Carter Wilkie on “Keeping the Farm in ‘Farm Coast'”

Little Compton Historical Society > Exhibits > Everyone Was a Farmer > Carter Wilkie on “Keeping the Farm in ‘Farm Coast'”

On Wednesday, August 11, the Little Compton Historical Society asked five people to speak at their annual meeting about farming in Little Compton from their perspectives as farmers or part-time farmers. As the newest of the bunch, Carter Wilkie focused his five-minute talk on whether farming has a future in Little Compton. Here is what he shared:

Will today’s generation of farmers in Little Compton go into the history books as our last? Consider the implications of that and let that sink in for a moment.

Travel New England’s coastline – all 556 miles of it – and you will see many coastal communities. Some even rival Little Compton for unspoiled beauty. But what makes Little Compton unique among them is the fact that we are one of the last coastal farming communities left in Southern New England. One of the last places in New England outside of the state of Maine where farming and sailing can be seen in the same view.

Farming is core to this town’s identity. Little Compton would not be Little Compton without farming in Little Compton. Last year, during the election for Town Council, just about every candidate from every political persuasion pledged allegiance to the importance of preserving Little Compton’s rural character. In our polarized political era, it was one thing that everyone here could agree on.

Over the last 35 years, the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust has spent $26 million of taxpayers’ money (most of it paid by people who were new to town) to protect more than 2,000 acres of farmland. That’s a remarkable, unique achievement for which we should all be thankful. But by itself, it doesn’t guarantee a future of farming in Little Compton.

In the 1970s and 80s, I went to school in one of the most beautiful rural locales in the East: the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley at the northern tip of Delaware. Over the past 50 years, a lot of land in that part of the country has been protected by conservationists and land trusts, but nobody thought to preserve the farming. Now it’s gone. And the region’s rural character is gone with it.

When the number of farms in a location falls below a minimum threshold, the ecosystem of mutual support for farming dies. Soon, there aren’t enough farms to keep the feed store in operation. Then next to go is the one the guy in town who can repair any type of farm machinery. Eventually, there is no one left around with the equipment or the skills to cut and bale hay for the last remaining holdouts who still raise horses as lawn ornaments.

The Little Compton Historical Society’s new exhibit, “Everyone Was a Farmer” reminds everyone who is not a farmer just how critical farmers and farming are to the rural character of this coastal community. You can’t preserve rural character without rural characters.

Take the farmer off the land and farmland ceases to be farmland. If neglected, it quickly gets obscured by a tangle of invasive vines as fields revert to woodland. Then watch as Little Compton slowly loses its traditional landscape pattern of open farm fields bounded by stonewalls.

Do we have a critical mass of farming for Little Compton’s identity as a coastal farming community to survive well into the 21st century? I’d say we are at a tipping point that can go in either direction. From my perspective, farming in Little Compton today is like a slowly burning fire that looks quaint and generates a little comfort but is at risk of burning itself out — unless we find a way to throw some new logs on the fire.

What will it take to do that here? I’d like to suggest four things:

First, there needs to be a shared vision of the role of farming in Little Compton’s future and agreement in the town’s next comprehensive plan on what it will take to preserve farming in this community.

We can learn from the Aquidneck Land Trust, which has surveyed their entire island for where clusters of farming should be concentrated in the years ahead, to make sure farming maintains critical mass and density to survive. Their plan prioritizes which privately owned farm parcels deserve funding for preservation, according to explicit criteria agreed upon in advance and published for all to see. Another benefit of putting a plan in writing is how it can minimize future land use disputes between abutters when everyone knows what to expect.

Second, we need to recruit some of the next generation of farmers. Across Rhode Island, nearly half of new farmers entering farming today did not inherit farmland from their family. Like my youngest daughter who is about to enter college to major in sustainable agriculture, they are eager young people searching for good land to farm, in a good climate with a long growing season, near dense urban markets like Providence and Boston. Little Compton has all that in abundance. There is no shortage of budding farmers who would jump at the chance to farm here, following in the tradition of first-generation Portuguese farmers who arrived in the 19th century to start a new life and put down roots and contribute to the life of this community.

Over the last eight years, the Westport Land Conservancy Trust has worked with the Town if Westport to establish four new farm enterprises on conserved farmland. One of them produces farmstead cheese from a herd of dairy goats. Another plans to grow blueberries in the South Coast’s highly acidic soil . All four of these farm properties will be back on the tax rolls, cared for by private owners and no longer maintained at town expense. Because each of these land conservation deals were funded with public tax dollars, the farmers were selected through an open and transparent Request for Proposals process that anyone could enter. Pre-announced selection criteria allowed WLCT to choose the best proposal and who would be the best steward of the land with the best farming model that would be welcomed by the town. If Little Compton did that at the same rate of one new farm enterprise every two years, we could see five new farms here by end of the decade.

Third, this town has to address where a young farm couple is going to live in a community with few starter homes. To preserve farmland as farmland, we need to make allowance for where a farmer can live on it in the future.

In the Hudson Valley of New York – another beautiful locale much desired by summer people, where real estate is every bit as expensive as here – towns will allow a farm family to build a live/work space that looks like a traditional, two-story barn, with work space on the first floor (for farm equipment, or produce washing stations, or meat lockers) and living space upstairs. A mixed-use structure isn’t permitted under Little Compton’s zoning code, even though one could design it to look like a barn that has always been here. At the same time, ironically, Little Compton’s zoning code will permit someone to build a one-story suburban style ranch house out of brick on a two-acre suburban lot. Maybe it’s time to reexamine Little Compton’s zoning to see how friendly it really is to “rural character.”

Fourth, we can encourage greater consumer demand for locally produced farm products. Where you spend your household’s food budget shapes what the landscape around you is going to look like. The more produce, eggs, honey, jam, cheese, meat, flowers and landscape plants and trees that you can buy from your neighbors influences how many nearby farms can remain farms.

With the onset of climate change and the increased frequency of catastrophic weather events (droughts, wildfires, etc.) we may have to start asking ourselves how long can we rely on California’s Central Valley to grow all our food? To survive in a time when extreme weather events become routine, New Englanders may one day require farming skills on a scale that we can’t even imagine today. No farms, no food.

I don’t know what the future holds , but I do know this: the future of farming in Little Compton will be different from what we all grew up with. As this history exhibit shows, that’s been true here for generations, with farming always adapting to changing market conditions from one generation to the next. With the size of land holdings small in Rhode Island, that suggests a future of fewer commodities produced in monocultures and sold through middlemen who take the bulk of profits. It means more profitable farm sales direct to consumer. And more farm to table, championed by chefs in Providence and Boston who want to educate their customers about the merits of locally produced food.

Will today’s generation of farmers in Little Compton be our last? Communities have choices. They can accept the future they get handed to them by somebody else. Or they can work together to create the future they want. What story this exhibit on farming tells to future generations is really up to you and what you decide to do today.

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