Co-op talks about R.I.’s local food production
According to Ken Ayers, the state’s chief of agriculture, these are good times for Rhode Island farmers. That was the message he relayed at the annual meeting of the Alternative Food Co-op on Sunday at The Towers in Narragansett.
An audience of some 60 people turned out Jan. 29 to hear about local food production and sample the fish chowder made from The Local Catch.
According to the panel of experts, led by Ayers, University of Rhode Island professor Brian Maynard, and several local growers, including Jamestown’s Martha Neale of Windmist Farm, Rhode Island farmers are fulfilling the consumer’s demand for healthier foods and establishing themselves as an important part of the state’s economy. But the picture is not entirely rosy, the experts said, mainly because expensive farmland prices and an aging demographic – the average age of the Rhode Island farmer is 57 – pose problems for the future.
During the 90-minute discussion titled “R.I. Grows: Local Food Production,” the panelists competed for the audience’s attention with a distractingly brilliant setting, the backdrop of blue skies and diving seagulls prominent through The Towers’ windows, as they discussed some of their successes and also considered the major challenges.
Rhode Island, Ayers said, is benefitting from the nationwide “resurgence in local agriculture.” But there’s both good news and bad news on the farm front, he added.
For the good news, the state now has a five-year agriculture plan. Also, Rhode Island has accreditation and can certify organic farms.
Ayers, who is head of the state Department of Environmental Management’s Agriculture Division, said the number of Rhode Island farms climbed by more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2010. He cited numbers compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which counted 1220 farms in 2010 compared to 858 farms at the beginning of the decade.
According to Ayers, most of those farmers are selling their harvest directly to consumers. Rhode Island now ranks third in the nation for direct retail sales. “We’re small but growing,” he said. As a matter of policy, the state has been backing retail sales versus wholesale, because it cuts out the middleman and infuses more dollars into the local economy. That policy has been in effect 25 to 30 years, he said.
The main growth is coming due to new “backyard farms.” The average size of a local farm is down to 74 acres. But growers here still produce only about one percent of food Rhode Islanders eat. That’s partly been due to the fact most state farmers are part of the socalled “green industry,” meaning they grow trees, nurseries and ornamental plants.
If agriculture is viewed as a pie chart, Ayers said, most of the production (between 65 and 70 percent) is coming from nurseries and ornamental plants. He predicted “an evening out between green and food” as the food producers will begin to account for more of the state’s harvest.
But there’s a limit to how much growth can happen due to limited Rhode Island land resources. Farmland prices here are the highest in the nation. Moreover, studies suggest dairy farming is the only type of enterprise where New Englanders could someday become self-sufficient.
As far as producing crops, a Brandeis University study has found that local growers would be able to produce only about 50 percent of the population’s food, even if all the farmland in the state were put back in service.
“So it’s not sustainable,” Ayers said. He added the state can still take some steps to improve the food system. He said that health problems such as obesity are connected to the way farmers produce food.
Brian Maynard, professor of horticulture, told the panel he is working on a new curriculum so URI can someday offer a major in sustainable agriculture. Although the students are embracing the new classes – which the department has started in vegetable and in fruit tree production – he faces a difficult economic reality in that no jobs are being offered right now for farmers trained in sustainable agriculture methods. Parents and political leaders do care about the job question.
“Where are the new farmers going to come from?” he asked.
Maynard also cited problems with social justice in regards to land workers. Today’s farm workers are mostly documented Hispanics, but they’re not being paid fairly.
“It’s really not been equitable,” he said. “It’s really exploitative of the latest generation of immigrant labor.”
Jamestown’s Martha Neale of Windmist Farm spoke about personal experiences as a local food producer. Her farm raises livestock, and she has opted not to be certified organic. She follows organic farming practices, she said, but requirements for state certifi- cation are too costly.
Neale also said she has faced past difficulties finding suppliers that made organic food for her animals. Many livestock animals are grass fed, but some require grain in their diets. She has also faced some concerns about slaughter of livestock, a practice that upsets some people. Neale uses a slaughterhouse in Johnston.
Sarah Lester of Farm Fresh Rhode Island said sales are growing. Market Mobile realized $1.06 million in 2011 sales, which refl ected 55 percent growth. She predicted 50 percent growth in 2012. She counts 46 farmers markets statewide, with five staying open all winter. She also said Farm Fresh R.I. is helping lowincome people by giving coupons and nutrition incentive deals. So far, 19 farmers markets accept food stamps.
“There’s a lot of room for growth there,” she said.
Maria Mack grows salad greens, kale, Swiss chard, lavender and other organic crops for the wholesale market. Canterbury Farm in Kingstown is certified organic and she strongly believes in those methods.
“It’s always been a philosophy of mine that organic was the way to go,” she said. After studying chemistry in college, she became more convinced that it was good to stay away from chemicals. But there are challenges. Consumers say they want organic food, but organic vegetables may not be perfectly rounded the way shoppers expect. The vegetables sometimes have “blemishes,” she added, and people have to be educated about the fact this produce is not “picture perfect.” Practically, organic farming methods also mean hard work for farmers.
“It’s more labor intensive,” she said. “You’re constantly trying to improve soil.” The state inspectors stay on top of the situation and examine everything she puts into the farm, including the type of lime and the type of compost. “The DEM looks at everything,” she said.
Mack said all the effort goes to benefit the consumers. “I think it’s worth it.”
Ann Cook of Narragansett’s The Local Catch said she and her husband Rich recently opened their business selling fish, and they faced a big challenge making their names known.
“We were the newest on the block,” she said. But more recently fishermen have now begun working with her company. The facility is small, but Cook said that the size is turning out to be an advantage – she has to be “very selective,” and that’s allowed her business to focus on quality.