It is not surprising, to anyone who reflects on the matter, that the Ocean State should have the most expensive land prices in the country. Averaging $13,800 per acre, Rhode Island is comfortably ahead of New Jersey’s $13,000 average price.
Much of the state is either on or within sight of the ocean, driving up prices. Urbanization is also strong there. It shares with only one state, again New Jersey, the distinction of having more than 1000 residents per square mile. And only New Jersey and the District of Columbia equal its percentage of area in metropolitan districts — 100%.
Pat McNiff, who raises cattle, pigs, layers, ducks and has a small garden on leased Ocean State land in East Greenwich under the name Pat’s Pastured, puts it succinctly: “There is no affordable private land in this state anymore. What there is of new farmers is either in the city on public land, or on a land trust piece.”
In Rhode Island the purchase of development rights, a measure designed to prevent land from being developed and keeping prices affordable for farming, may have met its limit. Pat lost the leased 50 acre “development protected” farm he was on when it was offered for sale at 7.5 million dollars.
“There are people,” he asserts, “who will buy that and put a couple horses on it. It is a nice coastal property. Real pretty. They’ll mow it, sell the hay and just look at it. There are no crops that I can raise which are legal that will let me write a note for 7.5 million dollars!”
It was this inflation of land prices, and the inability of a development rights purchase mechanism alone to counter that inflation’s impact on farming, which initially motivated a couple of prescient and strategically placed state administrators to take action.
In 2002 Ken Ayars, chief of the RI Division of Agriculture and Bob Sutton, Division of Development and Planning chief, bought Rhode Island a 50 acre farm on the outskirts of Cranston, a 30 square mile city with over 80,000 residents – the 3rd largest in the state.
“We bought it to own,” stressed Ken, “not just to protect. For awhile we had felt the need for better land access for farmers at DEM (Department of Environmental Management). The idea was to buy a farm with the idea of making space there for farmers to farm it who didn’t have access to land. The DEM had existing programs to buy land for state management in all sorts of areas, and we determined that we had the authority at our level to try this out.
“We sensed,” he continues, “that this was where we needed to go in terms of finding space for farmers in Rhode Island, based on the significant population in Rhode Island, many of whom have agricultural backgrounds, as well as the young farmers you see right here who are starting to come up through the system and are having trouble accessing land. The thought was it would be an incubator space and you, as a farmer, would eventually move on.”
Incubators are places where farmers can get experience with running proprietary farms without having lots of money to invest. The land is owned by a larger mission-based body, as well as many infrastructure pieces – greenhouses, walk-in coolers, sheds, irrigation and washing systems, heavy equipment – which are rented to the farmers on an as-used basis. In the 1980s forward-looking Vermonters had established the Intervale, one of the first farm incubators in the country.
There was not a lot of viable infrastructure at the Rhode Island farm, however, and the state was not in a good position to provide it. What was needed was a non-profit group that could lease the farm from the state, fix it up with money put together from foundations and other donors, and lease it to farmers, staffing the operation to make sure the farmers didn’t encounter huge barriers.
“We decided,” explains Ayars, “that the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) was the best choice. We came to an agreement and rented it to them for $1 a year, with a 20 year lease. It was a big experiment for both of us. I think it has turned out as good as we hoped it would. But there was a heck of a lot of evolution!”
McNiff, SCLT program director at the time of the purchase, was actively involve in that evolution.
“This was part of my masters thesis while I was at SCLT,” he says. “The division came to us with this and I visited the Intervale and other sites that were trying out these ideas. We had people at our community gardens wanting to get bigger and bigger, and we had the idea that we could create market garden spaces where they could move. So when we heard about this it was a good fit.”
McNiff recalls that NOFA/RI’s Mike and Polly Hutchison did an assessment of the land at the time of the purchase. According to him they said “Only folks from an urban organic farming organization could look at the place and see the potential in it. They can see the potential in an urban vacant lot!”
“This place,” he goes on, “was in really rough shape. It was a dairy farm, but was all in brush the size of trees and boulders the size of cars. They also killed turkeys here and slaughtered beef cattle for the Hmong community (a Southeast Asian group which has settled in Rhode Island).”
SCLT started raising money to clean the place up and build the needed infrastructure. During the first ten years of the program the land trust wrote about a million dollars in grants to make the farm suitable, extimates Christina Dedora, a farmer at UEF who worked for SCLT at the time.
“All the money for rock removal, greenhouses, equipment and farm renovation at Urban Edge,” recalls McNiff, “was all a grant by a private foundation that gives grants for capital improvements. That was a big chunk of change. Two other big sources for programming at the beginning were Rhode Island Foundation and some USDA grants we got. All those programs combined helped a lot. Over the years the place has grown up a lot. We had a lot of help from the Americorps, too. They would come our here and cut brush. I think we took out 30 dumpsters full of trash. The first year and a half was about brush-clearing!”
Having seven businesses on one property means there is a lot of activity at Urban Edge Farm, often seven days a week, often after dark. I met with some of the farmers running those businesses in January.
Choua Xiong, along with his brother George and sister-in-law Chang, were among the initial farmers selected for Urban Edge. They work in the evening, after they get off their regular jobs.
“I have been here from 2003”, he says. “I am Hmong and I grow vegetables which are popular for them –Asian vegetables grow well here if we grow the short season ones, not the long season ones. We have a small rice paddy up on our land, just for us. My wife says she enjoys that we are growing our own vegetables — she doesn’t care if we make money or not!”
Christina Dedora operates Blue Sky Farm, which leases two fields for a small CSA and an herbal and flower business. Originally there was a collective CSA at Urban Edge, but that broke into individual ones. Currently there are 4 CSAs on the property.
“I’ve been here for ten years,” she confides. “I had farmed in Massachusetts for a number of years, got into debt, gave it up and got out of debt, came back home, and saw this blurb in the paper asking ‘do you want to be a farmer?’ My full time job was working in Boston. But the commute was too much. So I got a job at the land trust as the director of operations. Because I was also a farmer here I had a little bit easier time.
“When I came here,” she continues, “it was amazing. You have access to land, deer fencing, irrigation, tractors, a community that was working together. I don’t think I would do things differently if I owned the land. I turned 50 this year and my energy is for this farm now. I don’t think I would like to start a new one, even if I owned the land. I’ll probably stay here until I stop farming.
John Kenney, who runs Big Train Farm, has been a certified organic grower since 2012. Some of his produce is sold to restaurants, grocers, and private customers as far away as Massachusetts and he finds they care whether or not it is certified. Even members of his CSA prefer certification, he says. John will be leaving Urban Edge shortly and buying his own 11 acre parcel with a line of credit from the Farm Services Agency.
“I have worked out a business plan with them,” he says, “that shows I can pay off the loan farming. Some of their loans have a low interest rate because they are for beginner farmers, which I am. I don’t think they count the years you are farming for other people, which is nice.
“My fiancé and I talked about moving out of state,” he admits. “But the idea of changing our markets so much was impossible financially. If I were to move somewhere I didn’t have a reliable market it would be hard. I built my business up stone by stone over years. If I tried to do it suddenly elsewhere, where other farmers are already selling, it would be hard financially. So I’d have to go and become a lumberjack for a couple of years. To make a smooth transition Urban Edge Farm has been critical.”
Ben Torpey runs Scratch Farm on two acres at Urban Edge. This is his fifth season there.
“I had a job in the city,” he relates, “but this opportunity came up and I quit my job to farm. I was doing adult education and not making all that much money. So going back to farming wasn’t too bad. Right now we gross $100,000 on two acres. You can make a living on that.”
In 2016 Ben is hiring on two workers at $10 per hour who had apprenticed for him in 2015. He figures his labor bill will go up, but he has grown the CSA from 80 to 120 members in the last 3 years and can afford it. He markets to restaurants in Providence as well as through the CSA and has no trouble selling whatever he grows. He tries to keep the prices affordable, even so.
“We sell on a sliding scale,” he says, “with a mid range of $500 for a half share and $750 for a full. But people can pay whatever they can afford within the range. It goes 25 weeks. We can do that because the soil has gotten better. We have been investing in the soil, putting down lots of compost each year. We work 40 to 42 hours a week, even at the peak of the season. That is a value we have kept important.”
Over the last 2 years Torpey has also started to sell seeds. The business grew out of saving his best adapted seeds for farm reasons, as well as being a passion for him.
“It has been a one-farm operation so far,” he says, “but we are thinking of collaborating with other farms on it. Different locations could help by isolating pollination. The brand is Small State Seeds — we think we can get seeds that are better adapted for our location. There is a strong winter market and people want to buy local here. I think people would like to buy local seeds for their gardens.”
Ben dropped organic certification a few years ago because his markets were all personal and he didn’t need to be certified. But now he is thinking of picking it back up because it would help with selling the seeds.
Although Urban Edge Farm is 50 acres in size, only about 35 of those are open and in sandy loam fields. The rest is wet, not accessible or needs work. All farming at Urban Edge needs to follow organic practices. One of the primary attractions there is the wealth of infrastructure. The farmers share a large propagation hoophouse, a barn with walk-in cooler, an irrigation pond with diesel pump and lines piped to hydrants in all the fields, a large tractor with bucket and many implements, and a tall fence protecting the fields from deer. The farmers do the simpler maintenance and repairs cooperatively, and pay for these services on an as-used basis.
“I pay about $1500 per year for everything,” explains Christina, “the hours I use the tractor, the square footage I use in the greenhouse, and the land fee. There is also an irrigation fee, and a rental fee for the barn. We all record our usage in a log. We have worked it out so that those who don’t drive tractors can be taught to do so by people who drive them. We got a grant to pay them. Or if I drive tractor for Chang for an hour, I get a free hour. That is comparable for us all.
“John has chickens so he uses a tractor more,” she continues. I’m trying to do a field no-till, so I use it less. I do cut flowers and herbs, so I don’t use the tractor for those, either. A few years ago there was a five thousand dollar expense for tractor repair, but this year we had minimal costs. We try to make sure that our fees are high enough so the money is there to get the repairs we need.”
For a while the land trust went through a lean period and cut back on staff at the farm. So the fees were less, based on the farmers doing a lot of the work rather than hired staff. But now SCLT is reaching out more and getting more involved, so they may be bringing more people out to the farm.
One other benefit of the collegial nature of Urban Edge Farm is the capacity of farmers to learn from each other. Ben, for instance, has learned from other farmers there to prepare his beds with a heavy mulch of leaves — but no tillage.
“We do a lot of use of agricultural tarps,” he says, “to cover the land for primary tillage. That way we’re not inverting the soil. We add compost and use a cultivator in the top two inches after that to finish the bed. We also use cover crops, and the tarps kill them. Our weed pressure has gone way down. We have also done broadcasting of spring carrots. I did a broadcast bed and a regular one. The broadcast one was wonderful. I’ve been very skeptical of this but I get it and I want to go there. The fungi are doing it because we’re not doing the wrong thing!”
The tarps Torpey uses are made of woven black landscape fabric. He hates to use so much plastic, but reasons it lasts maybe 8 years and much of it is already recycled. He gets leaves from landscapers for free.
“The leaf guy comes to dump,” Ben laughs, “and I just feel he is dumping a big pile of money on my land. He’s my favorite guy to see! And he say’s “thank you”. He has a big truck with high sides and a big blower. There is a shredder in his truck, so he can compress them. These are dense loads. We’re in the suburbs and people don’t want their leaves. It’s great!
“The no till thing has gotten easier for us,” he concludes. “We see a lot more aggregation in our soil now. I don’t need to use as much water as I used to. That is another advantage of being here, among other farmers. I learn faster.”
For the state of Rhode Island, Urban Edge Farm is a success.
“For us, this is a phenomenal result,” says Ken Ayars. “It is what we wanted to happen. We need more of it. If we had it to do over again I would do it, and get more land! But back when we started there were not a lot of farmers coming through who were trained and ready to start out on their own. A lot of programs have come onboard to make that happen.”
To protect the state there is a carefully worded lease agreement to give farmers the leeway to do what they need to do while keeping the land in agriculture. But the arrangement has some problems for the farmers.
For one, there is no potable water supply there, which means efforts to do most food processing are limited. Christina has developed a drying room in the barn for her herbs, but without the possibility of a commercial kitchen, most value-added products are not feasible.
For another, the state is sensitive to charges that they are competing with private agriculture.
When I was first coming out here,” Pat recalls, “there were complaints from other farmers that: ‘Oh, you are going to subsidize these people and we are going to have to compete with them. You are building them greenhouses…” Our point was that ‘Yes, but they are paying for them. They are not getting them for free.’ The underlying part of this is that everyone gets a leg up in agriculture in some way. Very few people come from absolutely nothing. This is a way to get them a leg up and see how they can do then. No one is making millions out here.”
“The thing that was important for us,” adds Ken, “is that this needs to be real life. You may be only farming 2 acres, but the costs associated with those 2 acres have to be proper. You have to pay market value for what you are getting – the land, the equipment, the greenhouse space. The land trust gets grants but they in turn charge rents and fees for the use of the improvements. It is meant to be replicating a real life environment. It has to be that way so the transition can be workable.”
Another worry about competition centered around the fact that RI Central landfill is just 2 miles down the road. They collect leaves from all the landscapers and charge $20 a load as a tipping fee. But the farmers want the leaves for leaf mulch. Several people at the land trust got the idea that if they could put the word out to collect the leaves and charge just $10 a load, they could build a business that would make money and support more programming.
“But,” cautions Ayars, “we are trying to find the line to draw for what are green activities. The land trust is thinking about revenue streams and the farmers are thinking about getting access to compost. But we said we didn’t think that was appropriate here because you are adding in a non-agricultural activity. There are other ideas like that.”
One other problem clouds the sparkle of farming incubators generally, and Urban Edge Farm is no exception. That problem is the one of a farmer’s long term relationship to the farm. This problem really has two faces: security while on-farm and capacity to transition or move off-farm.
The security issue comes when the overall lease for the farm, from the public to the non-profit, is nearing its end.
Ken lays out the needs of the state clearly: “We can’t have a farmer lease span our lease to the land trust or other middleman. The overall lease is meant to start and stop the whole process. The obstacle for us with “evergreen” or “rolling leases” which automatically renew if no one objects is that we can’t, by state law, give a lease beyond 20 years. No one can in the state. And since we don’t want to be in the position of kicking a farmer off the land we have to require that our tenants abide by that limit in their subleases. The state property committee is the group that has to approve all our land deals. That is made up of individuals who change and who knows in 20 years whether they will have the same perspective they do now. Our goal is to not have to go back to them except every 20 years.”
McNiff agrees that the passage of time changes people’s views, and says farmers worry about that too.
“The hardest thing,” he says, “about getting involved in these lease agreements are the ownership/control issues that are involved. Ken is a great leader and a very easy person to work with. We never doubted him or Bob Sutton. But when administrations change, you do wonder what else will change. Will attitudes change? In our state, unlike Massachusetts, Ken’s job is not an appointed one. So that protects us somewhat as farmers for however many administrations you go through in 30 years! But my business is my life and I need to know what is going to happen.”
“The big downside of planning a business for the long term,” he continues, “is that in year 19 of the state lease farmers can’t get more than a one year lease. That is a significant risk, and an incentive to plan for moving on. We have a great state for marketability of produce, but a horrible state for affordability of farmland. Vermont has plenty of affordable land. That is the missing piece in our state. For sustainability of an agricultural community, ownership is important. It gives you more stability. Without it, you pull your punches when investing in the land.”
The moving on part is problematic, however, because land prices are so high. Incubators are envisioned as a place where someone can farm four or five years and then buy their own land.
But, as Pat puts it: “The rising market raised a lot of boats over the last few years. I think the biggest challenge for a project like this is the next steps. The idea of an incubator is to get you started and then you move on. But we haven’t got that moving on business down yet. We need more policies which make land available to farmers at reasonable prices. It is happening slowly, as John and Michelle (another Urban Edge farmer who is moving on) have found out by buying their own farms. But it is not easy. And neither of them have actually left yet!”
Because of these private land prices, and the attractiveness of continuing on at Urban Edge, some question whether an incubator is really a good way to encourage a continuing stream of new farmers.
“I’d like to put in a word for the idea,” Ben interjects, “that an incubator model is not a good idea in terms of farms. I know there are a lot of people at the Intervale who have not left, are not going to leave, and serve as the anchors of that community. And if we are talking about building soil, I think it is a bad idea, unless something changes, to ask someone to invest in soil for five years and then walk away. Transitioning farms from one location to another can be very destabilizing. I think John and Michele are very wise to be taking it slow.”
“It is an interesting question,” he continues, “whether this is the most efficient use of state money. Is it better to buy up the development rights on individual parcels so I can buy a scrubby field and gradually be making it my own, or is it better to set up something like this on one piece of land and bring the funding to it?”
“That is exactly what we think about,” Ken answers. “We did the bond issue for purchasing development rights, but after 30 years of land protection not a lot of land was actually transferring to young farmers. So this was in part a response to that. But the biggest issue for us is making sure that farmers have access to land. There is a great culture in RI about farming and local food. That often keeps people here. So we need to marry that with land access.”
As agricultural programs go, Urban Edge Farm — and even the idea of farm incubators – is relatively new. Both parties to the lease, the state and the land trust, want to help farmers and are continuing to move in new directions. Some, to circumvent the land price issue, may encourage farming on smaller plots, raising more intensive crops.
“Right now,” says Rob Booz, SCLT staffer, “we are working to identify recent refugees who want to be farmers. That has a lot to do with USDA funds and who they want to target — there is money in their pot for training people for farming. I don’t think that will involve giving people two acres right off the bat, but maybe quarter acre plots. A lot of our growers are coming from urban plots. You can have pest pressure and soil fertility issues you don’t have in the city when you move out here.”
Ben agrees that perhaps doing more on less is an answer to Rhode Island’s farm access problem: “Some people leave here because they feel it is not enough land to make a living on. But when you are land limited you start thinking of how to do a better job on what you have. It is inspiring!”