Ag Day at the State House is always one of Rhode Island agriculture’s biggest days, but this year was historic. On May 17, 2017, the halls around the rotunda were filled with farmers distributing samples of local delicacies and Ag service.
The day culminated with a gathering in the State Room. Farmers, state legislators and representatives of Congressional delegates filled the room to capacity and spilled into the hallway. Janet Coit, Director of the RI Department of Environmental Management served as the master of ceremonies.
Coit provided the attendees with a small glimpse of the status of Rhode Island agriculture, highlighting the existence of over 1,200 farms and 106 “protected” farms.
First Gentleman Andy Moffit offered praise for local farmers. About Rhode Island’s agriculturalists Moffit said, “This community cares about Rhode Island…[and is] trying to make Rhode Island better one turnip at a time.”
Accolades for the state’s farmers also came from State Senator Susan Sosnowski, herself a long-time grower of turf and produce. Sosnowski then shifted the focus from the accomplishments of Rhode Island’s farmers to the difficulties facing Rhode Island agriculture. She noted, “It’s still not easy to make a living farming in Rhode Island.”
Many of the challenges she cited are legislative issues. Recently the state legislature passed a bill allowing farmers to perform “routine veterinary practices” such as castration and dehorning. Before passage of the bill, Rhode Island was the only state in the Union who limited the performance of such activities to licensed veterinarians.
Other pending legislation includes a bill making it easier to put renewable energy on-farm not only to power the farm operations but also to generate additional income.
A key concern Sosnowski addressed is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011. Within the past month, the State Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture heard testimony from farmers about the impact of FSMA on local agriculture. In response, the committee drafted a letter to President Trump to urge him to amend or repeal the Act. Sosnowski expressed hope a similar letter will be forthcoming from the entire Senate.
Governor Gina Raimondo also met recently with a group of farmers and other interested parties about FSMA and the new Worker Protection Standards. During her Ag Day address she affirmed her awareness of “onerous” local and federal laws and vowed, “I’m going to help you with that.”
Raimondo’s interest in local food led her to initiate the development of a state-wide food strategy. The final version — the first in the country — was unveiled on this 16th Annual Ag Day.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the RI Department of Health and contributor to the plan, announced, “Today we celebrate having a comprehensive, thorough, thoughtful, well-engaged, strong food strategy led and facilitated by the nation’s first Director of Food Strategy.”
The plan addresses all aspects of the food system, from growing to harvesting to processing to consuming to handling food waste. RI Director of Food Strategy, Sue AnderBois, said the strategy can be divided under three main topics: Environmental Sustainability and Resiliency, Health and Equitable Access to Food, and Opportunities for Economic Development. The intent is to maximize the points of intersection to allow for the greatest positive impact on the entire food system.
The Food Strategy includes elements directly relating to agricultural production, but its focus is much broader. Ultimately, the goal is to expand access to healthy food to all citizens, not just those of a certain economic or ethnic status. Alexander-Scott declared, “This food strategy is just one more way that we as a department and Rhode Island as a state are…working to give all Rhode Islanders an equal opportunity to live healthy lives in healthy communities.” The full strategy is available for download at RelishRhody.com .
To highlight the impact of committed “foodies” to Rhode Island’s ethos and well-being, Maria Meza shared her story as owner of the restaurant El Rancho Grande. She and her family have served authentic Mexican food for 10 years. The recipes she learned from her family and they exist only in her mind. In addition to hard work, she believes their success is attributable to one philosophy: “We cook with patience and love.”
Meza has observed the growth of the local food movement in the state. She remarked, “That’s the only way I say Rhode Island [is] going to be big.”
Rhode Island’s commitment to continuing the growth of agriculture and food access is evidenced by the four-year-old Local Agriculture and Seafood Act (LASA) grant program. A partnership between private and public funders, the grant program awarded a total of $230,000 to 21 farmers and fishermen this year. Projects ranged from expanding a sugar kelp hatchery to supporting the creation of a pawpaw fruit orchard. Moffit lauded the LASA program: “This is such a smart investment for our state.”
Erika Lamb, a 2016 LASA recipient, is an example of the return on the investment. Her business, Seconds First, was developed in response to the statistic one in every seven Rhode Island residents is food insecure. She partners with local growers to utilize food which is not easily marketed but is still safe and nutritious. Using “wonky potatoes, rock fish and skate wing, and imperfect carrots,” she creates healthy, low-cost meals.
This kind of innovation is exactly what LASA and the Food Strategy intend to inspire. As the Food Strategy and the LASA grants move from conception to implementation, the results will show whether Lamb is correct in her belief that Rhode Island can “show the rest of the country how it’s exactly done.”