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By Arline A. Fleming
SMITHFIELD — Area farmers say they are ready to welcome the summer fruit and vegetable-craving public with crops so crisp and fresh, the morning dew will go home with berries and tomatoes, basil and corn.
Though each growing season brings challenges in producing next-door fresh peppers and pick-your-own berries, apples and pumpkins, the challenges, farmers say, vary from erratic weather patterns, to exotic insects to new employees needing to be re-trained each year.
And if there isn’t enough to do in planting, pruning and harvesting, farmers everywhere now have to maintain up-to-date websites and keep their Facebook posts as fresh as their produce.
“Crazy farming,” said Bernie Smith, who along with his wife Mary Ellen, has devoted more than 30 years to their berry, apple and peach orchards at 359 Sawmill Rd., North Scituate.
Inquiries about crop readiness start in late May but their pick-your-own blueberry crop usually start to pop along with the fireworks of the Fourth of July. Their other crops follow into the fall.
From the quiet of their neatly-kept acres, with the only background sounds coming from nature, they tell of the joys of welcoming back loyal customers season after season.
“We have a mailing list of 2,000 post cards that we send out saying the blueberries are ready,” Bernie says, acknowledging how they could send out emails a lot easier and cheaper.
But many of their customers tell them they “wait every day to get that card and they put it on their refrigerator,” he said, adding that “in this stage of the game,” he might as well stay the course.
The Smiths offer blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, followed by several varieties of apples at their 28-acre farm. They also grow peaches but like peach growers throughout New England, this summer’s crop was hurt by unusually warm winter days, which preceded the February and March cold snaps.
“The peaches started to get ready to bloom early and then the weather went back to winter and killed the peach buds,” Smith explained.
Though the Smiths are disappointed, they are veterans when it comes to dealing with the vagaries of weather.
“You are always on pins and needles,” Mary Ellen said, but the other side of the scenario this season is a berry crop that looks strong and healthy for July pickers, and an apple crop that will begin to pop in August.
“I think it is going to be an excellent year,” Bernie said standing among clean and tidy rows of berries that he protects from predators with massive bolts of netting, a job that requires extra helpers to pull on and pull off.
The Smiths enjoy sharing “the experience of just being on the farm itself” with those who come to their stand and orchards. From school groups to families to the elderly moving through the blueberry rows with the help of canes or walkers, it has become a rite of July. The Smiths provide port-a-johns for pickers, as well as scheduling a few nights of evening hours for after-work customers, or those avoiding the heat of the day.
“For some people, it is their only opportunity to be on a farm,” Mary Ellen said, and come autumn, they will offer hay-rides “to try to make it an experience for the kids.”
The Smiths say they always have fruit ready at their stand for those who want the fresh fruit but may not have time to pick their own. And while they don’t grow pumpkins, they will offer them for sale in the fall.
“Every farm is a different experience, every one is an education,” Bernie said, acknowledging his farming neighbors by suggesting: “Visit all the farms.”
Harmony Farms, 359 Sawmill Rd., North Scituate. For specifics, check www.harmonyfarmsri.com or call 401-934-0741.
Those passing by Barden’s Family Orchard at 56 Elmdale Rd., North Scituate might not realize that there are more than apples growing here.
And shoppers at the Barden’s farmstand, and at their farmer’s market tables across the state will discover varieties of fruit and vegetables produced at this multi-generation farm.
“We have pick your own cherry tomatoes,” noted Sandra Barden of the crop that is expected to ripen by mid-summer. “People really like it. Some customers come back to pick every week.”
While it is difficult to predict an exact date for tomato arrival, she said, look toward late July, a time when other crops will begin to appear, such as eggplant and squash.
“We put the tomatoes in early because people really want them,” Gil Barden said, some 700 plants to be exact.
While their peaches this year went the way of most peaches in the east, Gil Barden said “the apple crop is just fine,” and the berries are, too, so pick-your-own fans should be happy to see blueberries, raspberries and blackberries starting in late July.
Bardens have been farming this parcel since 1931, with Gil’s grandfather John an early proponent of pick-your-own crops.
Farm stand and farmer’s market shoppers have changed in the past few years, he said, arriving with more enthusiasm for locally-grown crops and a greater knowledge and appreciation for Rhode Island’s own.
“There’s so much more education out there,” he said, which has resulted in more customers at their farmstand and their farmer’s market tables.
“The buy local movement has helped.”
FarmFresh R.I. lists approximately 44 summertime farmer’s markets in Rhode Island on its website, www.farmfreshri.org, said Rebecca C. Seggel, communications director, where consumers can find markets closest to their homes.
Gail Mastrati of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management said that over the past 10 years “our local food economy has prospered. Local food and agriculture are hotbeds for innovation and entrepreneurship spurred on by a growing awareness of the benefits of eating fresh, locally grown food and being connected to a local farmer, nursery or fisherman.”
Good news, but farmers still grapple with coordinating when fruits and vegetables are ready with when people expect them to be ready, Barden said. Weather conditions affect availability, and year-round in-store products from out-of-the-country influence consumer’s perceptions of what to expect at farmer’s markets.
“We sell what we grow,” said Sandra, with Gil telling of the huge amount of work that goes into traveling to numerous farmers markets throughout the week; Loading, unloading, loading back up and unloading again, oftentimes rising at 3 a.m. to do so.
“It’s demanding,” he said smiling, the demand he clearly loves calling him back to the fields.
Barden’s Family Orchard, 56 Elmdale Rd. North Scituate. For specifics in terms of picking, hours, and directions, check www.bardenfamilyorchard.com or call 401-934-1413. They are also on Facebook.
The area surrounding Salisbury Farm at 11 Peck Hill Rd., Johnston, and the land itself, speaks to its past. Two old cemeteries, a former family farm house, stories about a nearby stagecoach stop and a barn, which is the centerpiece of this active farm give evidence to its roots, which date back to the 1800s.
Past lives include incarnations as a hay farm and then a dairy farm into the 1970s when according to its website, Roger Salisbury “handed over operations of the farm to his son and current operator Wayne Salisbury.”
He is the fifth generation to own and operate the farm, which is known for its ruby red strawberry signs tacked up around the area. Though pick-your-own strawberry season usually comes to a close in early July, the farmstand often has some to sell, he said.
A former high school teacher, he and other family members keep the farm going with traditional offerings of fruit and vegetables, and other unique and original ways to keep Salisbury Farm alive, such as the firewood being offered, or the autumn corn maze.
“Our corn maze was the first in New England,” Salisbury said of the area that in fall becomes a huge attraction, along with hayrides and pumpkins.
While he acknowledged the wild swings of winter and what happens to the budding crops, Salisbury noted another challenge in maintaining farm fresh products for Rhode Islanders: labor.
“The weather is always interesting, but labor is always a problem. Right now we are in pretty good shape as far as labor is concerned. Most of the younger people who come to work here will be around three or four years and then they leave and you have to train another group.”
Strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn and a variety of vegetables are listed on the website as being “grown right on our farm in Johnston.”
“The whole nine yards,” said Wayne Salisbury.
Salisbury Farm , 11 Peck Hill Rd. Johnston. For specifics in terms of picking and hours, directions and events, check www.salisburyfarm.com or call 401-942-9741. They are also on Facebook.
Pezza Farm, which borders Salisbury Farm, is a busy place even at 9 o’clock on a weekday morning.
Dogs and cats co-exist “because they have to,” says Doreen Pezza, who dashes from plant stand to register almost as swiftly as her daughter Shelley who waters plants and advises customers openly and willingly.
“Can we help you dear,” she asks a familiar face, going off to explain the vagaries of a particular plant.
“We’re here to help,” she said, “one of us is always here to help and we enjoy sharing information.”
It is hours before a busy weekend and she apologizes but knows there are only a few minutes to spare.
“People want to get out before it gets too hot,” she says, standing before table after table of flowers for planting.
While watering them all, she told of their multiple greenhouses, their 25 acres of vegetables, various farmer’s markets, and months of seven-days-a-week work to get the local products to the farm loving public.
What kinds of vegetables do they offer?
“Everything,” she said, filling in the blanks from A with acorn squash to z for zucchini, “and everything in between.” And come July, there will be some flowers “to decorate for cookouts or containers” and to replace spring flowers that have gone by. “We will be having a huge annual sale,” she said of those early July days.
All of this is accomplished at the hands of Michael and Doreen Pezza, and their children, son Craig and daughter Shelley who adds “and my kids are fourth generation.”
There are plenty of special attractions at Pezza Farm, too. Animals for the children, birthday parties, field trips and make-your-own scarecrow sessions in the fall, and if you ever wondered if house plants are still in demand, Pezza Farm takes care of that too, starting in spring, overseen personally by Doreen who also offers terrariums.
By December, look for holiday plants of several varieties before they close up for a few weeks.
“We have expanded the season over the course of the years,” Shelley said, partly because “there has been a huge push to buy local. It is fantastic. We are growing more,” she said, and they also offer eggs and honey as well as Rhody Fresh products.
“From July 1 on, we are out straight keeping up with farmer’s markets,” and of course their own farm stand.
On a first-name basis with many customers, Shelley responds to a summer squash plant question while continuing to water.
Multi-tasking season has arrived.
Pezza Farm, 2279 Plainfield Pike, Johnston. For specifics, check www.pezzafarm.com or call 401-943-2707. They are also on Facebook.
Stop and take in the quiet at Jaswell’s Farm, 50 Swan Rd. Smithfield, where four generations of this local family have farmed the land and fed the public with crops ranging from June’s strawberries to July’s blueberries to the upcoming summer salad specialties of cukes and tomatoes.
“We have extended the growing season,” said Allison Jaswell Mollis, who along with her brother Christopher and parents Pat and Richard devote these summer days to meeting the public’s desire to buy local.
“We have definitely seen a nice trend of people wanting to know where their food is coming from,” noted Allison on the brink of opening day at the stand, her to-do list growing.
“We have a wonderful customer base. They are like family and we try to support them with good products. We need to constantly change and grow and acclimate,” she said.
“People are more knowledgeable now,” she said of shoppers who are aware of power foods and buying foods grown close to home.
While the Swan Road market tries to make things easy for their customers by carrying locally sourced convenience items such as mixes and milk, eggs and in-house pastry items, the focus is still on their own produce.
“In July, the summer fare will be starting,” she said, looking forward herself to corn, cukes, tomatoes and blueberries.
Her own parents “were somewhat pioneering. Our dad and mom wanted to appeal to the consumers and so they pioneered our retail business,” she said, “while our grandparents did more wholesale.”
“My mom wanted to stay home with us in the late 1960s, so it originally started with a picnic table, and my mom would sell our summer stuff.”
That idea grew along with the children and before long they were offering pick your own apples, then strawberries.”
While July and August are busy and bountiful, this farmer’s daughter hopes the shopping public will check out their September produce as well.
“There’s such an abundance of produce in September and October. We kind of get into that routine where the kids are going back to school…” she trailed off, and the traditional mindset of the changing season takes over the consumer.
But September has a lot to offer and that’s when there is an abundance coming through,” she said. “You really want to take advantage of that.”
And though people come looking for apple cider then, she said, “we manufacture apple cider here year round.”
Jaswell’s Farm, 50 Swan Rd., Smithfield. For specifics check www.jaswellsfarm.com or call 401-231-9043. They are also on Facebook.