Recognizing that Rhode Island must take full advantage of opportunities in its sizable agricultural community to rebuild the state's economy, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) joined representatives of the RI Center for Agriculture Promotion and Education (RICAPE) and other industry leaders to provide information about the impact of recently-announced federal funding and discuss industry priorities.
The group met in South Kingstown at The Farmer's Daughter's garden center as part of Langevin's effort to highlight the economic opportunity that exists in the farming community. Langevin and RICAPE Director Stu Nunnery opened the discussion by addressing an $85,000 grant that the organization received from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help promote the state's farms to in- and out-of-state visitors.
"This award is a great testament to the fantastic work being done by RICAPE, and to all of the exciting developments we are seeing in Rhode Island agriculture," said Langevin. "The last Agriculture Census found a 42 percent increase in the number of farms in Rhode Island, the second highest of any state in the country. We must utilize all of our resources if we expect to successfully revive our economy, and it's clear that further growth is possible in agriculture."
RICAPE's award, from the Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program, will be used to launch and deliver a web-based, broadcast-quality series of video training programs to Rhode Island's farm operators and staff called "The Destination Farm in Transition." A destination farm provides visitor experiences, activities and amenities beyond traditional farm products. Ultimately, the goal is to expand tourism around Rhode Island's farms and rural areas. In addition, USDA estimates the grant will create 15-20 full-time jobs as well as part-time jobs.
"This award allows us to continue to build a broad based training platform for farmers engaged in agritourism -- those seeking to expand their visitor amenities and activities," said Nunnery, who noted that RICAPE will now be able to deliver training programs direct to the farmer via video and the web, allowing for viewing at the farmer's convenience. "Between 2002 and 2007, agritourism in Rhode Island grew sevenfold and has become a principal source of new revenues for farmers not only here but throughout New England.
"This event is an important threshold for us, our Congressman and our state leaders. Together, we acknowledge that farming is a business and agriculture an industry and that both are critical players in Rhode Island's economic future. Through this grant, we can expand our training programs to assist farmers to further develop their skill sets and profit-making potential."
According to a study released in April by the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association, the state Department of Environmental Management, the University of Rhode Island and other partners, Rhode Island's Green-Related Industries, including agriculture and landscape, have a total annual economic impact of at least $1.7 billion and a total jobs impact of more than 12,000.
Today's event followed the House Agriculture Committee's passage of the federal Farm Bill, which sets national farm and food policy every five years, last Thursday. Langevin emphasized the importance of supporting efforts by RICAPE and their partners through policies that give Rhode Island farmers a fair shot to compete with larger farms.
The House bill includes key portions of the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, which Langevin cosponsored to better ensure adequate support for the specialty crops and local and regional farms that predominate in Rhode Island. One of the provisions benefits Farm-to-School programs by allowing schools to spend their federal commodity funding to buy food from local farmers. Earlier this year, Langevin brought the USDA's top New England official to Rhode Island schools to highlight the state's lead role in this initiative, which results in healthier student meals and a boost for the local economy.
"I hope we can continue to expand these and other efforts to buy local," said Langevin. "However, while we have been making progress, there is certainly more work to do to level the playing field for our farmers. I am also concerned about the major cuts to food stamps in the committee's bill. This is a vital program for people struggling the most, and it has proven to help the economy. We can address this issue in a fiscally responsible way that also reduces the deficit by eliminating more unnecessary subsidies that big corporate farms receive."
Among other parts of the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act it incorporates, the House bill would:
Diversify crop insurance to benefit small farms by allowing farmers who grow a range of products to get insurance for their crops, just like large-scale commodity farmers now do;
Support organic crop insurance, which treats organic farmers more equitably and will give organic farmers a fair price for their food; and
Provide for value-added producer grants, which allow farmers to make investments that will increase the value of their products.
Other participants in today's discussion included:
Sarah Partyka from The Farmer's Daughter; Clem Desjardin, president of the RI Nursery and Landscape Association; Ken Payne, Coordinator for the RI Agricultural Partnership; and members of the RICAPE Board of Directors, including John Schenck, Publisher of Edible Rhody, Jonathan Lhowe, President of www.VisitNewEngland.com, Nancy Parker Wilson of Greenvale Vineyards, and Vera Bowen, Past-President of the RI Federation of Garden Clubs.