“It’s a great day at the State House. It’s not every day they’re giving away food,” Governor Gina Raimondo joked in her speech at Rhode Island’s 15th annual Ag Day at the State House on May 10. It is a fact that the food at Ag Day is always a highlight: 45 vendors take the opportunity to showcase the best of Rhode Island agriculture. But Ag Day is more than that. It has become a time to celebrate one of the true growth industries in the Ocean State: Local agriculture.
The day began at 11:30 a.m. with displays representing all facets of Rhode Island agriculture lining the State House Rotunda. Individual farms, agricultural service providers, and grower associations all had the opportunity to present information about their corner of the industry. Students on school tours wove their way through the displays, getting a sense that Rhode Island farming is alive and well. Most importantly, state legislators, many of whom represent urban constituents, got a chance to see the impact of local agriculture on the state’s economy and ethos.
At 2 p.m. a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the State Room for the formal speeches. RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Director Janet Coit welcomed the attendees and provided an overview of the current agricultural climate. The number of farms in Rhode Island has increased 50 percent over the past 10 years, bringing the total to over 1,200. Over 40 farmers markets operate across the state, several open year-round.
Agriculture, the Governor said, is an “increasingly important part of our economy as well as our food tourism economy.” Studies credit the agricultural sector with providing 15,000 jobs and $2.5 billion dollars to the state’s economy. To capitalize on this, the Governor announced the hiring of Sue AnderBois to fill the newly created position of Director of Foods Strategy. She will be spearheading the development of Rhode Island’s first statewide food plan.
Following the Governor’s comments, First Gentleman Andy Moffit took the podium. Mr. Moffit serves as the chair of the Rhode Island Outdoor Recreation Council and reminded listeners that Rhode Island ranks number one in Farm to School in the country and third in farms selling directly to the public.
DEM Director Coit then introduced State Senator Susan Sosnowski, a turf farmer turned vegetable farmer turned legislator. She has steadfastly and successfully presented pro-ag legislation for many years. The Senator noted that the 1980’s were a “crossroads” for agriculture in Rhode Island, with a definite shift occurring from marketing wholesale to marketing retail. Although it “was difficult for farmers to go through this transition,” she observed that the result has been a steady increase in the number of Rhode Island farms since 2002.
The importance of this industry led to the creation of “Grow Green Jobs RI: A Legislative Action Plan” by The Rhode Island Senate Policy Office this January. Included in the plan are 20 actions to grow the green industry, including streamlined regulatory practices, workforce development and expansion of renewable energy. Sonsowski affirmed, “Agriculture still holds enormous potential for economic growth in Rhode Island.”
Neil Steinberg of the Rhode Island Foundation then rose and praised the efficacy and innovation of three-year-old Local Agriculture and Seafood Act (LASA) grant program.
Courtney Bourns of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, the ‘architect’ of LASA’s matching funds, echoed Steinberg’s sentiments. She talked about LASA’s role in “50 by 60”, the goal of having 50 percent of New England’s food produced in the region by 2060.
To emphasize the impact of the LASA grants, 2014 LASA Grant recipient Bob DiPietro of the RI Mushroom Company, shared his story. As a startup business, he and his partners were not eligible for bank funding but had consumer demand that justified expansion. The LASA grant enabled him to put a down payment on two greenhouses, bringing his total to three and tripling production. RI Mushroom Co. is now one the largest specialty mushroom growers in the Northeast. He says, “The timing of the LASA grant really jump-started our business. Very few states have the kind of cooperative atmosphere that we do.”
That the agricultural community feels the need for this kind of collaborative funding was evident by the fact that the LASA program received 72 applications and had funds for only sixteen.
Grants included topics from defraying operational costs for the state’s first oyster hatchery to increasing poultry processing capacity to conducting local sugar kelp research. By providing support to businesses such as these, funders anticipate that Rhode Island agriculture will continue to grow and influence the physical, economic and social health of the Ocean State.