The Futtner Family Farm StandHonora and Jim FuttnerFuttner's Family Farm, LLC
910 Silver Lane
East Hartford, CT 06118

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The Hartford Courant

From Seed to Shelf Logo

Saturday, May 29, 1999

Growing Pains

Jim Futtner on Tractor

Jim Futtner is the third generation of his family to till farmland in East Hartford. But the farm has shrunk over the years, and only one of his children has shown an interest in continuing to farm. Here, Futtner backs his tractor up to deliver seedlings to his farm stand.

East Hartford Family Trying To Keep Longtime Farm Alive

by Fran Silverman
Courant Staff Writer

Overcast skies and intermittent rain - a perfect day for planting. On this mid-May day, Jim Futtner is on his tractor, planting tomatoes in the silty black soil off Silver Lane in East Hartford.

The rain is welcome. The dry spring had Futtner a bit worried. But showers are enough to hydrate the new plants and soak the soil.

It's a surprisingly busy weekday for the Futtner family. As Jim plants, his wife, Honora, and daughter Carrie, 19, work the farm stand across the street, where a steady stream of senior citizens stop to purchase perennials for spring gardens.

Looking out from the stand, you wouldn't know the Futtner farm is smack in the middle of suburban sprawl.

But look slightly to the right, and a post office comes into view. Within easy walking distance to the left is a multiplex theater and a strip shopping center.

As Jim guides his 30-year-old red International tractor up and down the rows, gently dropping tomato plants into the soil with a hydraulic setter, cars zip noisily along Silver Lane, and early morning joggers pad through an abutting trail that leads to a housing development.

Jim, 51, is the third generation of Futtners to till the East Hartford land. The farm was started by his great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant in the 1800s. But the farm that has sustained the Futtners for more than 100 years has shrunk because acreage was sold to developers by subsequent generations not interested in cultivating the soil.

Where the Futtners once tilled more than 50 acres in East Hartford, Jim - the only one of five siblings who wanted to farm full time - is left with just a few acres of the original parcel. The farmland sold is now home to Showcase Cinemas, a Coca-Cola bottling plant and I-84.

To survive, Jim and Honora lease 15 acres on Silver Lane across from the farm stand. But that land is up for sale. It's worth an estimated $1 million to $2 million for commercial development, and the Futtners can't afford to buy it. Each year they farm it, not knowing whether that year will be their last.
The couple also tills 15 acres in South Windsor that they bought when first married, a plot that yields vegetables they sell at the East Hartford stand, and to wholesalers.

Of Jim Futtner's four children, only one - 15-year-old Joe - has expressed any interest in continuing to farm. Jim and Honora say they don't try to influence Joe in any way. It's his decision, and they want him to be happy. Farming is a difficult job - a tough life, they tell him - just as Jim's dad warned him.

If Joe eventually decides against taking over the family farm?

"It will die," Jim Futtner said.

The history of the Futtner farm is not unusual. Connecticut farmland has shrunk in half in the past 40 years. Between 1964 and 1997 alone, the state lost 100,000 acres, or 20.8 percent of its farmland - more than any other New England state.

Diagram of New England's Farmland

Agriculture is a $2.2 billion industry in Connecticut, still a significant part of the state's economy, officials say. But myriad challenges face state farmers. Although advances in technology have made farming easier and increased harvests, farmers now have to contend with suburban neighbors who like to buy the farm-fresh produce, but don't want to smell manure or hear farm cannons scaring away birds.

Farmers also have to contend with constantly changing environmental regulations that dictate the amount and kinds of pesticides they can use, reams of paperwork, and labor that is often lost to indoor retail shops.

Concerned about the loss of farmland, state officials in the 1970s funded a preservation program that pays farmers for the development rights to the land.
The money helps farmers pay off debt, and the land is preserved for agricultural uses. Since the program started, the state has spent $76.3 million to purchase the development rights of 172 farms, preserving 26,000 acres of land, or 6.8 percent of the state's total farmland.

The state has a goal of preserving 85,000 acres of farmland, which would allow farmers to produce 50 percent of Connecticut's milk needs and 70 percent of its in-season fresh fruits and vegetables. But the funding has steadily decreased.

Between 1988 and 1993, the state authorized $29.5 million for the program. This year, Gov. John G. Rowland's budget has no money for the program.

But even if there were money, it wouldn't save the Futtners' East Hartford land. The plot is too small and too expensive for the program, officials say.
In the 1970s, the Futtners diversified, building greenhouses - on Silver Lane where tobacco used to grow. The business has thrived, and now fuscias and ferns take up most of Honora's time and divert Jim's attention from vegetables, which sometimes frustrates him.

On this day, after planting, Jim joins Honora, who has spent the morning helping customers pick pansies and petunias in the warm, sweet-smelling greenhouses, for a brief lunch. Afterward, Jim will head north for the afternoon to deliver floral displays to clients, and then back to the greenhouse to restock.

It's a very busy time of year - perhaps as intense as the harvest. And although it seems to the outside world to be just the start of the growing season, as far as the Futtners are concerned, they are halfway through it.

Through the winter, Honora worked on the computer, ordering labels and drawing up inventory lists. Jim worked on the equipment fixing tractors or ordering new farm technology, if there was money. In March, Jim started plowing, and was planting corn, beans and peas by April.

The greenhouses and farmland have provided a comfortable - if not secure - income over the years. Annual profits vary from $30,000 to $50,000, and the couple call themselves "middle-class - more like lower middle-class."

This month, the couple attended the graduation of their oldest daughter, Elaine 21, who received a nursing degree from St Anselm's College in Manchester, NH.

Like other middle-income families, they now worry about how they will pay for the three younger children's education.

It was just four years ago when the Futtners were finally able to join a group health insurance plan through the Connecticut Farm Bureau. In the past they've had to pay out of pocket for medical expenses.

Every year, there is a new challenge.

There was the winter, for example, when Jim took the family skiing, and broke his leg. Come spring, he was out on the farm on crutches trying to teach Honora to drive the tractor.

Then there was the year when Honora got stung by a bee, and discovered that she was allergic to them. That ended her years helping Jim in the fields.
But they've never thought of selling.

"You wake up sometimes in the morning saying, 'What am I doing this for? If it's a bad year, you get discouraged and depressed," Jim said. "But you hope for a better year the next year. If we get one good year out of three, I'm happy."

This year, the Futtners have purchased a new conveyor to help with the harvest. A week of rain has reassured them that the new plants will take root.

Within days, they will plant their melon crop - for which they've gained a local reputation.

But will they do well this year? "You just always worry," Honora said. "You never know. There might be a hurricane."


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