Update on the Governorís Council for Agricultural Development
By Steven K. Reviczky, Commissioner
The Governorís Council for Agricultural Development has been very busy this past year.
Starting at the beginning of January 2012, after enactment of Public Act 11-189, the council and its 15 members have been hard at work to develop recommendations on ways to increase the percentage of consumer dollars spent on Connecticut-grown fresh produce and farm products, and on the development, diversification, and promotion of agricultural products, programs, and enterprises in the state.
Its first step was to undertake the creation of Connecticutís first-ever, holistic strategic plan for agriculture, Grow Connecticut Farms, which incorporates the myriad food and non-food sectors of this diverse industry.
After looking at other statesí efforts on agricultural planning, borrowing the best ideas and tailoring them to Connecticutís unique landscape, the council reached out to hundreds of agricultural stakeholders throughout the state for input.
Information was gathered between May and October 2012 through 55 in-depth interviews, 232 completed online surveys, and four regional listening sessions.
Through this outreach and feedback, the council identified 10 priority areas for further study. Seven of these were addressed during the councilís first day of topic-focused meetings in November 2012. These included
Additional stakeholders and experts in these areas were invited to brainstorm and begin to develop suggestions for the council to consider in the cultivation of its first set of recommendations to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.
Seven recommendations pertaining to these specific topic areas were made, adopted, and included in the Grow Connecticut Farms first annual report, completed at the end of 2012.
The agency is coordinating with Governor Malloyís office on the presentation and release of that report.
The remaining three priority areas will be the focus of a second day of meetings to be held later this month. These topic areas are as follows:
Ideas and suggestions from these meetings will be deliberated by the council, which will then make additional recommendations to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture for potential inclusion in Grow Connecticut Farms.
Next, the council will split into two subcommittees, (1) Demand, Research, and Education, and (2) Production, Investment, and Infrastructure, and into 12 working groups under those subcommittees.
These working groups, which will begin meeting later this spring, will continue to focus on priorities identified in 2012, refine recommendations, and develop suggestions for additional recommendations. The groups will report back to the full council at quarterly meetings.
Meanwhile, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture is already working on a number of initiatives that dovetail with the councilís work to date.
In terms of infrastructure, the department, in collaboration with the Connecticut Marketing Authority, has embarked on two projects to repair and revitalize the Hartford Regional Market. This agriculture and food hub, first built in 1948, has been identified by the council as an opportunity to strengthen the local food system and agricultural economy. While the existing infrastructure has served Connecticut well, it was designed and constructed for a different time.
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture is working closely with the Department of Construction Services on both projects. The firstóinstallation of a new roof system, scheduled to begin this monthówill buy time as we undertake the second project: development and implementation of a master plan that will significantly grow opportunities for the aggregation, processing, distribution, and sale of agricultural products.
We are thrilled to be in negotiations for this master plan, after a competitive bidding process, with Market Ventures, Inc., a firm with extensive experience planning for the development of wholesale and public markets in various regions of the United States.
Specifically, the scope of the consultantís charge over a 10-month period will include quantitative and qualitative market research, as well as programmatic and design recommendations. A focus of the work will be to build a solid business case for the regional market looking at all aspects of operation and management, as well as conducting financial analyses and economic impact forecasts. At the conclusion of the master planning process, it is anticipated that there will be a well-structured, implementable vision for the Hartford Regional Market that will serve the State of Connecticut for decades to come.
Another area that has risen high up on the councilís priority list is increasing the sale of Connecticut Grown farm products to institutions. Existing ongoing Department of Agriculture initiatives, including the Farm-to-Chef and Farm-to-School programs, have made significant gains in this area in recent years.
The department currently has a legislative proposal to expand existing statutory language for state contracts to include in its provision to allow preference for Connecticut Grown products additional proteins including meat and poultry. In addition, the Department of Agriculture is working with the Department of Administrative Services to make the state purchasing process more conducive to the inclusion of Connecticut Grown farm products.
Stakeholders, through the council, have strongly suggested that further ramping up these programs and efforts could greatly expand consumer demand for Connecticut Grown products and agricultureís contribution to the stateís economy. The department will continue to develop and enrich these and similar initiatives.
In conjunction with its ongoing institution-oriented programs, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture has secured funding through a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant and begun a project to assess and analyze institutional demand for Connecticut Grown fruits and vegetables, the stateís capacity to grow those crops, and the infrastructure required (both existing and lacking) to provide those items in a form that institutions can readily use.
Another council priority that has emerged after analysis of stakeholder input is the stateís marketing of Connecticut Grown. The council has signaled a desire to sharpen the focus of those efforts, including developing and implementing a comprehensive marketing plan.
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture has significant statutory authority and obligation in this area and has engaged in various promotional campaigns and projects over time through its marketing unit. The department is currently examining its marketing division and programs to identify opportunities to enhance and strengthen the agencyís work in this arena.
Like the Hartford Regional Market, the departmentís marketing arm has served the state well over the years, but recent advances in technology, shifts in the media landscape, and changes in the means by which consumers seek out information present tremendous opportunities to examine this operation with a fresh, forward-focused set of eyes and develop a strategy that brings Connecticut Grown marketing to a new level.
The Governorís Council for Agricultural Development has had a busy year and 2013 promises to be no different. As the council continues to focus on priorities established through previous and ongoing stakeholder input, and focuses on meeting its statutory charges, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture will continue to listen carefully to the councilís analysis of that input and focus the agencyís efforts on initiatives that support the councilís mission and help to Grow Connecticut Farms.