Innovation Ecosystem

In good soil we trust

Hard work at the Barrington Farm School continues during its first summer of operation

Photo courtesy of Barrington Farm School Facebook page

A member of the volunteer crew at the Barrington Farm School turns over the soil in preparation for cover crop sowing.

Photo by Dan Penengo

The farm stand at the Barrington Farm School.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/20/18
The pluckiness of volunteers at the Barrington Farm School in keeping a working farm alive offers a different narrative around how Rhode Island can invest in the fabric of community and nurture economic development.
What are the opportunities to rebuild the former Apex department store site focusing on the greatest needs of Pawtucket – affordable housing, access to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, greater health equity, and career opportunities in the growing food industry? What can be learned from the Sankofa Initiative in the West End of Providence, connecting affordable housing with urban growing spaces? Would RISD and perhaps Infosys be willing to sponsor a design chautauqua about how to rebuild the former Apex property? What are the other opportunities to preserve working farms in Rhode Island by creating parallel efforts to the Barrington Farm School? What would happen if politicians running for elected office in Rhode Island had to roll up their sleeves and work together, side by side, on a local farm – weeding, digging, planting, watering and hoeing together? What are the latest initiatives being undertaken by the Pawtucket/Central Falls Health Equity Zone?
Corruption and corporate greed have always been endemic in baseball, much like it has in Rhode Island politics – defined by who gets what, when and how much. Everyone wants their own slice of the pie.
The throwing of the World Series by the Chicago White Sox in 1918, the selling of Babe Ruth’s contract, the tyranny of the reserve clause, the enforcement of the racial color line for decades that barred African-Americans from playing in the Major Leagues, the buying and selling of players’ contracts by the wealthiest owners to bolster their teams, all speak to the kind of abuse of corporate power that breeds corruption.
In Pawtucket, there were plenty of good, corrupt reasons why the original McCoy Stadium was built on a swamp.
In the aftermath of the Pawsox leaving, some pundits may blame the owners, others may point to the intransigence of R.I. House Speaker Mattiello in refusing to allow the House to vote on the plan developed by the Senate, still others may point to the way that the first plan by the new Pawsox owners to build a new stadium in Providence was rolled out and rejected.
It is often a difficult task in differentiating between what the owners wanted, what the legislators wanted, and what the community wanted, given all the competing promotional earworms. The news media has its own problem of complicity in selling the field of dreams in partnership with corporate interests.
The bottom line: to save a working farm, it took a small group of committed volunteers; to change the way that corporations do business, and the way legislators rule at the People’s House, it will take voters to stand up, say no, and offer not just resistance but a better way to be heard.

BARRINGTON – In Schilling we trust. That was the closing phrase in a July 27, 2010, email written by Amy Kempe, then spokeswoman for Gov. Donald Carcieri, the day after the $75 million investment in the controversial 38 Studios deal had been approved by the R.I. Economic Development Corporation.

In that email, Kempe, who now works as a spokeswoman for R.I. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, had been attempting to rally the government team to call into radio talk shows to support the economic promise of bringing Curt Schilling’s company, 38 Studios, to Rhode Island, an effort led by her boss, Carcieri, and his team at the R.I. Economic Development Corporation.

In the email, Kempe wrote that, after speaking with Carcieri, “He wants to make sure the EDC, and Keith [Stokes] in particular, is out there in the media today to explain the deal with 38 Studios and defend against the many uninformed and outlandish claims made by pundits and political candidates.”

The email was made public five years later, in September of 2015, as part of the release of documents from a 38 Studios inquiry. When asked about the email during a 2014 deposition, Kempe testified that she did not recall writing the email.

“In Schilling we trust” was a play on words from the phrase found on U.S. currency: “In God we trust.” It may have served as a clever motivational message to help sell the 38 Studios deal. But, the idea that you could jumpstart Rhode Island’s innovation economy by importing a capital-intensive company to become a profit-making enterprise without first having a local, sustainable infrastructure in place proved to be a risky business.

It was, in many ways, much like trying to jumpstart a farming enterprise built on poor, rocky soil: all the “creative word fertilizer” applied to the deal could not prevent 38 Studios from going belly up, with Rhode Island taxpayers on the hook for millions in liability.

Political hangover

The political hangover from that failed effort – to make a $75 million state-funded investment to jumpstart the innovation economy by luring a Massachusetts company, whose CEO was Curt Schilling, a former Boston Red Sox pitcher, to relocate in Rhode Island – still pervades the political atmosphere here in Rhode Island, so much so that some commentators at the Worcester, Mass., news conference announcing the Pawtucket Red Sox’s relocation reportedly gave a shout-out “thank you” to Schilling.

ConvergenceRI was visiting the Barrington Farm School on Federal Road in Barrington on Friday afternoon, Aug. 17, when the news “officially” broke that the Pawtucket Red Sox had made the decision to abandon Rhode Island and move to Worcester, to become the WooSox.

The hot summer temperature hovered near 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the honeybees were active near the hives, and a tractor was perched near a plot of newly furrowed land.

As the recent post on the Barrington Farm School Facebook page explained: “[We are] converting to organic no-till – by tilling. [We] need to prep the hill for cover crop sowing. After two seasons of cover crops this field will become no-till practicing organic. How about that?”

Amidst the rows of vegetables, herbs, cover crops and flowers, in the shade of the self-help farm stand, which featured corn, tomatoes, honey and squash, Kempe’s evocative phrase, “In Schilling we trust,” kept coming to mind, like an annoying music earworm.

What was the connection between the decision by the Pawtucket Red Sox owners to leave Rhode Island and relocate to Worcester, the recurring Kempe earworm, and the hard work being done to restore a working farm in Barrington? ConvergenceRI decided it would take some more time to work through that question.

The fabric of community
The small tract of land, a nearly four-acre parcel, could have become yet another plum in the high-end real estate market in one of the wealthier communities in Rhode Island. Instead, the former Venditouli farm has become the home of the Barrington Farm School, a nonprofit endeavor, which raised enough money from donors, some $225,000, to purchase the farm property, which had gone to probate court when the former owner, William “Billy” Venditouli, died.

The Vendituoli property had originally been his grandparents’ farm, which they started in 1897 when they came over from Italy as immigrants. The farm is nestled next to the police and fire stations on Federal Road, across Middle Highway from the former St. Andrews farm property, now managed by the Barrington Conservation Land Trust. It is in easy walking distance from Barrington High School, Barrington Middle School, and St. Andrew’s School.

As Tim Faulkner, one of the volunteer leaders of the effort, explained to ConvergenceRI in an earlier interview, his work to save the farm has reinforced his understanding of the importance of quilting the fabric of community together. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Preserving a working farm in Barrington as a farm school.”]

“You become more mindful of the people in your community, who they are, what they are doing, and your relationship with them,” he said. “Regardless of where you live, it’s about making it the best place that you can.”

The mission of the Barrington Farm School, Faulkner continued, is to provide an opportunity for young people in the town to learn about farming and the farm’s role in protecting the local ecosystem and environment.

The overall goal, Faulkner said, is to help young people develop an appreciation for what the natural environment is, especially in the age of climate change, and the dynamics that go with that, learning first hand the value of farming, to create a healthier, more sustainable community.

Hard work
As with many volunteer community projects, once the boulder has been rolled up the hill, what comes next, when the boulder starts to roll down the hill, is often hard to predict and control.

Farming is hard work, requiring a constant vigilance, particularly in a summer filled with heat waves.

The first growing season under the official mantle of the Barrington Farm School is now in full bloom, so to speak, with plans progressing for next year’s crops.

ConvergenceRI reached out to Faulkner, who, in turn asked Dan Penengo, one of the team of volunteer farmers, to respond to questions about future plans.

ConvergenceRI: How much harder has the very hot weather this summer made the work?
The heat is OK; we simply hydrate a great deal more and try and get out there earlier in the day. The dry spell was a challenge though these recent rains have been very welcome.

ConvergenceRI: How has the number of volunteers grown?
Overall, the interest continues to grow and we expect a strong fall crew. We’ve had a few students coming from Barrington High School on a weekly basis and they’re ramping up their efforts toward their senior projects and Environmental Club initiatives.

We have four or five volunteers [Faulkner and Penengo included] overseeing the majority of the efforts, with a couple of these volunteers really dedicating themselves to the labor these recent weeks.

I’d estimate, all together, we achieve about 50 hours of work a week [but we don’t really count hours]. Some days we’re out there six hours, other days we can only spare an hour or two. When we’re able to gather together we definitely achieve more, it seems.

Outside of the volunteers we’ve been meeting awesome folks from all around East Bay, some who’ve been coming to the farm stand for years and others just learning about the endeavor. Everyday more and more people stop in to see what’s going on, and of course, looking for magical tomatoes.

ConvergenceRI: What are your biggest needs going forward? Such as a PV system to run the water supply for irrigation?
I think we’re still considering this question ourselves, though I’d say finding/acquiring a hoop house [used or new] will be essential for winter and spring seed starting, and we can store our tools there as well.

[Another priority is] continuing to raise funds to purchase organic cover crop seed and fruit and vegetable seeds. And, we’d like to be able to fund a full-time farm manager down the road while also supplying the manager with the right tools for the job.

We’re also moving forward on a short- and long-term business plan so we’ve been fine-tuning our vision while exploring a great body of research relating to permaculture, no-till farming and cover crop/crop rotation farming.

As we build our knowledge base, we plan to fine tune and adjust our vision.

ConvergenceRI: Can you explain a bit further about the newly plowed land and the intent around a new cover crop to build up the soil?
We learned this spring that the soil on the hill needs amending. So we’ve begun to cover crop in order to build biomass, add nutrients naturally, and attract pollinators.

We’ve done a good bit of research and have been informed by local organic farmers as well.

Each soil, each farm is unique, so it’s a bit of trial and error as well. But our first stand of summer buckwheat has been a great success, and this stand will be worked in and reseeded for another crop before the fall/winter cover goes in.

We have one more section of buckwheat going in as well as mustard [plants], where we’ll grow potatoes next spring, plus we’ve ordered clover, vetch, rye and oats, which will find their way into the rotation.

We’ll keep amending with various cover crops for these next two years, and as the soil strengthens, we’ll lock into our vegetable and fruit rotations as well.

ConvergenceRI: With the return to school looming in a few weeks, what are the plans for educational programs moving forward?
As we’d hoped for, we’ve been contacted by a variety of groups, schools and organizations and are planning fall service days as well as long-term projects.

Some groups will come out for a day and volunteer with chores, and others will want more elaborate educational programming, which we are beginning to plan. We’ll be hosting various workshops as well throughout the fall, such as composting and food scrap informative and hands-on sessions, as well as workshops relating to our cover crop and field rotations plans. And we’re always taking on ideas and finding more people who have an interest in bringing the farm project forward.

Overall, it’s been amazing to see the developments and we’re excited to continue to collaborate with different groups, garner more volunteers, and make this organization a hallmark of the community.

Lessons learned
Eating a meal of freshly sliced organic tomatoes and cukes from a local farm, the connection between the annoying earworm, “In Schilling we trust,” the departure of the Pawtucket Red Sox to Worcester by the team’s owners in search of greener tax subsidies from the city and the state, and the pluckiness of the volunteers behind the Barrington Farm School, all suddenly became clearer.

For sure, the headlines and lead sentences in the newspapers, much like “In Schilling we trust,” have been clever: “Game over,” The Providence Journal declared, and “There is no joy in Pawtucket, the Pawsox are moving out,” The Pawtucket Times wrote.

But, perhaps there is another way to look at the outcome of the team’s move to Worcester, to be found in the response by Chicago Cubs’ first baseman, the indefatigable Ernie Banks: “It’s a beautiful day for baseball. Let’s play two.”

With the departure of the Pawsox, what other kinds of economic development opportunities present themselves?

Pawtucket is often hailed as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S., where the Slater Mill, using what some say was technology pirated from England, ushered in a new industrial age.

[Often forgotten in telling the story is the way that the textile industry was built on the backs of young women factory workers, who were exploited, leading to one of the first industrial strikes in America in May of 1824.]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pawtucket and other textile manufacturing centers flourished in Rhode Island, attracting large number of immigrants, who found good-paying jobs in the mills.

The heyday of the manufacturing industry in Pawtucket and Rhode Island is “going, going, gone,” and it is not coming back. Neither are the Pawtucket Red Sox. They are going the way of Benny’s into a permanent place in the hall of fame for Rhode Island nostalgia.

Today, one of the greatest needs in Rhode Island is affordable housing, one of the greatest conundrums is the lack of access to affordable health care as medical costs rise, and one of the largest gaps in health equity disparities is the lack of access to healthy, nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables.

Why not make the former site of Apex department store in downtown Pawtucket a new hub of affordable housing, with the housing built around urban growing spaces, similar to the Sankofa Initiative in the West End of Providence?

And, similar to the Neighborhood Health Station now under construction in Central Falls, why not make the hub the site of a new Neighborhood Health Station serving one of several Pawtucket communities?

The opportunities exist to build an entirely new career path around food production, expanding the current small Harvest Kitchen production facility run by Farm Fresh RI.

To do that requires a different way of thinking about sustainable economic development, how to build a culture of health, and, perhaps most importantly, creating a different narrative around community, wealth and place-based health. It would mean creating new mechanisms to hold CEOs accountable, a different take on what has become another familiar baseball movie cliché: If you build it, they will come.

In that context, the work being done by the Barrington Farm School to restore a working farm as an educational enterprise, building the fabric of community around the art and science of farming, has much value to offer. Perhaps it could be promoted by the slogan: In good soil we trust.


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