Reward from risk for Rhode Island native
I first met up with 26-year-old Rhode Island native Christopher Hart to discuss profiling Anchor Organics on a rainy Wednesday night in March. “What on earth is going on?” I asked him over a glass of Pinot Noir at Trattoria Simpatico.
Hart launches into a rapid-fire speech: He has quit his job in New York City and has begun an organic vegetable farm in Tiverton. He is leasing land from a man named Ron, a 60-something former Harvard-educated engineer who has an 80-acre property.
He has a business plan to form Anchor Organics. He said he will start a Community Supported Agriculture, he works sun up to sun down, and when can I come visit?
Here I am, drowning along with the masses of unemployed college graduates who cannot get an interview, let alone a job, and this guy quit? It deserves further investigation, and now, an article reporting what I discovered, which is infinity more than I was prepared for.
I am invited to visit the farm “anytime after 3 p.m.” I arrived casually late at 4 p.m. I dial Hart on my cell phone, which all at once seems a wildly modern and tacky thing to do, considering the serenity of the crisp air filled with bird song. He is in the back field, where I can walk up to meet him. I turn the corner of the dirt lane, and approaching me atop an old tractor is quite simply the happiest, filthiest, most sun-drenched person I have ever seen.
Hart whisks me around the farm in the same proud spirit of a new father whipping out his wallet to reveal a plastic accordion of baby photos. It feels like looking at snapshots, too. There is a striking but oddly named stallion Copey, who is standing like Black Beauty in his ramshackle coral. There are Hart’s brother and friends, wandering like renegade boy scouts through the fields and surrounding woods, cameras in one hand, cans of beer in the other. There is a bare-steel bones of a yet-to-be erected greenhouse, laid out on the grass in a horizontal test run, the brave rows of early spring asparagus peeking through the soil, and the stone foundation of an old house waiting to be rebuilt. It is both ruin and renewal; the farm crackles and sparks with the electricity of hope.
This dramatic leap from young businessman to upstart organic farmer has not been entirely embraced by his family, and Hart comments that he is fairly certain a large group of his friends think he has lost his mind. The road to Anchor Organics began two summers ago, through the unlikely medium of a Craigslist ad Ron’s sister posted seeking help in restoring a dilapidated stone wall on her Jamestown property. Hart, who has affection for masonry, took the job.
Upon seeing the finished product, Ron offered a similar job to Hart on his own property, Stone Croppe Farm in Tiverton. This odd pair, as it would seem, hit it off, and soon Hart found himself a regular farm hand throughout the summer of 2010.
When it came time for Hart to make his decision to stay in New York or leap into the world of agricultural farming, Hart knew whom to call to help launch his plan.
Farming may be satisfying, but is hardly known for being financially lucrative. How does Hart intend to make a living out of such an ancient, but now alarmingly rare, occupation?
Firstly, Hart intends to begin small. Very small. The Anchor Organics CSA will, in its first season, max out somewhere between 10 and 15 members. For a total payment of $350, Hart will grow, harvest and personally deliver full baskets of produce on a weekly basis to each CSA member’s home. There will be struggles. Hart’s ambitions are lofty, even for a farm as small as his. The intention to keep the farm operating under organic code nearly quadruples the workload. Aside from Ron and a few occasional but sparse volunteers, the work is done alone. This is “no-till” farming, which leans heavily on the symbiotic nature of the plants and the soil, to do the work. No pesticides here, which guarantees pests, of which there are many. Just mention insects and watch Hart’s relaxed face as it contorts into a ball of stress.
Keeping up with the weeding alone could undo months of hard labor in less than a few days. Hart also has many side projects: the horse barn, a new house, a working fresh-fish pond, a bakery – just to name a few.
I think of the young businessman I knew less than six months ago. He had a great deal going for him: a rent-free company-provided apartment, a decent paycheck, a buzzing social life, health insurance. But something was amiss. The smile forced, the conversation strained with evidence of disenchantment. It is clear now that Hart has no regrets, no anxiety about dumping nearly 3,000 of his own dollars into the farm upstart; no remorse about answering “no” when his bosses at the real estate firm offered him more money to stay with the company.
For Hart, the risk of attempting to cultivate a dream was worth it. Here in Tiverton, he is able to work on a new sort of development.
“I don’t have any delusions of being rich,” he said. “This is about effecting positive change. If I get to a place in five years where no one needs to buy my produce because they have their own vegetable gardens, I’ve succeeded.”
A few months after my initial visit to the farm, I find myself returning on yet another sun-saturated afternoon. Hart and a woman wearing a hat are at work weeding a row of healthy greens in the nearest garden. Hart introduces the woman to me as his mother.
“She’s been coming to help me on Fridays,” he smiles. The CSA is full with customers overloaded with fresh produce. There is much to be done to prepare for the fall. And, in a mere summer, the greenhouse, once bare bones, is now erected and filled with robust vegetables, and the green stalks of corn have begun to peel away from the soil while the onions stand proud in militant rows. There has been growth, and renewal, and change, in all aspects.
The back field is now waist high with hay waiting to be harvested. The formerly sparse bee hives have increased, fears of death-by-honeybee swarm me instantly, but I am happy in this: to see such promise from such risk.
The author is a Jamestown resident and a recent graduate from the University of Rhode Island.