Lauren Pasquale is living her dream. It’s early May and the vibe at her shop at Pasquale Farms Garden Center in Richmond is what you might expect on a mostly sunny, 76-degree Sunday: delightfully relaxed. Rough-hewn tables flank the gravel parking lot and are covered corner to corner with smiling pansies, pastel crocus, and velvety coleus. Hanging flower baskets for sale mark the door to the shop, where you’ll find clay pots in every imaginable size, hand-made cutting boards and pottery, garden gift sets, and local food products. “We’re trying to do it all,” she says, explaining the thinking behind the array of products that they sell (shrubbery, flowers, vegetables, pumpkins, local jars of jams and honey, cheeses, meats, Christmas trees and wreaths, and classes for adults and kids, to name a handful) and the customers they’re trying to reach. “But owning a family farm…” she says. “It’s the dream.”
You might think that there’s no better time to run a farm in Rhode Island. Fueled by the farm-to-table restaurant movement, many consumers are now educated about the benefits of “buying local.” Farmers markets seem to be everyone’s favorite way of spending Saturday mornings, chefs cite local farms’ products on their menus, and regional markets boast about carrying Rhode Island-grown produce. Organizations such as Farm Fresh Rhode Island and the food incubator program at Hope & Main further elevate the value of sourcing local. Magazines, newspapers, local TV, and social media sites seemingly make accessing all of these options a snap.
All these things help farmers survive and thrive – the extent to which depends on which farmer you ask. But the gold standard for getting those juicy, sweet red strawberries into your bowl? It’s the Pasquale family model: farmers who love what they do forge authentic relationships with locals they can welcome onto their land. It’s the ultimate win-win. The farmer can tell you about their products and make a profit selling it to you without an overhead, while you brown-bag it home, delighted to whip up its contents for dinner while your brain creates a neural pathway that will have you returning to the farm again and again. Still, the routes to success can be a bit dizzying.
The 300 acres of land at Casey Farm in Saunderstown have been farmed since the mid-1600s. Since 1955 it’s been run by the regional preservation organization Historic New England, which oversees its working barnyard, gardens, and fields. Over the past two decades, Casey has been reimagined as a destination, with a summer Saturday growers’ market, a pick-your-own-produce CSA (a subscription-based Community Supported Agriculture program that was the first of its kind in Rhode Island), and fields with roaming farm animals that kids can meet. There are hiking paths, farm tours, and organized bird walks. “We think it is all a great model for engaging people,” says site manager Jane Hennedy.
The farms that thrive in Rhode Island these days are the innovative ones like Casey and Pasquale. That doesn’t always mean they are using technologically advanced machinery or farming methods (though those can certainly help). Sometimes it’s about cultivating and maintaining a great product, and knowing your audience. It’s always, as Hennedy says, about engaging them.
It's "fish and chips" Friday at Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, a prime example of a successful and sustainable farm practice. Soon, Jayne Merner Senecal will welcome a truck carrying fish scraps and wood chips from New Bedford. It’s one of dozens of deliveries equaling about 100 tons of material that Earth Care will take in this month alone, from food scraps and coffee grinds to garden waste, manure, and spent grains from local breweries. Senecal is a second-generation farmer’s daughter who understands that innovation is a game changer. In the late 1970s, her father Mike Merner stood on the farm and had an epiphany about, of all things, compost. “He knew that healthy, living soil would produce healthy plants,” she explains, resisting the urge to do a deep-dive into the process of photosynthesis. The resulting composted soil is turned into bags of potting soil and raised bed mix for weekend gardeners and sold to local farms and landscapers. “It’s just an amazing product,” she says, “and when people use it and see the great results, they keep coming back.”
Even generational farms sometimes need the trial-and-error process to figure out who their audience is. George and Martha Neale inherited Windmist Farm in Jamestown in 2002 from George’s father and began to experiment with the kinds of animals they needed to raise. Cows, goats, sheep, and pigs – some heritage breeds that haven’t been genetically altered – rotate through at given times. The Neales have found the direct-to-consumer approach to selling the most sustainable and profitable; farmers markets can be iffy for all kinds of reasons, and selling to retail outlets can be expensive and daunting. “We want to sell more to local folks who like to cook at home,” Martha explains, and she hopes that when their daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law take over the operation of the farm, they can unlock more potential.
Martha looks to Pat’s Pastured owner Patrick McNiff as the ultimate example of a farmer who does it right. At their East Greenwich farm, the McNiffs sell beef, poultry, pork, eggs, dairy, produce, and even dog food and treats. Like Casey Farm, Pat’s has a CSA, offers delivery, and holds a farmers market. “He’s really perfected the model,” Martha says, but acknowledges the enormous amount of work necessary to get there. “I just wanted to be a farmer,” she says with a laugh, “not a salesperson or a marketing genius.”
Rick Pace and David DeFrancesco are two agriculture pros who came together in 2016 to offer some solutions to the myriad challenges that Rhode Island farmers face. They and four other founding partners began the Rhode Island Farm Incubator at Shewatuck Farm in North Kingstown with the goal of educating and aiding farmers and food entrepreneurs in developing their own for-profit businesses. This includes everything from providing space to plant and grow to helping with funding, farming techniques, and marketing. “The obstacles facing farmers can be daunting, right down to finding land to farm on,” DeFrancesco explains.
The 91-acre Shewatuck property was purchased from Schartner Farms with a loan from the US Department of Agriculture. There’s room and facilities for a half-dozen fellows to set up shop for a year, and after that they will be offered help to transition to an independent business. Along the way, they’ll learn the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t for farmers. For example, farmers markets aren’t always a good idea, they explain. They can be hard to get into and sometimes organizers take a hefty portion of the profits in the form of rent. And while it seems like it would be a farmer’s perfect-case scenario to provide local supermarkets with their products, that, too, can be problematic. Factors such as packaging, transportation, consistency of the product, and more often drive grocery stores into relationships with huge corporations. The idea of buying strawberries at Stop & Shop from the farm down the road can be romantic, but you won’t be happy if you go in February or September and they’re gone, they explain. Many local grocery stores such as Dave’s, Belmont, and Roch’s do proudly sell local produce, but they are always going to subsidize that with contracts from larger suppliers. “Otherwise, they’d put themselves out of business,” says Pace.
You’ll notice, too, that it’s the larger local farms that have created relationships with Rhode Island chefs. Twenty years ago, Brian Kingsford of Bacaro restaurant in Providence was one of the first to boast Confreda Farms’ corn and squash blossoms on his spring and summer menus, but the menu items were limited and only available for several weeks. Pat’s Pastured meats and poultry are often featured on local menus, but that’s because he has the capability to produce consistently. “It’s not always that easy for smaller producers,” DeFrancesco explains. “And there’s not always rhyme or reason to how these things get accomplished.”
Pace and DeFrancesco see education as the most important, sometimes missing, ingredient to the success of a farm, and that’s the role they see themselves in. “Making solid, informed choices for who you are and what you’re producing” is the key, according to DeFrancesco.
In the meantime, farmers will find some success engaging in what DeFrancesco calls “agro-tourism.” He explains he witnessed it at Schartner Farms in Exeter when he worked there as a student years ago. “They were one of the first to reach the pinnacle 30 years ago, when they figured out the perfect combination of farming and retail,” he explains. After a fire several years ago, the farm is undergoing a transformation, but many locals remember them for the charming year-round farm store, which always displayed freshly baked pies for sale, among other goodies.
Those traditions will continue at the hands of Pasquale, Casey, Earth Care, and other local farms that are cultivating an ethos that genuinely connects to customers and the local community in fun and tasty ways.
Find additional information about each place mentioned in this article.
Earth Care Farm
Rhode Island Farm Incubator
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