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Around The Grange
Phil Prelli gets comfortable with AG job

By Special to The Register Citizen (6-20-05)

  JUNE 2005 --

The State Office Building in Hartford, at least on the ground floor, is not centrally cooled. Luckily, the office suite occupied by the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, of Barkhamsted, contains a window air conditioner that managed to keep most of last Friday’s heat and humidity confined to the wide, dark hallway one must follow to reach it.

Inside that cool office, F. Philip Prelli, the newly-appointed and House-confirmed commissioner, a towering man (6-feet, 6-inches) with gray hair and a smooth, wide face, appeared fresh in his yellow dress shirt and vibrant tie. He greeted his interviewer with a firm handshake and a soft voice.

Of the 70 or so agencies and offices that make up Connecticut’s executive branch, the agriculture department is one of the smaller ones, with only about 60 staff members and an annual operating budget of approximately $4 million. Yet it oversees an estimated $2 billion industry in Connecticut.

A Winsted native who now lives in Barkhamsted, Prelli is the latest administrator in a succession of agriculture commissioners who hail from the state’s Northwest Corner. During the 80s, Salisbury residents John Herndon and Jack Blum each took their turn at Connecticut’s agricultural helm. More recently, the post was held by Newtown resident Shirley Ferris and Bruce Gresczyk of New Hartford.

Gresczyk was nominated to the commissioner’s post by John Rowland shortly before the former governor’s resignation in disgrace. Despite his re-nomination by Gov. M. Jodi Rell this year, Gresczyk retired in March under intense political pressure, which was instigated by two purported whistleblowers who accused him of improprieties within the agriculture department’s aquaculture division. Gresczyk denied any wrongdoing, and none has come to light.

Prelli said he is interested in looking forward, and that he could not comment on any of the particulars of the issues regarding his predecessor.

Asked whether his own reputation-one columnist referred to him as a "gentle giant" during Prelli’s days in the state legislature-as opposed to Grescyzk’s more blunt manner, might translate into a different style for the agency, Prelli answered with diplomatic aplomb.

"I think every commissioner is going to have their own style," he said, adding, "I think Bruce did a tremendous job in this agency during a very difficult time [the proposed merger in 2003 of the agriculture department with the Department of Consumer Protection]. "When we thought we were going to lose the agency ... and he had to go through that time period, was his style different than mine? Yes. What is my style going to be? I want to continue to move the agency forward."

He makes no bones about the direction in which he wants to take his agency, saying, "I want to say and show the people in this state how important agriculture is to this state because I think they don’t understand that. I don’t think they understand that it’s a two billion dollar industry."

He said he "has a passion for the office," and a link to agriculture that was forged during his lifelong association with the Grange.

For one thing, you don’t get to be president and master of the Connecticut State Grange -- a post Prelli has held since 2002 -- unless you are seriously committed to supporting Connecticut’s rural heritage. Now 56, he admitted that being the Grange president is "something I’ve wanted to do since I was 18 years old." In fact, he was a junior Grange member at the age of 7.

"My Grange life has kept me close to agriculture and agricultural issues," he said.

While he did not grow up on a farm, Prelli was, like many Connecticut natives of his generation, no stranger to the farm life. His grandparents owned a small farm, his mother’s cousin owned a dairy farm where he worked summers and, for a time, his father ran his own small herd of beef cattle.

"Some of the happiest days of my youth were corn day[s]," Prelli said. "We took in all the extra corn, and my mother and grandmother and other aunts and grandmother would can the corn as we were shucking. Or, Thanksgiving Day-we also got wood in for my grandfather because he burned wood. They were family days on the farm. ..."

Prelli attended public schools in Winsted and also the George C. Marshal High School in Falls Church, Va., and The Gilbert School in Winsted. He earned his Associate of Science degree from Northwestern Connecticut Community College in Winsted and his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. Though he worked in the family insurance business, both Prelli and his father stayed active in the Grange.

"It was when my father was president and master of the State Grange ... [that] they put the 490 bill in," he said. The 490 bill instituted certain property tax exemptions for farmers. "There’s always been the tie ... [the Grange] worked very hard on the dairy compact and a lot of other agricultural issues ... ."

"My tie with agriculture was also for the 12 years that I served on the [legislature’s] Environment Committee," he added.

The new commissioner served from 1991 to 2003 as a Republican state representative for the 63rd District. A popular legislator, who cites his work on getting the Dairy Compact passed in the early 1990s as one of his most important achievements in the House, Prelli often ran unopposed.

During his legislative career he served as assistant minority leader, was chairman of the Bill Review Committee and was ranking member of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. (His seat is now filled by Democrat George Wilber of Colebrook.) Prelli also was a member and three-time vice chairman of the Agriculture and Foreign Trade Committee of the National Conference of State Legislators.

After he retired from the legislature-in part, so that he could be more available in the evenings for his expanded Grange responsibilities -- Prelli continued to work in his insurance business, Tangarone & Prelli Insurance, LLC.

It was during this time period that the Grange, along with a broad coalition of groups, became involved in the fight to save the agriculture department from getting swallowed up by another agency.

"We worked hard to say, ‘We need a department,’" Prelli said. The threat grew from a lack of appreciation for agriculture, he believes, commenting, "It was not just [former governor] Rowland; it was legislators in general [who] didn’t know what agriculture was in the state of Connecticut."

"At the turn of the prior century, the legislature was made up of farmers. ... There are, I think, only two farmers in the legislature now. We need to explain to city legislators that, yes, agriculture [is] important to your district," Prelli said, adding, "We do have a Right to Farm law in Connecticut."

In taking over the agency, Prelli spoke of the need for balance in addressing the changing face of agriculture in this state. For farmers, he said, there are "a lot of changes coming down the line [with] environmental concerns ... whether it’s setbacks from streams, whether it’s the whole idea of confined feeding operations, clean water and clean air; we have to make sure that as important as those [new laws] are-and I’m not downplaying the environmental side of it-that farmers can continue to do their job in this state."

And part of helping farmers stay in business, he stressed, is showing non-farmers in Connecticut that agriculture is still important, even if it is no longer the stereotypical "family farm."

"The dairy farms that we see now are larger dairy farms; we’re producing almost as much milk now as we did 10 years ago but we have less farms," he explained, going on to say, "So we see farms changing. And what is a farm? Well, a farm is that horse farm or that piece of property that’s preserved as farmland and that’s now being mowed by some other farmer because the cows aren’t on that lot; it doesn’t mean that it’s not being used.

"When we look at the nursery industry, when we look at the oyster industry and the mushroom industry, those are all different. They’re farms," the commissioner continued. "Those greenhouses that you see are a farm. You might not think of it [that way]-you think of it as a business. But they’re a farm; they’re growing and they’re selling. We do a lot of international trade with our mushroom and our nursery businesses. People don’t see that. So I think that what we need to do is sell agriculture in the state of Connecticut to the people of Connecticut."

Another priority for the department, Prelli said, will be continuing with the farmland preservation program-the purchasing of development rights from farmers. And, if Bill 410 is signed by the governor, the preservation efforts will also involve the purchase of fee simple lands as well. But, Prelli stressed the need for additional staffing to run the program effectively.

"One of the things we have to be very careful of when we’re buying development rights [is] that we’re looking at the best farmland that’s available, and that we also must buy it in areas where we know it’s going to remain in farming," he said. "We’re doing a lot more of cluster buying now, meaning that we make sure that we save farmland where we already know we have farmland reserved so that we know that it’s actually going to be used for farming."

"We then have to always have a stewardship program so we watch this afterwards," he added. "And that’s one of the problems we have now. We have a department of two people [the Farmland Preservation Program] who are responsible for preserving this land."

Prelli lives in Barkhamsted with his wife, Maureen. He has twin daughters, both grown, Jennifer M. Prelli-Hester and Marie P. Keefe.


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