By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A gloomy economy isn’t holding back Rhode Island farmers and food producers from growing their businesses.
During the annual Rhode Island Agriculture Day observance April 25 at the Statehouse, Department of Environmental Management (DEM) director Janet Coit called the local farming and food movement “the bright spot of the economy.”
Gov. Lincoln Chafee said, “During the downturn it was the ag sector that stayed strong and grew.”
Statistics confirming the growth in Rhode Island and across the country are expected later this year, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases a new census report. Other data shows small farms increasing across the country for the first time since the Great Depression. A younger segment of the population is choosing the local food movement as a career, according to Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston.
“This is something they want to get into," he said.
“The numbers are moving in the right direction. I’m more and more hopeful,” said Mike Ryan, 25, who started Mapleville Farm in Burrillville with his three siblings in 2010. The neighborhood farm/bakery grows many of the ingredients for its bread, baked goods and preserves.
Mapleville Farm is one of Rhode Island’s 1,219 farms. In all, the local agriculture and food sector has 13,000 employees and generates $1.78 billion in annual revenue.
The local seafood sector hopes to achieve the same success. The Rhode Island fishing and seafood industry employs about 5,000 and generates $150 million in annual sales. To help promote the state Seafood Marketing Collaborative, the DEM launched a new website.
The collaborative aims to increase local seafood sales. In-state sales generate more profits due to the reduction of middlemen. Shoppers also get to know the fishermen and the fish and shellfish they offer. The website teaches consumers about the seasonality of local seafood, where to buy it and how to prepare it.
Joe Blum of the Local Catch, a network of local fishermen who sell to local markets and directly to consumers, said the local model has grown during the past three years. “I think to sustain fishing on a small scale this is the way to do it,” he said.
Blum was one of 50 seafood and farm vendors offering samples and literature at the recent event. The program also recognized and honored the Rhode Island Fruit Growers Association for celebrating its 100th anniversary.