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RI BREEDS NEW GENERATION OF FARMERS, FOOD ACTIVISTS

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Sarah L. Hamby – Connecticut Correspondent of  Lancaster Farming

SMITHFIELD, R.I. — “Farming is not about instant gratification,” said 25-year-old Jon Del Sesto, who does public relations and new media for Revive the Roots, a well-established non-profit whose mission is “to create ecologically regenerative and dynamic social spaces through the education and practice of permaculture.”

Del Sesto is part of a group of young activists dedicated to making a difference in the future of agriculture and in the environment through the production of organic, local food. Recently returned from the West Coast, Del Sesto acknowledges that it is this lack of instant gratification that keeps his peers from leading the way in farming.

But the Rhode Island native is not alone in his passion for farming. Revive the Roots hosts festivals, teaches youth about the joys of planting, works with area scouting groups and participates in local cleanup efforts.

On June 4, the group co-hosted a Young Farmer Night at Mowry Gardens in Smithfield with the Young Farmer Network. More than two dozen people attended.

The Mowry Gardens project began several years ago with Revive the Roots leasing land from the Smithfield Land Trust.

Mowry Gardens is a semi-rural, nonprofit farm on 27 acres. It features community gardens, an edible forest, walking trails along the Woonasquatucket River and, most recently, a 30-foot-by-72-foot high tunnel greenhouse, purchased with financial assistance from the Natu- ral Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. An eight-bedroom farmhouse, the Mowry family home, is also on the property.

Just last year, Del Sesto, along with 23-year-old Greg Sankey Jr. and Brian Ramos, both of whom also do work for Revive the Roots, moved into the old Mowry residence. Recently, 25-year-old Bradford Allard joined Del Sesto and Sankey, as Ramos is currently interning with NASA in Houston.

The gentlemen will live in the home as curators until restoration is complete. The residence may one day serve as a public facility.

On site, the three residents and others close to the project have key focuses. Allard is in charge of horticulture and nursery management.

He’s “trying to build the nursery up” and he’s looking for new sources of revenue. Sauce tomatoes are a good source, as are peacevine tomatoes, which are popular because they contain gamma amino butyric acid, a body sedative. Allard is also working on cultivating a colder-climate fig and avocado to work into niche markets.

Chris English works on forest garden management and permaculture. Currently, the forest garden features apples, plums, cherries, grapes, currants, “every herb you could want,” pecans, kiwis, strawberries and even plumcots, a hybrid plum/apricot. The garden was planted about five years ago.

“To get it to this point, there has been a lot of weeding involved. But not every weed is a bad guy. May all your weeds be edible,” he said.

In 2010, as Revive the Roots was getting off the ground and edible forests were just beginning, another young farmer, Margiana Petersen- Rockney, who later graduated from Brown University, began planting the seeds that would grow into Young Farmer Nights and Pasture to Plate.

After her first year of farming alone, the second-generation farm- er recognized a need in the farming community as she “felt that many

beginning farmers worked in isolation, spending excess energy and resources reinventing the wheel and all too often burnt out and stopped farming.”

The biweekly Young Farmer Night events create a supportive and collaborative community of beginning farmers.

“One important and unique element of the Young Farmer Night events is the focus of not only education through a farm tour, but also a fun setting in which to grow new friendships. Each Young Farmer Night event features a farm tour, a potluck meal and a fun after-dinner activity such as a bonfire, music or games,” she said. “This environment attracts beginning farmers and fosters real relationships.”

Tess Brown-Lavoie and Sarah Turkus, coordinators of Young Farmer Nights, farm together with other friends on a once vacant lot in Providence, R.I., better known as Sidewalk Ends Farm. Additionally, they’ve recently started cultivating an additional two acres of vegetables in Seekonk, Mass., in order to keep up with growing demand.

Brown-Lavoie, a first-generation farmer, said, “YFN is an avenue for bringing people together.” She explained that oftentimes new farmers have difficulty galvanizing their community and learning

about available grants, and they also struggle with practical farming issues such as controlling pests. Young Farmer Nights, she said, can help new farmers get answers.

But several people at the June 4 event expressed concern about long-term issues, including finding affordable land, the farm transition process and the rapid aging of America’s farmers.

“There is fear and there is hope,” said Brad Allard.

“Not enough people are providing local, organic and diverse foods for their community,” Sankey said.

The face of farming in America is changing. And these young, college-educated men and women are looking to change people’s perspectives.

“Maybe it’s the chemicals on our food,” said Sankey, “or we’re just big hippies or we just like vegetables. Whatever brings us all to- gether.”

Revive the Roots is currently welcoming and in need of volunteers and donations of money, livestock, surveying equipment, greenhouse equipment, tools, tractors and edible perennial cuttings.

Learn more at www.revivetheroots.org and youngfarmernetwork.org.