The Hartford Courant
Saturday, May 29, 1999
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
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
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
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
But will they do well this year? "You just always worry," Honora said. "You
never know. There might be a hurricane."