This story is part of our series “Rising Tide” about how – or whether - Rhode Islanders are emerging from the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. The question we’re asking is: Does a rising tide really lift all boats, or are some Rhode Islanders still being left behind?
Many small farms and farmers struggled to survive during the Great Depression, but how did they fare in the Great Recession? In this installment of our series Rising Tide, Rhode Island Public Radio's environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza visits a family farm in Little Compton to learn how they made it through one of the worst downturns since the 1930's, and how they're doing now.
Skip Paul putters around in one of his greenhouses at Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton. He owns this 62-acre farm with his wife and son. He’s sealed off the bottom of a long, wooden shelf with plastic. Paul rolls it up to reveal a bunch of tomato seedlings.
“This is called the recovery room,” he said. “We’re looking into this little dark box we’ve built where the temperature is about 80 degrees.”
The tomatoes are recovering from a process called grafting. Paul does it by making a slice on each of the tomato plants and wrapping them together where they were cut. This technique combines the plants to improve flavor and protect against disease
“And so this is the first stage of its recovery after that guillotined [chuckles] technique, and so that’s what we’re looking at right now,” he explains.
Unlike these tomato plants, Paul’s farm hasn’t had to do any recovery despite the recession. He said business has remained steady thanks in part to a strong local food culture in Rhode Island and a growing market for organic food more generally.
Paul is also known as a tinkerer with farming methods. He uses a system of greenhouses that produces more food into the winter.
“We build greenhouses inside greenhouses,” he said. “So the greenhouse that we own—the big greenhouse—is one cover, and then inside that we build two other covers, [and] build progressively smaller [green] houses.”
It takes work to set up, but they’ll trap more heat from the sun in the winter time, cutting down electricity costs and extending the growing season.
Unlike the Great Depression, when many farmers lost everything, Paul and other farmers in this region were relatively insulated from the recession. Paul thinks the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the droughts out west have helped reinforce interest in supporting locally-grown food. And Wishing Stone Farm has been at it since 1981.
“I think we’re pretty fortunate having been at it for 30 years,” said Paul.
Paul thinks that longevity is a big reason his farm has been resilient to the economy’s ebbs and flows.
“From where we sit to the markets we go to in Providence, we’re mostly dealing with local people … I’m now selling to, you know, people’s grandchildren that used to come to us.”
Despite his success, and despite recent improvements in the economy, Paul noticed business turned down a little even as recently as last summer. Sales took a small dip at local farmer’s markets, and Paul spoke to other farmers in the region who saw similar drops.
The problem is not lagging interest. Paul thinks it’s due to a mini boom in local farming. “…Seems like there's been a lot of young people (which is great!) [who] are getting into farming,” said Paul. “But that means that it’s kind of watering down the local farmer’s market scene.”
Luckily for Paul, the organics industry has also grown 20 percent nationally each year for the past seven to 10 years, according to industry experts. Most of what Paul grows on his farm is organic. About a third of the farm’s income comes from selling to Whole Foods Market.
“They put up so many new stores, that they can’t find enough produce to stock their stores with,” said Paul. Wherever we kind of find lack of sales on our direct basis at farmer’s markets, the slack seems to be taken by Whole Foods and some of the other businesses.”
Local nonprofit Farm Fresh Rhode Island has also helped. That nonprofit makes it easy for Paul and other farmers to sell to home cooks through a subscription program called community supported agriculture —or CSA. Farmers can also connect with restaurants on the organization’s website.
“When I put stuff on their website, I can sell to esoteric restaurants north of Boston all the way down to Stonington, Conn., because they will deliver it for us if we can get it to them,” said Paul. “So it’s an amazing program.”
Right above the shelf that Paul calls the “recovery room” sits a bowl full of black sunflower seeds that are just about to sprout.
He dips his hand to swirl the seeds around the bowl. “We’ll actually see a little white root come out about a quarter inch,” describes Paul. Eventually the sunflower seeds will grow a few inches of greens and then Paul will harvest them.
“We’ll cut them and put them in salads,” said Paul. “These are actually sunflower sprouts. They have an amazing, crunchy—I mean alfalfa sprouts and mung bean sprouts were popular for years, but the flavor in a sunflower sprout is twice as flavorful.”
He sells these trendy seedlings, known as microgreens, to local restaurants and farmer’s markets. The farm also produces more familiar specialty items like honey from its beehives and eggs from its pasture-fed hens.
Paul believes this is the best of times, and this is the worst of times for food. It’s easier than ever to get your hands on junk food. But Paul thinks there hasn’t been a better time to access good quality food than today. He's weathered the recession without major losses. So he'll keep growing and keep tinkering, hoping that innovation will continue to insulate his family farm from future ups and downs of the economy.
Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you: email@example.com.