Problem Solving and Business Savvy Fuel Growth of 45-acre Sustainable Organic Farm in Rhode Island
April 6, 2012 | Helen Weatherall
The monument to the Rhode Island Red chicken speaks volumes. Not found in Idaho, Florida, California or other agricultural superpower states, the bronze plaque mounted on granite is located in Adamsville, a small village in Little Compton, Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Red, which originated in Little Compton, is so highly regarded in fact that one black-breasted rooster said to be a foundation sire is stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian Institution. That Little Compton, a peninsula located in the nation’s smallest state, produced such an exemplary egg layer may surprise some but likely not those familiar with Little Compton’s Wishing Stone Farm. Owned and operated by husband and wife team Liz Peckham and Skip Paul, Wishing Stone Farm is a highly productive 45 acre sustainable farm situated on that same sea stroked neck of land.
The story of Wishing Stone Farm began thirty-one years ago when soon after getting married, Peckham and Paul purchased an old farm near Peckham’s childhood home. Paul had been trained in painting, music and meditation, and Peckham in graphic arts, but the notion of striking out in farming wasn’t altogether fanciful. Five generations of Peckhams had worked the land of Little Compton in one manner or another and Paul had had his hand in health food store startups out west.
From the beginning it was a question of problem solving. Under its previous owners the land the couple acquired had been used year after year to grow silage corn. According to standard practice, the heavy feeding monocrop received plenty of chemical fertilizer and regular applications of pesticide. But by applying what they knew and scouring all available sources for guidance, Paul and Peckham gave the farm new life. Five years into its new ownership, Wishing Stone Farm became one of Rhode Island’s first designated organic growers to supply produce to the grocery chain now called Whole Foods Market.
Wishing Stone is now one of Rhode Island’s largest state certified organic farms, managing approximately 35 acres of fields and 30,000 sq. ft. of greenhouse space. According to the farm’s website, “the majority of our produce is grown organically, however certain crops such as peaches are farmed with biorational/IPM methods, and are always labeled as such.”
Today, while still supplying to Whole Foods, Wishing Stone Farm is busy with a great deal more. Currently only 20 percent of its return is derived from wholesale.
Serving as a middleman, Market Mobile enables restaurants and institutions to use an online interface to order fresh produce, eggs, honey and other agricultural goods from 40 Massachusetts and Rhode Island farms and producers, including Wishing Stone Farm.
“It’s a marriage of low and high tech,” said Paul of Market Mobile, a self-described ‘farm-to-biz delivery’ service. “It’s a growing part of our business.”
Early on, as Wishing Stone Farm grew, Paul and Peckham developed a farmstand business, which proved successful enough to continue for fourteen years. But as Paul built greenhouses to grow a winter tomato crop and increased overall production by expanding onto leased land, the couple found they needed to find a new way to market their produce. They needed to connect with urban areas.
“We began to do farmers markets when farmstands were (still) the way to go,” recounted Paul.
This season like others before it, Paul and Peckham will be selling their honey, eggs, and produce that includes 28 varieties of lettuce, 12 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, fresh peaches, eggplant, yellow pole beans and more at various farmers markets in the area.
Additionally, Wishing Stone Farm also operates a unique CSA.
Structured differently than the majority of CSAs, the system run by Wishing Stone Farm is what Paul calls a “debit card CSA”. He and Peckham tried the traditional CSA model of selling shares, but found it too often failed them.
When people can’t keep up with the harvest allotted to them it leads to a condition Paul and colleagues know so well they have coined a term for it: Veggie Guilt.
“They’re not used to getting as much produce as they get (from us),” explained Paul. “They want to drop $700 for an incredible price break but then they’re not seeing it.”
Paul blames what he calls a chaotic lifestyle and recidivism. According to Paul, members of the CSA model that requires the purchase of shares often don’t rejoin for a second year.
In contrast, with the debit system people can choose an amount they want to spend for a season. The farm keeps a recipe card for each member with their name written on it and the value of their CSA credit.
“Funds can be used for anything we sell at the market,” explained Peckham.
To give people an incentive to set up an account early, a discount is offered. Those who sign up in February get a ten percent discount. In March the discount is reduced to eight percent, and in April to six percent.
“It always amazes me how willing people are to do that. We get the money in the spring, which keeps us from having to take out a production loan,” said Peckham.
As well managed as Wishing Stone Farm is, when asked if the farm is profitable Paul’s answer is not quite ‘yes’.
“Depends on what year it is,” is his reply.
“We’re in the middle of a five year plan. We’ve put a lot of capital into our farm. We set the size… there’s an efficiency of scale that you want to achieve. There’s a sweet spot and we think we’ve found it.”
Being situated on a peninsula presents risks.
“A hurricane made it tough this year,” he said referring to 2011.
“We lost a lot, but were over committed to our paying members by $5-$10,000 so we’re not making the profit we should.”
Not one to miss a trick or opportunity to improve his operation, Paul is well known for his eagerness to learn.
“He’s always trying new things,” said Dan Lawton of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island.
“He was the first to grow tomatoes in the winter in a heated greenhouse. He experimented with organic peaches and fruits in general. Now he’s into grafting tomatoes. He kind of stays on the edge of anything new.”
That said, the focus of Paul’s five-year plan for Wishing Stone Farm is to reduce cost.
“We’re trying to address labor; at forty-one percent it’s just too high,” he explained.
To address this challenge the farm is buying a Dutch made tractor called a ‘finger weeder’ for the purpose of addressing ‘in row weeds’.
“Between rows there’s nothing that reaches around the plant like a hand hoe,” said Paul.
With improved weed and field management Paul intends to cut the farm’s labor cost by twenty-five percent.
“Within five years we hope to pay for the machine,” he said.
Over the next couple of years Wishing Stone Farm wants to achieve other goals as well. With the help of the farm’s professional kitchen, he and Peckham hope to attract guest chefs and promote culinary tourism to further increase the sustainability of the farm.