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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Despite challenges, RI farming is growing

R.I. Ag Day Offers Good News, Big Numbers

By DAVE FISHER/ News staff

PROVIDENCE — “Every day is agriculture day in Rhode Island” is how state Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit kicked off the annual event April 26 at the Statehouse. But Agriculture Day 2012 truly was a special day for Rhode Island’s farmers and fishermen.

To begin the day, Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed into law the Local Farms and Seafood Act. This law will provide a framework for funding the growth of local farms and fishermen as businesses by creating a small grants and technical assistance program. 

The act also charges the DEM director with establishing and administering a program to promote the marketing of Rhode Island seafood and farm products grown and produced in the Ocean State to encourage the development of the state's commercial fishing and agricultural sectors.

A three-member interagency Food Policy Council has been established by the act, and it consists of representatives from the state departments of Health, Environmental Management and Administration who will examine issues regarding the development of a strong sustainable food economy and healthful nutrition practices.
“Rhode lsland’s green and blue economy are growing, and this law will continue to grow our outdoor green economy," Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown/Middletown, said.
Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-New Shoreham/South Kingstown, said the bill would "offer some protection to our state and regional food supply which are extremely important to the environmental and economic health of our state.”
While the farms and seafood act is a big deal, another major step forward for Rhode Island’s agricultural sector also was taken at Agriculture Day, with the release of the preliminary findings of the first Rhode Island Agriculture and Green Industry Economic Impact Study, conducted by the University of Rhode Island in partnership with DEM, the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association, the Rhode Island Turf Grass Foundation, the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership and the Economic Development Commission (EDC).
This study culled information from about 2,500 "green" businesses statewide, including farms, landscape professionals, arborists, lawn and garden centers, plant brokers, power equipment rental and sales, golf courses and masonry contractors.
The study was conducted by a group of URI students under the guidance of Tom Sproul, an agricultural economist recently added to the teaching staff at URI. Sproul, a University of California at Berkeley graduate and recent Rhode Island transplant, provided the statistical analysis of the surveys. The preliminary numbers produced through the analysis are quite striking.
The study showed that these some 2,500 businesses contributed 12,300 jobs to the state, and generated $1.7 billion to the local economy. That $1.7 billion represents nearly 3 percent of the state’s total economy.
“What made this study different than similar studies is that we did our best to actually count people and businesses,” Sproul said. "Rhode Island’s size made this type of survey possible.”
For many years, these businesses have been viewed by economists and economic development professionals as residing somewhat on the fringes of the state economy. But, "this study shows that these industries are a major economic driver for Rhode Island," Sproul said.
He stressed repeatedly during his presentation that "these are extremely conservative estimates. We rounded down and made sure that we weren’t double-counting any one person or business.”