The Call and Times, Column 23 – The Hand That Feeds You – Blue Skys Farm, Cranston

7 08 2015

(June 21st, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Blue Skys Farm, Cranston

Blue Skys Farm Crew

As urban farmers, our guiding principle is to grow, raise, and gather as much of our own food as we can. But living in the city, we are bound by another rule: we can’t do it all. For everything that we can’t produce ourselves, we must make it our goal to buy local, responsibly-grown foods, in season, from the people who grew them.

With that in mind, I’m happy to announce the beginning of a series of columns entitled “The Hand That Feeds You”. Over the next few months, I will be profiling local farms, food producers, and agricultural businesses in our area, taking a look at the work they do.

So without further ado, let me introduce you to Christina Dedora, the first subject of this exciting summer series, and the owner of Blue Skys Farm (www.blueskysfarm.com).

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting the farm on Pippin Orchard Road in beautiful western Cranston. As Christina explained to me, the 50 acre piece of land on which the farm is located is owned and protected by the Rhode Island DEM. They lease it to the Southside Community Land Trust, which in turn leases much of it to five farms – Pak Express, Blue Skys, Scratch, Big Train, and Zephyr – via its agricultural incubator program, Urban Edge Farm. This program has been going on for 15 years, and the individual farmers grow on plots of between 1/8th of an acre to two acres apiece.

Christina grew up in Rhode Island and moved to Boston at age 19. Following a job around and, in her words, “trying to climb the corporate ladder”, she lived in Connecticut for a while, before moving to France to study the French language.

Reminiscing, she described how the French, with their renowned cuisine and appreciation of agricultural terroir, “taught me that food tastes good”. And with that, the increasingly common call back to our agrarian roots largely responsible for the recent uptick in the number of small farms, Christina became a farmer.

She got a job on a farm in France, but soon returned home with agricultural ambitions. After initially setting up shop in Massachusetts, and learning firsthand about the unfriendliness with which disconnected governments can treat small farmers, she moved back to Rhode Island.

That was 10 years ago, when she began part-time farming at what was to become Blue Skys Farm. Five years ago, she became a full time farmer – and the rest is history.

When I first got to the farm, I found the crew in the Packing Room, bagging up snap peas and bundling sweet-smelling flowers and herbs in preparation for market the next day.

They sell their produce at four farmers markets throughout the year:

  • Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market, Saturdays, 9-1 pm, November through May, in Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket
  • Woonsocket Winter Farmers Market, Tuesdays, 3-6 pm, November through June, at Thundermist Health Center in Woonsocket
  • West Warwick Farmers Market, Thursdays, 3-6 pm, July through October, at Thundermist in West Warwick
  • Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market, Saturdays, 9-12 pm, May through October, in Rhodes on the Pawtuxet Parking Lot in Cranston

You can find out more information about these markets at http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farmersmarkets.php.

In addition to the farmers markets, Blue Skys operates a 20-week CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, from June through October. The 2015 CSA (which has already begun this year) has 22 members, a number that is growing every year.

We started the tour in Blue Skys’ main fields, full of rows of flowers, herbs, and cool-season vegetables. Christina showed me the farm’s two high tunnels – passively-solar-heated structures that allow early plantings of warm-season crops, like tomatoes and beans.

Blue Skys grows a huge variety of vegetables, flowers, and herbs. A partial list of crops includes turnips, lettuce mix, snap peas, kale, Swiss chard, summer squash, beets, carrots, arugula, tomatoes, purple potatoes, yellow pole beans, tomatillos, peppers, and a huge variety of herbs and flowers – Echinacea, ornamental sunflowers, sweet-smelling peonies, lilies, lavender, and nettles, to name a few.

As we started up the beautiful dirt road that snakes through the farm, Christina explained to me about their irrigation system. A large pond sits a short way up the road from the main fields, fed both by an underground spring and by rainfall. The five farms on the land together pay to operate a pump, which filters and disburses the pond water throughout the land a few days a week, providing for both overhead and drip irrigation in the fields, high tunnels, and greenhouses.

This system is an archetype of Blue Skys’ growing practices. Christina described the farm as chemical-free – not certified organic, but utilizing practices that are above and beyond those required by organic standards. They use no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides; instead, they build their soil’s fertility using farm-grown nettle tea and comfrey syrup, Rhode Island-produced compost, and fish emulsion. Much of their energy comes from solar panels that cover the roofs of many of the farm’s buildings – another collaborative effort.

As we ended the tour in their big barn, which holds a communal wash room, storage area, and drying room, a bigger picture was emerging. The solar panels and pond-irrigation system, a huge greenhouse, important on-farm processing and storage facilities – all shared by the five farms, whose acreage I had seen as we walked up the road.

“Collaborative farming is effective”, Christina explained, after we completed the tour and broke for lunch. She couldn’t say enough about the value of her on-farm team, volunteers and work-share members alike. And she described her fellow farmers as seven people from very different backgrounds, technically competitors within Rhode Island’s local food market. But this sharing – of farm resources, facilities, tools, and knowledge – helps to make their farms more productive, more financially lucrative, and more community-oriented. And in an environment dominated by massive, polluting, industrial mega-farms, collaboration gives these local farmers the tools they need to compete for space on Rhode Islanders’ plates.

This sense of beneficial collaboration speaks to Blue Skys larger mission – to provide people with, and educate them about, good local food, and to take care of the Earth.

These goals are, in their most basic sense, the same. Throughout our conversations, a topic that kept coming up was the loss of community. The agrarian social structure that phased out over the last century took with it some important and irreplaceable wisdom – a widespread understanding of the seasons; of true quality; of community. People understood their food to come from the soil, from plants and animals and fungi and farmers, rather than from a box. And from this understanding, they knew that the food they ate healed their Earth…or destroyed it.

Christina’s central goal is to revitalize this cultural wisdom. In my humble opinion, her agriculture is helping to do just that.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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