The future of Rhode Island farming may ride on the enthusiasm of people like Ben Torpey. He grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, went to Brown University in Providence, and now grows organic vegetables.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to find my way to having this be my job,” said Torpey. “I feel really lucky.”
Although, he’s chosen a path that’s far from easy. The hours are long, the pay is modest, and he doesn’t own the two acres he farms. Along with a handful of other farmers, he leases land at the state-owned Urban Edge Farm in Cranston. It was created as a kind of incubator, a place where new farmers could launch a business and ultimately buy a farm of their own.
“I haven’t even looked for land to buy because it doesn’t feel like a realistic possibility for me,” said Torpey. “What I see as enough land to grow food for 130 families, a developer would see as enough land to build eight McMansions.”
The booming real estate market has driven up prices to the point where Rhode Island now has the most expensive farmland in the country.
“Farmers in the state have approached us saying [they] need help,” said Ken Ayars, Rhode Island’s Chief of Agriculture.
In response, and to keep farming viable in Rhode Island, the state is about to launch a first-of-its-kind program to buy farms at their appraised value and then sell them at an agricultural rate — about 20 percent of the market value.
“We want these entrepreneurs, these spirited people who want to build an agricultural business to stay here and not have to leave to find cheaper land in some other state,” said Ayars.
And while farmers will get the land at a deep discount, the state will retain the development rights. The idea is to make sure the land stays a farm.
Of course, land alone doesn’t guarantee a farmer will be successful. And critics, including Rhode Island State Representative Sherry Roberts, say by owning the development rights the state will deprive farm families of something they may need to stay financially afloat.
“They cannot later go and separate it and build a house themselves and sell it and make more money,” said Roberts. “It’s not fully their property to do whatever they want, and that’s the issue I have with it.”
But to Torpey, giving up development rights would be a small price to pay for something he values even more than ownership: the security of knowing the land he’s cultivated for years will continue to be his to farm.
“A number of my friends have been kicked off of land after putting a lot into the soil. And you can’t take that soil with you,” said Torpey.
Helping new farmers establish roots is part of Rhode Island’s larger strategy to increase locally grown food. Right now, this tiny state produces a tiny amount of its own food: about 1 percent.
This article has been updated with a correction on the spelling of Ken Ayars' name.