OPTIMISTIC: "If we can be strong now, good things are going to continue to be possible," says Farm Fresh's Fulmer.
Five years ago, when Farm Fresh Rhode Island (FFRI) launched its mission of promoting Ocean State-produced food, co-founder Noah Fulmer discovered a curious disconnection in the local food chain. On one hand, a native potato grower described being unable to sell his produce in Rhode Island — and on the other, a local independent grocer was stocking spuds from Idaho. The disparity, Fulmer recalls, left him thinking, "There's something wrong with this."
In many respects, it wasn't all that surprising. Even with the rise of food as an entertainment source in recent decades, most Americans, due largely to the emergence of mega-retailers and corporate agriculture, have long since become disconnected from the sources of what they eat every day.
Yet in the short time period since Farm Fresh RI (farmfreshri.org) took root as a Providence-based nonprofit in 2004, it has helped spearhead significant growth in Rhode Island's local food movement.
In the case of the potato growers, their products are now sold through a cooperative as Narragansett Premium Rhode Island Potatoes, a brand generating heightened attention and a measure of native pride.
Even more tangible, though, is the success of Farm Fresh's Wintertime Farmers' Market, which takes place every Saturday from 11 am to 2 pm through April at Hope Artiste Village, 1005 Main Street, Pawtucket, not far from the Providence line. More than 1000 people have turned out each week since the market debuted in December, drawn by the availability, to name a few examples, of locally produced meat, seafood, produce (turnips, potatoes, apples), dairy (eggs, cheese, ice cream), drinks (North Providence-made Yacht Club soda and seltzers), and more.
Some of the visitors come from as far as Boston, and the number of vendors and customers has multiplied several times over since Farm Fresh's first winter market was staged a year earlier at AS220 in Providence.
"As much as the food, it's a weekly check-in," in which shoppers get a chance to chat with 10 or so friends and acquaintances they might not otherwise see, says Fulmer, the 25-year-old executive director of Farm Fresh RI. And in contrast to what he perceives as an excess of glum expressions in other local settings, he notes, "Everyone smiles."
Good vibes and community-building aside, the heightened demand signified by the winter market is leading local growers and producers to increase their output, marking a bright spot for these small businesses during these bleak economic times. In fact, says Fulmer, agriculture is one of the few Rhode Island industries currently showing growth.
An array of local choices
The growing local movement can be seen in an increasingly broad array of food-related operations in the Ocean State, from Besto Pesto and New Harvest Coffee in Pawtucket and Olneyville-based cheese-makers Providence Specialty Products and Narragansett Creamery, to Rhody Fresh Milk, Matunuck Oyster Farm, and Aquidneck Farms, a relatively new Portsmouth operation that is due to begin supplying its grass-fed beef to Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design.
Farm Fresh, meanwhile, is continuing its efforts to build capacity for the local food movement, launching a combined statewide delivery operation to ease links between growers and Rhode Island restaurants. It's also planning an industrial kitchen available for rent by small businesses without the means to open their own shop.
Another effort — to place the produce of local farms in area schools — has grown dramatically in recent years. The goal for this year is to involve every school district in the state. (Summer markets in Rhode Island, in keeping with a national trend, have roughly doubled, to 37, over the past four years.)
Amid all this growth, placing local products with big food retailers can remain a challenge, as does the relative paucity of land for growing in Rhode Island.
Yet for the local chefs and other enthusiasts who enjoy the freshness of Rhode Island-produced food, the growth of the movement in recent years has been a welcome development.
Matt Gennuso, who, with his wife Kristin, owns Chez Pascal in Providence, relishes the local connection that comes with farmers bringing their wares to the back door of the East Side establishment — a theme amplified with its "Menu Market Mondays."
"That's what I believe in," says Gennuso, who is the restaurant's chef. "I believe in keeping things as close to home as possible, whether it's a dry cleaner or supporting the small businesses around us. I'd much rather have food that's grown as close to us as possible. Typically, the quality is much better. That's really the bottom line."
LOCAL CONNECTION: "I believe in keeping things as close to home as possible," Gennuso says.
The making of a food evangelist
As a native of Freehold, New Jersey, Fulmer gained an appreciation for the value of fresh food by eating locally grown tomatoes, visiting a favorite farm stand, and admiring the extensive garden of a grandparent. As he puts it, "The more you eat local foods and you have those flavors, the more foods that are from far away and that are processed tasted a little bit off to you."