Apprentice Program Grows Food and Community

By LEIGH VINCOLA/ecoRI News contributor

David Kuma, left, is learning to farm under the tutelage of Ben Torpey. (Leigh Vincola/ecoRI News)

David Kuma, left, is learning to farm under the tutelage of Ben Torpey. (Leigh Vincola/ecoRI News)

CRANSTON, R.I. — David Kuma set out to grow more of his own food as he learned about industrial agriculture and all of its poisons. His father, a biologist, always had a garden growing up, so an innate knowledge of plants followed his curiosity.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., raised partially in rural Illinois and then in Attleboro, Mass., Kuma understands urban, rural and suburban lifestyles and how plants can fit into each.

Today, Kuma is one of three participants in the Southside Community Land Trust’s (SCLT) farm apprentice program for the socially disadvantaged. Acknowledging that it has been historically difficult for minority populations to enter into commercial growing, the program’s mission is to provide organic farming experience and education to those who are interested.

Kuma is partnered with Ben Torpey at Scratch Farm, a small-scale, chemical-free operation at Urban Edge Farm. Urban Edge is a state-owned, 50-acre piece of land managed by SCLT, where seven separate farms grow and share resources. The farm was established to give new farmers access to land and a community to learn from. As part of his paid apprenticeship, Kuma spends a full day on the farm two days a week and is learning a lot quickly.

The pace of any farm in spring is hectic, planning and planting for the season to come. Kuma has already picked up more than he thought possible, and knows this is just the beginning. From transplanting and cover crops to solarizing and low-till cultivation, Kuma is learning what it takes to run a small-scale farm naturally. His eyes have been opened to the importance of soil health.

“There’s a lot more to it than putting seeds in the ground,” he said.

For Torpey, having an apprentice is rewarding.

“Dave comes with a intuitive sense of plant biology and his curiosity reminds me that what we’re doing is fun,” Torpey said. “It encourages me to experiment with new things.”

As one on the oldest farms at Urban Edge, Torpey feels a responsibility to get new farmers out on the land and to help them succeed. Over the years, he has seen several farms start out, some have succeed and others have not. It’s been a while since there has been anyone new, and Torpey is committed to helping new farmers take root.

With only two days a week it’s a challenge to expose Kuma to big-picture farm operations, but they are making the best out of the time that they have. Kuma recently did his first community-supported agriculture (CSA) pickup and will soon be getting out on restaurant deliveries, developing his own relationships with chefs. Scratch Farm’s CSA and restaurant wholesale accounts are the heart of the business.

When asked if his goal was to start his own farm, Kuma was enthusiastic. He’s realistic though, understanding that he still has a lot to learn.

“You have to be organized; think very long term,” he said.

He definitely is in the right place. Kuma is surrounded by experienced farmers who are willing to share their knowledge and who are pulling for his success.

SCLT is currently clearing a plot of land for new farmers. Hopefully, Kuma will be one of them in a few years.