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Connecticut soil can grow more than you'd think

Published July 07. 2013 4:00AM

Much of it being hilly and rocky, and with a reliable growing season of little more than three months, Connecticut is not a great agricultural state, and its people, busier than most, give little thought to where their food comes from before it gets to the supermarket.

Yet here and there, particularly but not exclusively in the river valleys, Connecticut's soil is good enough that a surprising volume of all but tropical vegetables and fruit can be coaxed from it and animals raised on it.

The locally grown produce is often far superior to the industrial-caliber stuff grown hundreds or thousands of miles away in gentler climates and then shriveled by shipping and shelf time.

Sturdy produce like potatoes and cabbages travels well but string beans, peppers, and cucumbers don't, and of course throughout most of the year what supermarkets label tomatoes hardly even resemble those from a nearby farm or the backyard garden. Nothing is sweeter than a cherry tomato just picked off the vine in the sun -- except maybe that tomato given to a wide-eyed little kid.

And for three or so months each year people who live near the right orchards in Connecticut, orchards whose farmers are especially courageous, can get the nectar of the gods itself - unpasteurized apple cider, whose taste varies exquisitely with the strain of fruit and the vagaries of weather just as wine's does. (Supermarket cider, pasteurized, is like supermarket tomatoes. Why bother?)

Backyard vegetable gardening is healthy exercise, mental therapy, and leisure wrapped together with the prospect of further reward at the harvest. But farming as an attempt at a livelihood may be the hardest work there is. There's little choosing when to go into the fields or the stable, and one is always at the mercy of the elements.

Amid the debris of the little tornado that recently swept through tobacco valley, what the English professor, historian, and sometime Connecticut politician Odell Shepard wrote about shade tobacco farming in the state is as true today as it was when he wrote it almost 75 years ago.

The shade tobacco farmer, Shepard wrote, "must occasionally find himself sighing for the security and the unchanging climate of hell. Connecticut has quite the finest weather in the world, but she has all the other kinds as well and often turns them all on in rapid succession. This tends to keep a man on the anxious seat when half his fortune is spread out over a hundred acres at the mercy of every passing cloud.

"To have harrowed, manured, and dragged your fields, to have sown and tended and transplanted your infant plants, and then to have cultivated them, sprayed them, suckered them, topped them, and shaded them only to have them ruined by the trailing skirts of a three-minute hailstorm - well, it is a disappointment. ...

"A hundred thousand young tobacco plants growing in the Connecticut Valley are apparently subject to more diseases and more forms of sudden death than the same number of babies. ...

"A man who wants a safe investment for his money and cares to sleep on summer nights had better go in not for shade tobacco but for betting on the horses."

So it was gratifying that Governor Malloy quickly visited a Windsor tobacco farm damaged by the tornado and made such farms eligible to share in the $5 million in emergency financial grants his administration had already established for farms hurt financially by the spring's heavy rain.

But a few weeks earlier, responding to the school massacre in Newtown, the governor did all he could to put the state's firearms industry out of business, even as the Centers for Disease Control still reports that tobacco use in the United States causes more deaths each year than alcohol and illegal drugs, traffic accidents, suicides, and murders combined. Go figure.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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