R.I. Works Toward Agricultural Sustainability

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

In the early 1940s, Rhode Island had some 300,000 acres of arable farmland, but since the middle of that war-torn decade, the Ocean State has lost about 80 percent of its agricultural space to real estate development.

Today, Rhode Island has roughly 65,000 acres of food-producing farmland, according to Rupert Friday, director of the Rhode Island Land Trust.

“We’ve lost so much of our farmland to development,” he said. “Farms are such a part of our fabric in Rhode Island. It was our way of life for generations.”

That way of life is slowly returning.

Witness the rise in community-supported agriculture programs, the heightened interest in urban and school gardening and the growing popularity of farmers’ markets.

“People want to grow food,” said Leo Pollock, education director for the Southside Community Land Trust. “It’s not a hobby for these people; they’re feeding their families with these gardens.”

In the past 25 years, the South Providence nonprofit has transformed nearly 5 acres of degraded vacant lots overgrown with weeds, littered with broken glass and tires and soil polluted with heavy metals into community gardens. Its three-quarters-of-an-acre City Farm provides food and flowers for local farmers’ markets, grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops and food pantries.

During the past decade, the nationwide emergence of a local food movement has brought increased attention to such programs. The Southside Community Land Trust now boasts a farm operation on 50 preserved acres in Cranston, has established the Broad Street Farmers’ Market and has helped 15 schools plant their own gardens and start garden clubs.

South Providence’s agriculturally savvy Hmong population, for example, grows a type of bitter melon, Asian eggplant and pumpkin that are hard to find anywhere else in the United States.

“People are producing food, they’re part of a garden, part of a community, and that is a powerful concept,” Pollock said.

It’s a concept that is being embraced across Rhode Island, and across the country.

Rising fuel prices, declining petroleum reserves, mounting concerns about climate change and health problems associated with diets rich in processed foods, has produced a swell of interest in eating locally grown and raised food. This trend toward localized food is reflected in the recent rise in the number of farms in the United States, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Since 2002, the number of farms in the United States has increased by about 4 percent to nearly 2.5 million, according to the Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization.

The quickly gaining-steam local food movement is beginning to reverse a century-long trend of farm consolidation. A mass industrial approach to farming, coupled with substantial government subsidies, put the production of America’s food into the control of mega-sized cattle, dairy, hog and poultry operations and massive agricultural conglomerates.

The mechanized farming of food corporations brought with it increased chemical use and government policies that favored maximizing production. It crippled many rural communities.

While this transformation in U.S. food production, which began in earnest shortly after World War II, resulted in many positive changes, it also forced lots of family farms to sell part or all of their land to developers, led to topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination and a substantial carbon footprint.

Since 1985, activists, environmentalists and land trusts have helped protect 81 Rhode Island farms and 6,232 acres of productive farmland, according to the Southside Community Land Trust.

This effort to become more agriculturally sustainable, and, thus, more environmentally friendly, doesn’t come without significant challenges, especially in the wake of a sputtering economy and the state’s high cost for land. Rhode Island has the second-highest farmland prices in the Northeast, an average of $12,000 an acre, according to the Southside Community Land Trust. The national average price of farmland is $2,350 an acre.

“It’s about how to protect what farmland is left in the state and how to keep it an active, productive farm instead of becoming a hobby farm,” Friday said. “There’s lots of farmers willing to protect their land but there’s not enough money to buy all of these development rights.”

In the past two decades, however, farmers’ markets, which largely had been replaced by chain supermarkets and food brokers, have regained their popularity. Increased demand in Rhode Island has allowed the Coastal Growers Market and Farm Fresh to run wintertime farmers’ markets in North Kingstown and Pawtucket, respectively.

In fact, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has increased from 1,755 in 1994 to nearly 5,000 today, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Small family farms have redeveloped niches in local communities and within local food systems, often selling directly to grocery store owners and/or individual consumers. More and more restaurants, such as the Garden Grille Café in Pawtucket and La Laiterie at Farmstead and Local 121, both in Providence, are emphasizing locally grown food on their menus. That’s welcome news to Rhode Island’s 600 or so working farms.

And as concern for the environment grows — 60 percent of American children say they are more afraid of global warming than of terrorism, car accidents or cancer, according to a recent survey administered by BrainPop to 1,000 middle-school students across the country — future generations likely will prefer food that isn’t mass shipped via planes, trains and trucks.