestock disease control. The Commissioner of Agriculture or his deputy or authorized agents may quarantine animals that they believe are infected with a communicable disease, do not meet disease testing requirements or are kept in unsanitary conditions. The quarantine prohibits or regulates the sale of the animal and its products, and requires that they be kept in a confined place. Quarantine violators can be fined $500 for each day during the violation occurs, with a maximum fine of up to $25,000. 

The Commissioner of Agriculture may also require and facilitate blood samples to test for diseases like brucellosis from goats over three months of age and herds of bovine animals. If the Commissioner of Agriculture finds the presence of tuberculosis or brucellosis recurring in one herd within any two-year period, or if he finds any herd of cattle substantially infected with tuberculosis or brucellosis, he may order the condemnation of such herd and compensation. Said compensation shall not be paid, nor shall the herd be restocked, until the premises from which such herd was taken have been cleaned and disinfected, and such premises have been inspected and approved.

Livestock with certain diseases, like goats or cows with tuberculin, may be killed by order of the Commissioner of Agriculture. The owner of the animal is entitled to compensation, though, and the animal cannot be killed until the value of the animal is determined. 

If you plan to keep swine, all garbage fed to them must be heated throughout, either on the farm premises or at a location approved by the department, to the boiling point or an equivalent temperature for thirty minutes for the sake of public health and the health of the pigs.

Selling food in Connecticut

Connecticut boasts over 100 farmers markets. Farmers selling fresh, raw, unprocessed produce at local farmers markets are typically not regulated by the local health departments. Fruits and vegetables that have been cut, peeled, dried, pickled, packaged or modified from their natural state in any way may be subject to licensing in order to sell.

Currently, there are no mandatory on-farm inspections for fruits and vegetables at the state level, but some retailers, distributors and restaurants will require that farms submit to a third-party food safety audit if the farm wants to sell their fruits and vegetables to them. In such cases, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture can provide on-farm food safety audits, which evaluate the safety practices and cleanliness conditions of your farm, for a fee.

Any farmers wishing to sell fruits or vegetables at a Farmers’ Market Nutritional Program authorized markets, which service low-income individuals like qualifying seniors and recipients of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC),   must contact the Connecticut Department of Agriculture for a short training and certification meeting.

Virtually all of Connecticut’s farmers markets now require that all market participants provide a certificate of insurance showing that a minimum liability limit of $300,000 is in place (farmers markets themselves also generally carry liability insurance, though it is not required). The individual market should be listed on the certificate. 

There are two types of insurance purchased by farmers’ markets and vendors: overall liability for accidents that occur during business hours and product liability for incidents resulting from sold products.

If you have a homeowner policy, it can be updated to a farm owner policy, which includes the benefits of a homeowner policy plus farm and product liability. 

For value-added products, the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) offers cottage food operation licenses to individuals who produce food products only in their private residential dwelling’s home kitchen and for sale directly to the consumer (at farmers markets and fairs, for example) and must not operate a food establishment like a restaurant. Licensees also may not have annual gross sales over $25,000.

Applicants must annually submit a form to the DCP along with a $50 fee. When applying, applicants must specify what types of products will be produced and the production method. Operations also must comply with any applicable municipal laws and zoning regulations. To be eligible for licensure, an applicant must first complete an approved food safety course that includes training in food processing and packaging. Applicants with well water must provide the DCP with a copy of home water analysis and agree to let DCP inspect their operation at any time. 

Cottage food products must be pre-packaged and labeled with the following information in English: the licensee’s name and address; the product’s name; the product’s ingredients, in descending order of predominance by weight or volume; allergen information; the product’s net weight or volume, including the metric equivalent; and, in clear 10-point type, “Made in a Cottage Food Operation that is not Subject to Routine Government Food Safety Inspection.”

The DCP has classified certain food products as generally non-hazardous, including bread, pastries, chocolate, dried fruit, dried pasta and flavored vinegars. If an applicant wants to sell something that does not appear on DCP’s list, he or she must seek permission before doing so. 

Food products including maple syrup, honey, eggs, cider, cakes and pies, vegetables and fruits, are exempt from sales tax. To obtain a seller’s permit, sellers must complete and submit an application and pay a fee. The permit is valid for two years and can be renewed without an additional fee. 

Shell eggs must be labeled with the name and address of the producer or distributor, and grade or size, if applicable. Producers selling shell eggs of their own producing at farm stands, farmers markets or direct to household users are exempt from having to grade and size shell eggs and are not required to put a net weight on the carton. 

If eggs are sold in used cartons, the USDA shield, plant code, expiration date, and original trade name and address must be removed. The carton must include the name and address of the current producer or distributor and a phone number to receive complaints. Packers must include a safe handling statement on the carton. This statement must appear on the label prominently, conspicuously, and in a type size no smaller than one-sixteenth of one inch. The statement must appear in a hairline box and the words “safe handling instructions” must appear in bold capital letters.

Before a permit may be issued by the Commissioner of Agriculture for the sale of milk, information must be available from the state Department of Agriculture or from the livestock official of the state where milk is produced that such herd producing milk for sale has reacted negatively to tests which meet Connecticut specifications for the control of tuberculosis and brucellosis.

Living off-grid in Connecticut

Living off-grid is technically legal, but municipal zoning restrictions could prohibit or severely limit off-grid living. Check with local municipal zoning codes as to what the rules and regulations are in your area. For example, height restrictions and noise ordinances could prevent off-grid homesteaders from establishing personal wind turbines.

In general, Connecticut is solar-friendly, and new rules and regulations have increased the opportunity for solar energy production. The Sales and Use Tax Exemption for Solar and Geothermal Systems eliminates taxes on the purchase of such systems, and the Property Tax Exemption for Renewable Energy Systems prevents any additional taxes on the increased value of homes equipped with renewable energy systems. 

The federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is a rebate is worth 30 percent of the system cost, and deducted from federal income tax for owners who buy their system outright, either with a cash purchase or solar loan like the Energy Conservation Loan.

Unfortunately, solar electric systems must be grid-tied in order to qualify for the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund (CCEF) rebate program.

Companies in Connecticut like Aegis Solar Energy and Blue Pacific Solar provide off-grid solar installation packages and kits. 

Rainwater collection is not currently restricted in the state. In fact, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental urges residents to harvest rainwater.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Tax incentives for farmers in Connecticut

To qualify for a Farm Registration, the applicant must operate a commercial farm or agricultural business located in Connecticut. A vehicle is eligible for a farm registration if it is used exclusively in connection with the commercial operation of a farm or agricultural business in Connecticut with gross annual sales of $2,500 or more. No vehicle with a farm registration may be used for the purpose of transporting goods for hire, personal use, non-farm business, pleasure, recreation, or commuting to school or to non-farming employment.

To obtain a new Farm Registration, an Application for Registration and Title and a Farm Registration Certificate, which can be found on the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles website (search for form H-13B and E-110, respectively). The vehicle is exempt from the 6.35 percent of Connecticut sales at purchase (or use tax if the vehicle was purchased out of state) if it is used directly in the agricultural production process. The vehicle must be insured in Connecticut and is still subject to municipal vehicle excise taxes. 

Equipment used exclusively for agricultural production is also exempt from sales and use taxes in Connecticut if the purchaser has been issued a Farmer Tax Exemption Permit. In order to qualify for the sales tax exemption, a farmer must first apply with the Department of Revenue Service (DRS) by filing Form REG 8. The form must be forwarded to Taxpayer Services at DRS for review. The application is then either approved or denied. If approved, form OR-248, Agricultural Sales Tax Exemption Permit is issued. Exemption permits must be renewed every two years.

A copy of the farmer tax exemption permit must be provided to the retailer at the time of each purchase or a blanket certificate may be issued for a continuing line of exempt purchases. A blanket certificate, which is a copy of the original permit with the words “blanket certificate” written across the top, is valid from the date of issuance until September 30 of the following year. 

According to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, farmers with a gross income of $2,500 in the preceding taxable year, or an average income greater than $2,500 for the two immediately preceding taxable years, qualifies for the sales tax exemption. Farmers whose gross income from agricultural production in the preceding taxable year was less than $2,500 may still qualify for a Farmer Tax Exemption Permit provided in the current or immediately preceding taxable year, such farmer purchased an agricultural trade or business from a seller who was issued a Farmer Tax Exemption Permit at the time of such purchase.

Connecticut organizations for new farmers

The New CT Farmer Alliance is a statewide network of farmers and growers. The organization brings together young and emerging farmers from across Connecticut to share resources, identify common challenges and develop support systems aims to develop support systems for new farmers. They meet many times throughout the year for farm tours that provide learning opportunities and networking.

The Connecticut Farm Bureau also has a Young Farmers Committee, a  group of young farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 who actively participate in Farm Bureau programs and learn from other farmers how to become agricultural leaders.

For new farmers looking for land in Connecticut, the organization Connecticut FarmLink facilitates the transition between generations of landowners with the goal of keeping farmland in production. 

How difficult is it to homestead in Connecticut?

Homesteading in Connecticut can be expensive, but there is a network of small farmers in the state and many opportunities to find markets for produce. Like homesteading in Massachusetts, Connecticut may not be the right fit for a self-sufficient or off-grid homestead, but for aspiring small farmers looking to connect with the land and the community, the state may be the right fit.

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