Creativity, diversification key to survival for local farmers

November 13, 2004, Jennifer Babulsky, Norwich (CT) Bulletin -- Jerry Grabarek looked like a proud papa as he talked about Shania, Destiny and Cocoa.

Those three ladies are his cows.

Grabarek, owner of Preston Farms and a Preston selectman, takes pride in knowing the names of all of his cattle, which includes 60 milking cows and another 60 heifers.

"I just have to see their udder and I know which one she is," he said. "It's easy."

Such familiarity comes from years of experience.

Since 1923, the 340-acre Grabarek family farm has survived the Great Depression and crippling economies. It wasn't easy. It has taken commitment, patience and a love of farming, Grabarek said.

"You just keep going," he said.

Only 185 farms remain active statewide, according to the Department of Agriculture, but many survive only because of creative ways to make a little money on the side.

In Grabarek's case, it's the 7.5-acre corn maze, which has become a popular fall attraction in Eastern Connecticut over the past five years.

While the maze is only open for about six weeks, that's enough.

"The corn maze is the future of farming in Connecticut," Grabarek said.

Whether it be corn mazes, hay rides or selling vegetables, supplementary income is a necessary part of farming in Connecticut.

Every year, nearly 10,000 acres of farmland are lost in the state, according to the American Farmland Trust, and there are only 370,000 acres left, 12 percent of the state.

Agri-business contributes more than $2 billion to the state's economy each year, but as farms decrease, that number drops.

At 4:45 each morning, Grabarek wakes up, watches the Weather Channel, goes and finds the cows and attaches them to milking machines.

As the cows get milked, Grabarek grabs a cup of coffee and his morning newspaper. Later, the cows are milked again. The hours pass by.

Grabarek's workday begins and ends in darkness.

"I don't get too much time off," he said with a laugh. "There's always something to do."

Robert Desjardins and his family are no different.

Their 500-acre farm in Plainfield has been in the family since the family matriarch, Doris, was a child.

If the Desjardins have their way, generations to come will be able to grow up on that same farm.

Robert, his mother and three brothers each has their own set of responsibilities.

"We all kind of have our own department we take care of, like the crops or cows," Robert said.

But crops and cows are not the only money source for the family.

They also have a gravel and soil excavation business.

Even with the added sources of income, financial problems arise.

Fluctuating prices of milk and grain often determine what the month's pay will look like, he said.

Along with the unpredictability of product costs, there are day-to-day surprises too, he said.

"One day everything is fine. And the next day, a cow is sick," he said.

As other farmers sell off portions of land to developers, Desjardins said no way: "I think we'll be here a while."

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