2006-11-22 / News

University surveyors looking for remaining island farming forms

By Dotti Farrington

Two follow-up phases of the townwide survey by the University of Rhode Island (URI) on farm preservation are planned. URI is working to get responses from all households on the island.

Reminder letters have been prepared for those who have not sent in early responses, and a second copy of the survey will be mailed to those not answering before the end of the year. URI sees the multi-contact approach as proven in past surveys and critical to obtaining accurate data.

Some 2,500 residents are being asked to take part in the research survey. Their answers might help to save island farms via expansion of profitable activities. The URI Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics has designed the survey. It is based on observations that farms provide many amenities for which the owners traditionally are not paid.

The surveys were mailed early this month, and URI hopes that completed forms will be returned within a few weeks. URI plans to have an analysis by February.

The survey is part of a multistage project within a $1.2 million program at URI. Federal and other funding sources have combined to help farms maintain themselves, while continuing to provide services not traditionally identified as a byproduct of food production. Those services include providing and protecting wildlife habitats, scenic views, and educational opportunities.

One main survey approach focuses on possibilities of paying farms to protect habitats for bobolinks. That bird species is being threatened by significant declines mainly due to a change in farming practices. Bobolinks are valued because they eat destructive insects and certain weed seeds.

URI is asking residents how much they want to help the farms and how much they are willing to pay to do so, including through funds to save bobolinks specifi- cally.

Paying farms to help save bobolinks is theoretical at this time, but could be translated into actual cash for farm owners, depending on the outcome of the survey. Jamestown was chosen for the survey and related efforts because island residents consistently support working farms.

URI's vision is that farms enabled to provide more and better amenities can benefit the public. Jamestown has nine active farms comprising 700 acres, which is 12 percent of the total land on the island.

The Jamestown project serves as a pilot for establishing community based markets for wildlife protection. While securing nesting sites for bobolinks is the aim of this particular project, URI wants to extend the project to serve as a model to protect other forms of wildlife, for protecting water quality, and for addressing other ecological issues.

Dr. Stephen Swallow, a professor in URI Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics, defined two major parts of the project: enlisting farmers, and finding a way to compensate them to adopt new conservation practices. Carol Trocki of Jamestown, a conservation biologist and an instructor at URI, is working with island farmers as part of the project.

Swallow's role is to devise or identify a market that will compensate farmers who enroll. He has said that Jamestown has a long tradition of supporting ecological programs.

Preservation of farmland and ecologically sensitive areas are issues that the town's residents have supported repeatedly over the years with votes and funding, according to Swallow. The established ecology mindset of residents here led to the town's being chosen for the URI pilot program.

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