The Block Island Times

Islander looks to boost state food production

Helping farmers buy land, but maybe not on Block Island
By Stephanie Turaj | Jun 11, 2013
Photo by: Kari Curtis

A Block Island resident is working to create two organizations that would help Rhode Island farmers purchase farmland and raise organic produce.

Bill Penn, who is the principal at the financial consulting company Environmental Financial Advisors, LLC, and his colleague, Richard Pace, are working to establish two entities: the Rhode Island Farm and Food Fund, and the Rhode Island Farm Land Trust, two organizations that would work together to achieve the goal of increased sustainable farming in the state.

“We believe there is a substantial opportunity to combine farmland and environmental conservation with increased food production, and propose formation of the Rhode Island Farmland Fund,” states the Farm and Food Fund’s executive business summary.

“We’re looking to increase economic development through sustainable, local food,” said Penn of the project.

The two groups will provide funds to purchase farmland. The Farm and Food Fund will then restore the land so that it will be suitable for sustainable farming and make the land more eco-friendly, such as ensuring proper water conservation on the land.

Through the Farm Land Trust, an agricultural easement will be integrated into the covenants of the deed, meaning the land must be used for agricultural purposes in perpetuity.

Finally, the groups will lease the property to a farmer using a “lease-to-own” model.

While the organizations would help farmers statewide, Block Island doesn’t seem like it would benefit from the project.

“Right now the cost of land is so high on Block Island,” said Penn, “It’s not really a possibility.”

Instead, the group is looking at purchasing lower-cost land options in rural areas in other parts of Rhode Island.

Penn said they would be looking for a few specific things when they select a farmer for their program. The land must remain in agricultural use, the farmer must have some experience in food producing organic farming and the farmer must be willing to use organic practices.

The next step for the team is working with farmers and establishing relationships — they are working with Rhode Island farmers from Seekonk, Pawtucket and Warren, to name a few. They are also closely partnering with several farming groups, such as the New Urban Farmers and the African Alliance of Rhode Island.

Most of the farmers they would be working with grow mostly produce, such as leafy greens, potatoes and herbs, although there are a few that might raise livestock, said Pace.

Pace is the founder of EcoAssets, Inc., a land use consulting group. Penn and Pace met through a mutual contact. Bill Penn also serves many roles in the island community, including president of the Block Island Residents Association.

Helping create food

The executive summary for the Farm and Food Fund states, “Rhode Island Farmland conservation over the past twenty-five years — although well-meaning and conservative of open space — has done little to expand local food production.”

Pace said that often state and local money was going to preserve existing farms or to move a family farm from one generation to the next.

“The money was not really being used to expand food production,” said Pace. “In essence, there wasn’t any real substantial increase in farmland.”

An increase in farmland — that’s exactly what Penn and Pace hope to achieve.

“For farmers, land is so expensive to expand or start new,” said Pace, who said prices can be $10,000 to $16,000 an acre.

Through the Farm and Food Fund, land would be leased to farmers and paid back at an affordable rate.

To fund the Farm and Food Fund, Penn and Pace are in the process of applying for a private placement, said Penn.

The private placement would secure $1.4 million in funding of socially responsible debt that would be used to fund the organization over the next 20 years.

To fund the Land Trust, they plan to raise funds through private contributions and grants.

“This will reduce the cost of land for the farmer,” said Pace.

The farmers will also pay back their lease with money they earn from farm production, but Penn added that the group will help the farmers out along the way.

“They’re not just going to sign the lease and walk away,” Penn said. “We’ll help the farmers with their business planning and financial management to be viable and sustainable.”

Organic farming practices

The practice of organic farming has become a trend lately, said Rick Pace.

“Today, people are really, significantly working to find local, organic and nutritional food,” he said.

And they will require farmers to use such organic farming practices as bio-dynamic farming, which involves using natural compost for fertilizer, and permaculture farming, which takes advantage of natural surroundings to reduce waste and create sustainable farming.

“A lot of it [sustainable farming] is water management,” said Penn, who gave an example of using storm water for irrigation.

Another sustainable farming technique is if the farmers rotate crops — planting and harvesting a different crop each season rather than using the soil for one crop.

“People with a three- to five- acre vegetable farm can make an adequate living,” said Pace.

He added later, “In a general sense, the difficulty for the farmer is re-using the land.” He explained the program will give way for a three- to five- year process for the farmer to transition to natural production, composting, mulch and naturally-treated waters.

The lease payback will be adjusted to the farmer’s ability to reap products over that period, said Penn.

The Farm and Food Fund will also be helping farmers sell and distribute their produce by working with the buyers. The main three outlets for farmers, explained Penn, are Rhode Island farmer’s markets, local groups called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and local users such as restaurants.

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