A lot is growing at Confreda.
The pepper seedlings went in last Tuesday, maybe 80,000 of 500,000, said Corey Confreda. Harvesting of the first zucchinis – ones started in high tunnel greenhouses – started this week. The strawberries have flowered and picking is on schedule. And who could forget the corn? There’s acre upon acre of corn. Green stalks poke through the earth. On some fields, it’s only a couple of inches high. On others it’s waist tall.
“I’m a corn snob,” confesses Jon Confreda, Corey’s cousin, although they consider themselves brothers. Jon said he’ll only eat Confreda corn. He waits until summer.
And then there’s Vinny. He’s Jon’s biological brother. They’re both sons of another Vinny, who is also a son of a Vinny. And they all work on the farm, even the senior Vinny, who at 84 was driving his favorite tractor Tuesday on a Warwick field. The farm cultivates 85 acres in the shadow of Green Airport and 120 in Scituate.
The core of the operation, with its sprawling retail outlet featuring baked goods, a deli, fresh produce, a nursery and in the fall its renowned “scary acres,” is in Cranston. That’s on Scituate Road, where there are another 200 acres.
All the Confredas don’t work the farm. They run it.
This is the fourth generation of Confreda farmers and it’s growing strong.
Each Confreda has his specialty.
A 2012 Hendricken graduate, Jon is studying business management at URI. He already engaged in marketing aspects of the operation, although on Tuesday, wearing a green Confreda apron, he was a long way from a desk.
“It’s jammed,” he said of a giant stainless steel sink filled with cloudy water where he had been washing beets, Swiss chard and radishes that filled display cases in the store. He jostled a lever under the sink. Not as much as a bubble rose to the surface.
It was an issue that might have to wait for his brother Vinny.
Jon considers Vinny, the eldest of the new generation at 22, the mechanical guru, gifted with an uncanny ability to cope with and fix temperamental equipment of every genre.
Jon thinks of Corey as the third leg of the stool. Corey is studying horticulture at URI, where he is a senior. The relationship is producing results. Working with the university, the brothers are experimenting with new strains of vegetables. They also talk about improving energy efficiency and making the farm “greener.”
A significant cost of operations is running the pumps that bring water to the underground irrigation systems that lace raised rows of vegetables. The pumps are run by electricity and diesel fuel, but rising costs threaten margins. The “brothers” have talked about wind turbines and what they could mean, and have sought the advice of people at URI.
Corey took a break from conferring with representatives from John Deere gathered in a barn to talk about his generation on the farm.
“We grew up here. The farm was our backyard,” said Corey. While others his age played Little League, Corey was riding tractors. The same is true for Jon and Vinny. Jump seats were installed in the tractors so the boys could ride along.
“I kind of feel like it’s all we’ve known,” said Jon.
By the age of 10 they were driving tractors and, after watching elders perform so many different tasks, they didn’t think twice about stepping in and doing the work themselves.
“We had no idea that we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Jon.
Of course, they knew what they were doing. Through osmosis they had learned to operate equipment and what needed to be done and when.
“We’re farm smart,” concludes Jon.
There’s more to it than that. There’s carrying forward the Confreda tradition.
“I couldn’t sit in an office and type on a computer,” said Corey.
Corey’s uncle – the middle Vinny in terms of age – said it’s working out as he had hoped.
“Basically they fit the mold I was trying to build,” he said in an interview this week. Like Jon, he names off the skills of each of the boys concluding that soon he’ll become “a dinosaur.”
The stories of how each generation of Confreda followed in the footsteps of the last one have a similar ring.
Vinny P. Confreda – the senior farmer these days – remembers his father dying at the age of 56. Vinny was 16 at the time and his brother Jon a couple of years older.
“So I stepped right into it,” he said.
He hasn’t thought of retirement even at 84 and having gone through open-heart surgery last year.
“Why retire,” he asked, “when all you’re going to do is fight in the house?”
Vinny misses his brother, Jon, who died a couple of years ago. They worked together for more than 60 years and Vinny has taken over Jon’s loam business. Vinny is thrilled to see the new generation blooming.
“When the sun shines, you work,” he said to his grandson, Vinny Jr.
Vinny laughed, recalling how he is roused out of bed as soon as it’s light. He smiled as his grandfather talked about the 1941 tractor he bought for $650 that he still uses today. The tractors of yesteryear lacked creature comforts. Seats weren’t cushioned and the air conditioning was whatever winds blew across the field. Today’s tractor cabs not only offer comfortable seating and air conditioning, but stereo as well. And they do the job a lot faster, the younger Vinny said.
More than machinery has changed in the business.
There’s a lot of paperwork to farming and as the middle generation Vinny points out, “a lot more stress than there used to be.” He said there’s a demand for higher yields per acre in an effort to sustain profits, which often are thin and still dependent on uncontrollable factors, including the weather and markets. In some cases, he said, “we’re getting the same prices [for produce] that we were getting 20 and 30 years ago.”
Nonetheless, he wouldn’t trade the job. Now, with the next generation anxious to take command, he feels fulfilled.
“I’m extremely lucky,” he said, “if you don’t have someone to follow you, it’s kind of a disappointment.”
But Vinny won’t be retiring. It’s not in the plan.