Proposed Rail Line Threatens Old Lyme Farms

Reader Contribution by Kirsten Lie-Nielsen and Days Ferry Organics
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Baylee Drown grew up on a 300-cow dairy farm in Michigan. After finishing her Masters in Sustainable Food Systems, Drown and her partner, Ryan Quinn, were looking for a place to sow their own organic vegetable farm. That opportunity came just over three years ago in the form of a property in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where Quinn grew up. They moved to the area not knowing that already their sustainable farm program was threatened by a Federal plan to expand high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor, between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

The historic towns of Lyme and Old Lyme, home to small farms and local ecosystems along the Connecticut coastline, were shocked to find themselves facing the real threat of a new rail project that would traverse the heart of their picturesque town.

Your first thought when considering Old Lyme, may be of a downtown area where historic buildings look out on trimmed lawns, but the area is home to dozens of working farms that supply locals and tourists with fresh, organic food.

Upper Pond Farm, near the mouth of the Connecticut River, is a six acre human-powered organic farm focused on sustainably providing organic vegetables to the surrounding communities. After three years of farming, Drown and Quinn, learned of the proposed rail project just two weeks ago.

At issue is the re-routing of high speed rail lines over a new bridge that would cross the Connecticut River and surrounding marshland, and continue through the center of Old Lyme. This re-routing is one of three proposals put forth by the North East Corridor Future to update the rail service in the Northeastern United States and increase current rail system’s capacity. A fourth proposal is to “do nothing.”

The Old Lyme route would be part of what the NEC Future calls Alternative One, which as of today appears the most likely option chosen. Other Alternatives include building an extensive new rail line that would bypass the coast and pass through Hartford and the University of Connecticut campus.

The proposed rail line came as a shock to the close-knit community of Old Lyme. Few in the town thought their treasured historic community would ever be divided by a high-speed rail line. The issue was so poorly publicized that many, including the farmers at Upper Pond Farm, only learned of it through Facebook just as the original deadline for public comment closed at the end of January. After public outcry, this deadline was extended through February 15th.

Upper Pond Farm is part of a deep agricultural history in this area of coastal Connecticut. Surrounding the farm are other properties which have alternated between being family homes and working farms over the centuries. Respect for the ecological and agricultural history of the area is high in the town, which holds annual cruises to observe flocks of migratory swallows and hosts an annual festival celebrating the local bird of prey, the osprey.

That same migration of swallows is part of the ecological balance that keeps Upper Pond Farm thriving. Before collecting at the mouth of the river, the swallows feed on the bugs and pests in the fields of Upper Pond Farm, helping Drown and Quinn keep their crops healthy. The area’s salt marshes, estuaries, and beaches are delicate and closely-tied with the survival of its local farms.

Drown and Quinn distribute their produce through 60 CSA shares and two local farmers markets. Even if their crops are able to survive the changes in ecology that a new rail line would bring, they worry that the market for their fresh, organic vegetables would be damaged. In a community dedicated to preserving its local agricultural history, Drown and Quinn worry that area residents will leave with the disruption or demolition of significant portions of the historical district, of the Lyme Art Academy, shops, a renowned museum of American Impressionism, and natural food store.

“A project like this undermines why these people are here,” Quinn pointed out, adding that land preservation is critical to the local citizens and a project like this flies in the face of local zoning, and legal protections for the historical district and surrounding marshes.

The issue in Old Lyme is one not uncommon to farms around our country. Ecosystems, local history, and family farms are low on the list of priorities when considering larger highways and faster railroads. For young farmers like Drown and Quinn, finding property and farming it is only the first step in a long journey to preserve the integrity of their land. From Old Lyme to the rest of the nation, the interaction of so-called progress with our agriculture and ecosystems is a constant struggle for local farms.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen currently farms 2 acres of a suburban homestead using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Recently she has begun work restoring an old barn and 100 acres of overgrown fields in hopes of farming full time in the future. Find her online at Days Ferry Organics Blog, and read all of Kirsten’s posts here.

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