Rhonda Shumaker and Joseph Gouveia got a lot of help when they took up their new career as farmers – literally thousands provided assistance.
Now, a couple of weeks earlier than customary, all the work is paying off and the couple find themselves busier than they ever imagined possible.
A glimpse of that came Friday before noon, as they manned the stand at the Rocky Point Farm. It was hot and muggy, but that didn’t deter old timers and newcomers from turning out to pick ripe juicy blueberries.
Lillian Norigian of Cranston was among the regulars. Gouveia bagged Norigian’s harvest in a clear plastic bag. She picked nine pounds in about 90 minutes.
“It’s always wonderful,” said Norigian.
She called this year’s harvest, which started on June 27 and is expected to run until mid-August, “the earliest ever.”
She should know. Norigian has been picking at Rocky Point for far longer than Shumaker and Gouveia even knew about the farm. They learned that the farm was for sale on the Internet and responded to a posting by Mark and Betty Garrison, who bought the 8.5-acre Warwick Neck property in 1983. Mark retired from the State Department that year and he and his wife worked at the then fledging Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University. The center was later renamed for IBM CEO Thomas Watson, who Garrison worked with when Watson was ambassador to the Soviet Union.
The Garrisons built a home on the land and then looked for a means to preserve the site against the development pressures of the time. Being a farm became that means, although they didn’t start with berries. Christmas trees were their first crop.
It wasn’t a fast start when they settled on blueberries either. It was a couple of years before the bushes began producing, and it took many more years for the farm to develop a loyal following who marked their calendars and made blueberry picking part of their summer. The farm now has 2,200 bushes.
As the Garrisons aged, they saw the end of their farming days but not their role as stewards of the land. They wanted to ensure the land would be kept as a farm and, rather than marketing it to make the best return, they explored selling the development rights. Last year, they finalized an agreement with the Department of Environmental Management that bought the development rights for $345,000. The money came in equal amounts from USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program and the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Commission (RIALPC) through the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Program. That sale allowed Shumaker and Gouveia to buy their house, along with the farm, at significantly lower cost.
The couple quickly discovered that farming consumes much more time than they imagined. Throughout, they have had Mark Garrison’s guidance, also as one of their customers.
“I have picked more berries in the last few days than I did in the last 10 years,” Garrison said Monday. “It looks very good,” he said, adding that he is pleased with the way things have worked out.
“The biggest shock was that I had never worked on this scale,” says Shumaker, who enjoys gardening and looked forward to spending her time doing it. She said just pruning the bushes took months. They fertilized twice, on both occasions in the rain because that is when it is most effective, and it took them eight days to put up netting so the crop wouldn’t be eaten by birds.
They also had some help from the bees.
“We bought a quad of bumble bees,” Shumaker said, between tallying what customers picked on a digital scale, running credit and debit cards on her iPad and making change from the cash register. The 1,000 bees arrived by UPS in a box that was literally humming. It was a self-contained hive they placed in the midst of the farm before standing back and poking open the doors.
“Bumble bees are hard workers, harder than honey bees,” said Shumaker.
She said they don’t stop in the rain and, according to her research, are each capable of pollinating 10,000 flowers in a week.
She credits the bees and the unseasonably warm winter with this year’s bounty. Bushes are thick with the fruit, so thick that Tatyana Ramella had picked 16 pounds in less than two hours. She made the trip from Block Island expressly to harvest the berries, bringing along her daughter’s foldable chair so she could easily reach the under branches. Before leaving, she bought another 12 pounds of farm-picked berries.
This year, two-and-a-half tons of blueberries have already been harvested, putting the farm on track to approaching, if not exceeding, the Garrisons’ record harvest of 13 tons.
But Shumaker and Gouveia have discovered more to the harvest than the blueberries. He retired in May 2011 as an engineer with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. She worked as executive director of the South County Art Association, a job she held for 13 years.
Countless people have thanked them for following in the footsteps of the Garrisons. And then there’s the benefit of seeing people gaining pleasure from their picking.
“It’s amazing,” says Gouveia, “how many smiling faces come out of the crowd.”