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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Helping farmers to survive and thrive

Land prices, labor issues make farming challenging in RI
Andy Radin (on ladder)
At a meeting at the University of Rhode Island agronomy farm,
URI Extension Agent Andy Radin (on ladder) teaches local farmers
about a trellis system for growing tomatoes. (Photo by Heather Faubert)
Farming in Rhode Island is a challenging career choice, especially for those just entering the industry, but many farmers are still succeeding thanks to creative marketing and youthful energy.

That’s the message from Heather Faubert and Andy Radin, research associates at the University of Rhode Island’s Cooperative Extension, who serve as consultants to local farmers on a wide variety of issues. 

They were responding to recent reports that Cottrell Homestead Dairy Farm in South Kingstown was selling its cows, leaving just eight dairy farms left in the state – down from 400 in the 1950s.

“Dairy does not represent all of farming in Rhode Island,” said Radin. “Dairy is 365-days a year, 24-hours a day, and you’re completely subject to the whims of the incredibly complex price support system. Right now, it’s costing them more to produce their milk than what they get paid, and only the biggest operations have a profit margin.”

That does not mean that farmers raising other livestock or growing crops cannot make a go of it, he added. But it isn’t easy.

The biggest challenge, according to Faubert and Radin, is land prices. Developers are offering high prices to farmers to turn their farmland into residential and commercial developments. As a result, usable farmland has declined at a significant rate in recent decades.

“And lately there’s been a land rush on for putting up solar panels on farmland,” Radin said. “If you’re a farmer and looking purely at the bottom line and a solar developer comes knocking on your door and offers you a much higher profit per acre than vegetables, that would be a tempting offer.”

Not all farmers are facing this issue on equal footing, however. Large family farms that go back several generations – some of which may have sold a few acres to developers years ago to bolster the family income – are likely doing much better than the new generation of young farmers who are renting land to raise their crops.

“Those family farms are already starting on third base,” Radin said. “The newer guys are often in a situation of uncertainty in terms of how long they can keep using their rented land.”

Farmers also face significant labor issues.

“Most farmers have a hard time finding people who don’t mind working hard,” Faubert said. “They pay above the minimum wage, but they can’t find enough people to do the work. People often come in, work a half a day and quit.

“And because Rhode Island farms are typically small and diversified, they don’t often have the big farm equipment that will make some of the work easier. They can’t afford that equipment for their small acreage. So everything has to be done by hand, making it more labor intensive,” she added.

The URI extension agents said that one way to overcome these challenges is to employ a variety of creative marketing formulas to find new markets for farm products and additional uses for farmland. 

Agritourism, like corn mazes, petting zoos and hayrides, is growing in popularity as a way of bringing people to local farms, for instance. 

Farms are also more successful when they combine wholesaling to restaurants with retail sales at farmers’ markets and farmstands. And many farmstands are now offering prepared foods as well as fresh produce.

Faubert and Radin advise most of the farmers in Rhode Island on such topics as pest management, plant diseases, crop selection, management practices, and other issues. They also conduct research to address production issues local farmers often face.

“I focus a lot of my research on tomatoes, because very few vegetable farmers in Rhode Island don’t grow tomatoes,” Radin said. “Advancing knowledge of tomato production is always going to be useful here.”

Faubert spends half of her time identifying pest insects and plant diseases and advising farmers how to eradicate them. Both respond to farmer questions and visit farms to offer assistance, with Radin focusing primarily on vegetable growers and Faubert focusing on fruit growers.

“Most farmers want to be farmers. They love that they’re their own boss, that they’re building something very tangible, they’re good stewards of the land and they’re proud of that,” Faubert said. 

“I learned my work ethic from being with farmers. What I want most is for them to be successful.”
What does the future hold for Rhode Island’s farmers?

As long as farmers continue to be creative, Faubert and Radin said the outlook is mostly positive.
“There are many people interested in pursuing this kind of a livelihood – young people for the most part, college educated, and they’re motivated by some idealism and there is energy in that idealism,” said Radin. 

“It takes a lot of energy to do this, and because those are the kind of people going into it, there’s a good fuel to make things happen and to succeed, understanding that the definition of success can vary.”

He is also optimistic about the growing trend of what he calls “modern indoor non-soil-based crops” like mushrooms and microgreens, though whether those operations are sustainable in Rhode Island is still uncertain.

“On the other hand, the average age of Rhode Island farmers is relatively high, and not all of them have another generation poised to take over their farms,” Radin added. “Those farmers tend to be land rich and cash poor. Many of them look at the land and say ‘there’s the money.’ The relentless march to development is scary.”