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Expanding the market for locally grown, specialty produce

Besides offering technical training and affordable land to beginning farmers, in 2017, SCLT pooled immigrant and refugee farmers’ produce and sold it directly to wholesale markets, enabling farmers to add to their skills and reinvest in their businesses.

Urban farmer Miatta Cooper with collard greens she grew at Galego Community Farm in Pawtucket.

While more and more people want to eat locally grown produce, and the state has ambitious goals for feeding itself, becoming a new farmer in Rhode Island continues to challenge all but the most ambitious growers.

Learning how to grow food in volume – especially without chemical fertilizers and pesticides – requires a lot of knowledge and practice. Another hurdle is that farmland is extremely expensive in our densely populated state. On top of all that, earning an income that adequately compensates farmers for their time and financial investment can be especially difficult.

Despite this, SCLT has trained several local farmers over the years who now have successful businesses in Rhode Island. In the last three years we’ve ramped up our efforts to support beginning farmers by increasing the number of paid farm apprenticeships and developing a robust training program (funded through various USDA programs). We’re also working with the State of Rhode Island, Land for Good, the Rhode Island Land Trust Council and others to help free up land for new farmers by matching them with available farm land.

Additionally, this past year we piloted a new project to help micro and small-scale farmers by aggregating their produce in order to sell to bigger markets (restaurants, CSAs and a mobile market). Among these were eight immigrant and refugee farmers from countries such as Liberia, the Dominican Republic and Laos, some of whom farm in addition to other day jobs. They grew on SCLT urban farms in Providence and Pawtucket, and at SCLT’s incubator farm in rural Cranston.

This direct wholesale model helped farmers mitigate the risks of relying solely on selling at farmers markets, where bad weather can keep customers away and they would lose a week’s worth of income. From June to September farmers brought their produce to our office, where it was assessed for quality, weighed and bagged for customers. In exchange,Being able to rely on this direct income from week to week meant farmers could put more time into planning and growing their farm businesses.

The aggregation project was funded by a USDA Specialty Crop Grant through the RI Department of Environmental Management. This grant allowed for in-field assistance to help farmers improve growing practices. It also provided for trainings on food safe harvesting and crop handling, quality control, product packaging and delivery procedures, and keeping records of sales through invoicing.

“We were funded to help make specialty crops more available, to connect beginning farmers with consumers and to develop a sustainable program,” said Craig Demi, SCLT’s special projects coordinator. “In the first year, farmers saw a significant increase in sales from their crops over the previous year and benefited from having a reliable source of income.

“It’s also been rewarding to see increasing demand for the African, Asian and other ethnic crops the farmers in our network grow,” he added.

These crops, such as sweet potato greens, molokhia, and Loa mustard greens and many varieties of annual herbs, were bought by restaurants like North and The Shop, as well as Food on the Move, a mobile market that brings healthy, affordable food into low-income neighborhoods, and Brown Market Shares, a CSA for the Brown University community.

Growing these farmers’ businesses has several positive impacts for Rhode Islanders on the whole. It provides paid work for people who have agricultural skills but might lack job prospects, encourages them to interact with others across cultural lines and expands the number of businesses that provide fresh, healthy and affordable, local food.

Looking ahead to next year, Craig says the farmers will take what they learned from the pilot and plant more of the highest-selling crops. He also envisions turning over the reins to one of the farmers themselves, in the model of previous SCLT-founded collaboratives like the Broad Street Collaborative, a group of Hmong farmers who now sell independently at Providence’s Broad Street Farmers Market.

SCLT also hopes to expand the number of participating restaurants and wholesale customers. So, watch for more locally grown produce on your plate or in your CSA share, some of which will be grown by your neighbors, on land that might even be in your community!

–Jenny Boone, Grants & Outreach Manager

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