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Rhode Island farmers share their Stories of the Land

Update: Rhode Island Monthly is releasing updates on the farmers who participated in this event showing how they’re managing amid COVID-19. Released updates include news from Walrus & Carpenter Oysters, Gnarly Vines, and Deep Roots Farm

The Young Farmer Network (YFN) celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. YFN is the Rhode Island partner in Phase 3 of LFG’s Land Access Project. As they have every growing season, this past year YFN hosted farm tours and farmer potlucks from May to October. This year’s YFN events had a particular focus on accessing farms and farmland: how Rhode Island farmers look for and get on land, their land tenure stability, and the compromises and strategies in their searches.

Though the annual series of farm tours ended with the growing season, YFN hosted a broader storytelling event, entitled Landing on the Right Acre, to celebrate their anniversary, and to bring together a slice of the agricultural community in the cold months. On January 30, the group convened a large crowd at Machines With Magnets—a recording studio and performance venue in Pawtucket, RI—to share food and drinks, and hear five farmers recount their journeys into agriculture through the lens of land. Via a survey, YFN also gathered feedback on its work thus far and how they might evolve moving forward.

The guests wait for the Rhode Island farmers to start telling their stories.

Event guests waiting patiently for the storytelling to begin.

No Two Stories Alike

The farmers’ stories were polished, sincere, funny, and engaging. YFN hired Michelle Walker to coach participants to make sure everyone had a well-structured and rehearsed story to tell. While not representative of the full gamut of Rhode Island agriculture, no two stories told that night were the same, so the event gave some insight into the breadth of land stories in the state, as well as the diversity of farmer personalities in the region.

  • Ester Bishop of Gnarly Vines described her pathway to land ownership, and why she moved to Rhode Island from the Boston area.
  • Cassius Spears of the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative spoke to the strength and difficulty of mobilizing lots of different people toward an expansive agricultural project. Ultimately he was disallowed from using the Narragansett land he thought he would get to use, but spoke to people’s ongoing support in the idea of the sovereignty project, and the different forms it may take in the future.
  • Jules Opton-Himmel, who runs Walrus & Carpenter Oysters, discussed the specific strenuousness of dealing with waterfront landowner neighbors, and described a successful experience in ag mediation through which his neighbors who were upset with the visibility of his oyster cages ended up strategizing about how to collaborate in the future. (Jules’ delicious oysters were also on that night’s menu.)
  • Albie Brandon of Brandon Family Farm talked about the process of diving into farm management, and gradually figuring out what his land needs were.
  • Katie Steere of Deep Roots Farm closed out the evening with a heart-wrenching story about her aspiration to return to and revive her family land, intergenerational conflict that disallowed that dream, and a subsequent lease situation where she feels secure and excited to build from now.

The Rhode Island farm to table feast is laid out, buffet style.

Local food deliciously prepared by Chef Ben Sukle of birch and Oberlin.

John Kenney of Big Train Farm emceed the event, asking questions of each storyteller, and skillfully elevated important general themes—like the scarcity and exorbitant price of Rhode Island farmland—throughout the night.

Ben Sukle, the chef and owner at Providence restaurants birch and Oberlin prepared incredible food for everyone using local ingredients, including winter root crudite, salads, bok choy, a sausage, clam and potato stew, and Walrus and Carpenter oysters.

YFN Looks Ahead to its Second Decade

Stories of the Land also marked YFN’s launch of a general survey about past programs in order to respond to the needs of their community in designing programs moving forward. In the event program, YFN recognized that it has not reflected the full diversity of Rhode Island agriculture, and are looking forward to rooting their ongoing mission in the needs of farmers who have had difficulty accessing resources including land, saying:

By no means do we see this event as a means to an end; history tells us and current sociopolitical structures confirm that marginalized communities, people of color, LGBTQ+ face additional discrimination and racism compared to their white counterparts when looking for land. While our farmer storytellers come from various backgrounds, they do not explicitly demonstrate the diversity amongst farmers that we know exists in Rhode Island. In this new decade of YFN, we hope to genuinely and intentionally move forward, collaborate with others who prioritize justice for underrepresented people, and work towards embodying the principles that accompany inclusive organizations.

Now is a great time for Rhode Island farmers to get involved, or to voice their support needs to YFN organizers.

Land for Young Farmers is Key to a Resilient Food System

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the hard work of farmers continues and is more important than ever. Farmers plan and adapt to high levels of uncertainty in markets, consumer trends and weather conditions. The COVID-19 environment just amplifies these uncertainties.

Now more than ever we need a resilient, dynamic, local and regional food system.

Rhode Island is committed to supporting pathways for young farmers to find a permanent home here,” said The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Chief of Agriculture, Ken Ayars. 

That is a broad goal,” he continued, “but it centers on land availability and access and backing up the organizations that have the same motives such as YFN. The YFN Landing on the Right Acre event was inspirational and motivating but realistic as well on the challenges of the pathway. It illuminated all the reasons we continue to work toward supporting the next generation.”

We can’t build and nurture a resilient, dynamic, local and regional food system without the next generation of farmers and stewards on the land with viable businesses. Secure access to farmland remains a key component to making this vision a reality. Farmland security means food security for us all.

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