In 1998 there were nine farmers’ markets in the state. Today, there are 50 summer farmers’ markets and seven indoor winter markets and the demand for locally grown produce and harvested foods continues to grow. According to a study released last year by URI’s Dr. Thomas Sproul, 2,812 green industry businesses sustain 12,372 jobs and annually contribute $1.78 billion to the state’s economy.
Janet Coit, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) director, cited those statistics at the Agriculture Day celebration at the State House on Thursday.
“That’s huge,” Coit said to a room packed with farmers, fishermen, Gov. Lincoln Chafee and a few legislators.
But, as significant as agriculture is to the state’s economy, it was the fruits of that farming and fishing that held the interest of staffers, legislators, lobbyists and visitors circulating the halls. There, for everybody to enjoy, were cups of Del’s Lemonade, bite-sized portions of apple pie, locally produced cheese and, seemingly everyone’s favorite, stuffies served up by Dave’s Marketplace. There were 53 exhibitors and most of them were serving something grown, raised or caught in Rhode Island waters.
“This and South County Day are the days we look forward to,” said one legislative staffer between nibbles on a square of cheese. “You have to try this,” she declared.
It is just such enthusiasm for local foods that Coit and Senator Susan Sosnowski, who is a farmer with proudly callused hands, hope to promote through a marketing program that was approved but not funded last year. This year, the governor has budgeted $100,000, but there’s no knowing if it will gain legislative approval. Coit hopes to sweeten the appropriation with matching federal grants.
The appetite for local is there, and Coit believes it can be enhanced to further benefit consumers, farmers and fishermen. She said locally grown foods are not only fresher, but don’t require the transport of out-of-state produce. Seafood, however, poses a challenge. A lot of Rhode Island’s fresh fish gets shipped out of state, Coit said, because of the system of buyers and established distribution system, but the local picture is improving.
“The seafood sector is nearing its way to being as successful as the agricultural sector in local marketing and sales,” Coit said in formal remarks. She noted that legislators approved the Rhode Island Seafood Marketing Collaborative in 2011.
Overall, Sosnowski called the agriculture business “fragile” because it is so dependent on the weather and what the customer is prepared to pay. She also said the local movement is susceptible to legislation and it is important to understand how legislation might help or hinder farmers.
Ken Ayars, chief of the division of agriculture, has followed the growth in Rhode Island farming and the selling directly to the consumer rather than wholesaling and feels it has made for a stronger industry as farmers broadened their base of support and developed a following. That has enabled them to get higher returns, which helps to offset the higher costs of land and taxes in Rhode Island.
As Coit pointed out, the state is among the most diverse in agricultural production. She said farmers and fisherman and related businesses “provide thousands of jobs and numerous other benefits; supporting tourism, restaurants, landscaping and quality of life.”
The demand is there.
Robert Fabiano, director of store development for Dave’s Marketplace, who helped with handing out stuffies, said customers want local food and are willing to pay more to get it. He said they want to know where their food is coming from.
When in season, Dave’s buys its corn from Stamp Farm. In addition, the marketplace offers locally produced maple syrup and, as Fabiano says, “You can’t find better seafood than in Rhode Island.”