2006-10-05 / Front Page

The community farm is among his many achievments

By Sam Bari

Robert (Bob) W. Sutton is an imposing figure who stands 6 feet 3 and one-half inches tall. From the mud on his boots to the western style hat that sits atop his head, Sutton portrays the image of a man who has spent a lifetime outdoors. He is just as comfortable in the driver's seat of a tractor as he is sitting behind his desk at the state Department of Environmental Management, where he is the chief of planning and development.

Getting Sutton to talk about himself, however, is no easy task. He believes that successes enjoyed by any community are results of team efforts. When asked about his personal achievements he is quick to share the spotlight with those he believes deserving. And so it is with the award he will receive on Friday, Oct. 6, as the Rhode Island State Grange Agriculturalist of 2006. The story of how he came to achieve this honor is as interesting as it is admirable.

Born in Schenectady, N. Y., Sutton moved to Jamestown in 1971 armed with a master's degree in public administration with a concentration on urban management from the State University at Albany. He moved to the area because he got a job at the University of Rhode Island. His first involvement with the community was to help the Charter Commission write the Jamestown Home Rule Charter in 1973.

"I was basically a consultant to the Charter Commission," Sutton said. "That's one of the things we did at URI. We helped communities and school districts solve organizational and development problems," he added.

"In November of 1974, the Jamestown Town Council approved the charter. The charter required a town administrator, so I applied for the job and was hired by the town in January of 1975. I was town administrator until September of 1992, about 17 and a half years.

"The charter moved the town from a non-charter government to the next step. They had an organized government and the town was very professionally managed, but having a charter with open space and a land protection plan was important. It kind of prepared the town to be in a better position to deal with the upcoming 21st century," he said.

"As town administrator, the first project that ended up being my responsibility was to construct a wastewater treatment plant. That was a necessary project for a fast growing community, and the people involved worked well together. Construction went smoothly and efficiently because we had a good team," he said.

"I do not buy into the theory that governments should be run like a business, and I did not administer the Jamestown government that way. Governments are not businesses; they are public organizations with the responsibility of responding to and fulfilling both the needs of people as a group and as individuals. Although budgets must be carefully prepared and spending closely monitored, business certainly does not provide a model for how to run a good government. If I was successful as a town administrator, I attribute the success to overseeing a government whose focus was fulfilling the needs of the community as a team.

"Anyway, after my 17-and-ahalf year tenure as town administrator, I went to work for the DEM as chief of planning and development in October of 1992. I've been in that position ever since.

"The Jamestown Community Farm started as part of a statewide project. I was approached at work about finding an available piece of land where people could grow vegetables and give them to the needy.

"Peter Ceppi, who owns the property where the farm is located, and I had been working the 15 acres for several years. We plowed it and planted a few crops. After I was approached at work about finding a piece of land, I thought of this property. That was in 2000. I talked to Peter about it, and he thought the idea was great.

"After the first year, we managed to give the farm much more of a Jamestown focus as a townsupported idea and project to turn these fields into agriculture and give the food away to the less fortunate. Now it isn't exclusively Jamestown volunteers that work this farm. We have some very loyal people from all over the state who drive great distances every weekend to help. Some have been with us from day one. We average about 150 volunteers a year. Some come every weekend. Others just come once in a while. Anyway, we manage to plant and harvest 3.5 acres of vegetables.

"About five years ago, we started working with the Conanicut Island Land Trust to bring farming and agriculture to the forefront of the minds of everybody in Jamestown. We created the "Jamestown Farms 2004 Viability Report" to help people understand

the importance and value of preserving our agricultural identity. When people don't understand the importance of anything, they lose interest, and before they realize what happened, the community can lose something that is very valuable, like our farms. We want people to recognize and appreciate the agricultural community.

"One of the other reasons for the report was for the farmers, to tell them that they have a responsibility to work with each other to preserve our agricultural heritage. We emphasized the importance of getting together to see how they, as an integral part of the community, can exchange ideas, and possibly help one another in the best interests of agriculture. They needed an opportunity to get to know each other socially in some kind of organized way. So we approached the Grange, which is an old institution that was originally created to provide a social context with an agricultural base for farmers. We formed a sub-committee to operate out of the Grange hall to get the farmers together for a forum once a month and sit around the table to talk about modern farming techniques, and explore new ideas - and just to socialize," Sutton said.

"Modern farming is a very isolated business. The new machinery introduced in the last century narrowed farming down to one man operations because the machinery eliminated the need for farmhands. Consequently, farmers found themselves cut off from the community. Everybody needs social interaction to provide a sense of belonging, an opportunity to get feedback and talk about problems as well as successes. These are basic human needs, and the Grange provided a forum to fulfill those needs.

"Farmers were happy to join the Grange. Some people from the Conanicut Island Land Trust, like Phil Larson, joined as well. Phil is a retired chef and a very active volunteer in the ongoing Grange project. This farm is really a product of the Conanicut Island Land Trust. They are largely responsible for the success of the effort.

"I appreciate the recognition for being instrumental in the development of the Grange chapter and the farm, but the award should be shared with the Farm Viability Committee, they're the ones who deserve it," Sutton said.

Sutton will be honored Friday, Oct. 6, as the Rhode Island State Grange Agriculturalist of 2006. The honor is being conferred by the Rhode Island State Grange Agricultural Department as part of the state grange's annual session. Sutton was nominated for the designation by Conanicut Grange 21.

"I have a wife Lynda, and two sons. Jay, 41, who lives in Saunderstown with his wife and two children, a girl, 7, and a boy, 5. My son Larson, 34, lives in California with his wife and son aged 2 1/3 years. We have a great relationship as a family. We're very close," Sutton said.

Return to top