Not that it was a surprise, but when the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested the soil at the Rocky Point Farm, they found what Mark and Betty Garrison first learned more than 25 years ago – it’s ideal for growing blueberries.
Last week, Janet Coit, director of the Department of Environmental Management, and Mayor Scott Avedisian announced the purchase of the development rights for the 8.5-acre farm, ensuring that this portion of the former Nelson Aldrich estate on Warwick Neck is kept as farm land forever. The $345,000 purchase was finalized by using equal amounts from the 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.
But it is more than ensuring that the summer blueberry picking that has become a tradition for so many that has Avedisian excited. The mayor sees the farm, near the former Rocky Point Amusement Park, as a piece in a neck “green belt” that runs north from the farm through lowlands parallel to Palmer Avenue. This is land the city holds through tax title.
Three years ago, the city, with the help of state and federal funding, acquired 41 shoreline acres of the park property and opened a paved park trail last spring. With voter approval of a bond issue providing $10 million in 2010, DEM is working to acquire the remaining 83 acres from the court appointed receiver, the Small Business Administration.
Also, the mayor disclosed the city is looking to preserve four other properties in the city through conservation easements and other mechanisms. He did not name the sites for fear of driving up prices, but said the properties would need to “meet a criteria” and would have to have a purpose.
“There are some interesting possibilities out there,” he added. One transaction, he said, may not require city funding.
Action to acquire the development rights for the Garrison property started in December 2010, says Michelle Sheehan of DEM. It was initiated after the Garrisons inquired of Avedisian if there was a way of selling development rights to the property.
“They were so ready and on top of things,” Sheehan said.
The Garrisons bought the land in 1983 and explored using it as farmland as a means of reducing taxes, enabling them to keep it and save it from being sold and developed. They offered the development rights to the state in 1983 but were turned down.
“It really wasn’t a farm at that point. It was pretty much a jungle,” recalls Mark.
Neither Garrison had a background in farming. Mark worked for the State Department, where he served as deputy to former IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr., who was ambassador to the Soviet Union in Moscow. After retiring from the State Department, Mark and Betty went to work at the then newly created Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University. The center later evolved into the Brown Institute for International Studies that, after several years, was named for Watson.
Over the years, the land had been farmed. At one time, cows from Morris Farm were kept on the property. When the city acquired the 41 acres at Rocky Point, it also bought a narrow strip of land that runs to a well on the property. The well was a source of water for a drinking fountain at the park before the city water system was developed.
The Garrisons thought Christmas trees might work as a crop, but then discovered they needed much more land. So blueberries became their next choice. When the bushes grew to the point where they were producing, the farm came into its own. The Garrisons started selling to Morris Farm and other retail outlets. It was the self-picking business, however, that became a stable of the operation and the community. With little advertising, the Garrisons built up a clientele and a mailing list of 2,500 names. In many cases, entire families would return year after year to walk between the rows of more than 2,000 bushes and bring their harvest to be weighed and bagged. The farm’s best year was 13 tons of berries.
The Garrisons soon discovered running a blueberry farm is a good deal more than planting and picking. One of the annual chores is spreading mulch around the bushes and spraying for winter moth, which can cause devastation. One of the especially challenging tasks is suspending netting over the bushes to deter birds from eating the harvest. And then the netting needs to come down when the season is over.
While the sale of the development rights doesn’t stop landowners from letting the farm go fallow, that’s not the intent of Rhonda Shumaker and Joe Gouveia, who are buying the Garrison property. The pair, who lives in South County, responded to the notice posted on the farm website that the Garrisons planned to sell the farm. They are also acquiring the Garrison home that the Garrisons completed in 1984. The house and the half-acre on which it sits are not included in the development rights.
The sale of the development rights made the deal possible. The Garrisons have since built a new house in the Edgewood section of Cranston overlooking Stillwater Cove. They moved in late last year. Preservation of the farm was important to the Garrisons and set them to exploring ways to do that.
“We spent 27 years of our lives creating that thing and we would have hated seeing it all dug up and turned into condos,” Mark said.
He soon found he was not alone in having an interest in small farming. When the word got out that the Garrisons would be retiring as farmers and the property was for sale, one of their steady pickers thought Yankee Magazine might be interested for a story. The story appeared in the November edition, and although the farm website makes it clear a sale is pending, Marks says he’s had about 35 inquiries from people advising him they would be interested if the sale isn’t finalized. Now that the development rights have been acquired, Mark expects the sale to be completed this month.
“I’m amazed by how many are interested in getting into farming in a small way,” he said.
“This farm is a perfect example of how important the small farm has become to the people of this state. With its rich history, bountiful produce and dedicated landowners, it is easy to understand why Rocky Point Farm is a cherished local landmark,” said Director Coit in a statement.
The Garrisons credit Avedisian and Dan Geagan, the city’s senior planner, for supporting their vision to preserve the farm and presenting the proposal to DEM, and DEM’s Deputy Chief of Planning and Development Lisa Primiano and Sheehan, who secured the deal through the state’s agricultural land preservation program and shepherded the process through to conclusion.
“Our thanks to these forward-looking public servants who recognize the importance of preserving farmland and open space, even in urban areas, for current and future generations of Rhode Island,” Mark said.
The announcement was hailed by Ward 5 Councilman John DelGiudice.
“What a great gift to the city! Hats off to the Garrisons and DEM for all their contributions to improve and preserve the quality of life in our great city. On behalf of Ward 5, I thank you,” he said in a statement.
According to Sheehan, since the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Program made its first purchase of the Chase Farm in Warren in 1983, a total of 86 properties – some as large as 100 acres and others less than an acre – have been acquired with $29,680,000 in state funds.