By RUDI HEMPE
CELS News Editor and Reporter
When it comes to farming, the perception is that Rhode Island’s role in the whole national agricultural picture is consistent with its geographical size—tiny.
After all, according to the United States department of Agriculture, the state lost half its farmland between 1960 and 2000, most of it converted to housing and commercial development, as farming families benefited from the sale of valuable property they once tilled. our supermarket shelves and coolers contain produce that once was grown here but is now more easily and cheaply grown elsewhere.
Some of that is valid—farming here has been going downhill for some time—but don’t count out Rhode Island agriculture yet.
In many areas of the state, and especially at the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS), the brakes are being applied through new programs, an infusion of money, a proliferation of innovation and a mood of optimism fueled by a rising awareness and appreciation of locally grown foods.
RHODY FRESH MILK is widely regarded as a symbol of the revitalization of agriculture in Rhode Island and one of the principals in the cooperative is Joseph Dutra of Wanton Farm in Jamestown. The 140-acre farm is one of five in the cooperative and now that it is a success, other dairy farmers want to get involved. Dutra is a firm believer that increasing farm viability is a must in the state otherwise all could be lost once his son, Joey, three years old, comes of age.
"We have close to 900 farms and one million people and they need to be connected,” says Kenneth Ayars, a URI grad who has been chief of the state Division of Agriculture for the last eight years.
Numerous visits and interviews around the state indicate that a connection is beginning to form. And no doubt the most visible proof of the connection appears daily in grocery store coolers around the state—the blue and white Rhody Fresh milk cartons.
About two years ago, a small group of dairy farmers banded together into a cooperative and with a slick marketing campaign launched the most exciting thing in Rhode Island agriculture since the Rhode Island Red.
The milk, from five Rhode Island farms, is shipped daily to a processing plant in Connecticut and brought back within hours. Text on the milk cartons feature the member farms on a rotating basis, consumers report they like the taste and the long shelf-life of the product and the cooperative has now branched out to gallon containers, quarts and half-and-half. Rhody Fresh is a genuine success.
"Rhody Fresh milk has provided the beacon” says Ayars, noting that the idea of marketing fresh local food has inspired others around the state to explore other possibilities such as local beef and other meats, cheeses and even wool.
Ayars is among those who feel the excitement that is building up around agriculture in the state.
Indeed, while huge amounts of farmland were lost throughout the state to housing and other types of development in the decades following World War II, the tide has been stemmed, Ayars believes. He notes the overwhelming approval at the polls when voters are asked to approve funding for farmland and open space preservation.
In 1980, the Farm, Forest and Open Space Act provided the means for open space and farmland preservation, taking a cue from towns like North Kingstown which pioneered land preservation methods on a local scale.
"Now we have 40 land trusts in the state,” notes Ayars, recognizing grassroots support for land preservation. "It’s a classic situation that when things become rare, they become more valuable.”
The state has about $3-4 million a year for protecting land and currently there are about 35 farms on the waiting list for selling their development rights.
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