Rhode Island’s agriculture industry has seen many changes over the past century. Its success depends on the weather, on the crop and on the support of local customers.
But for Johnston farmers, what they lack in predictability they make up for in passion.
“I feel like it’s a privilege that we have the opportunity to raise high quality food for our communities, for our neighbors,” said Darlene Dame, who married into the Dame family more than 35 years ago.
Her connection to Brown Avenue’s Dame Farm, however, goes back even further.
“The day I was born, my father was here, doing work on one of Grandpa Dame’s tractors,” she said.
Dame Farm has been in Johnston since the late 19th century, staying in the Dame family ever since. Back when Darlene Dame first came into the family business in the seventies, she said customers would stockpile apples and other produce for the winter.
She still does.
“My family eats a lot of applesauce - and I mean a lot of applesauce,” she said, laughing. “That’s a staple in our family.”
For customers nowadays, it’s more about creating a fun memory for your family.
“Now we’re seeing it’s for the experience,” she said.
Dan Polseno, Jr., is seeing the same trend at Sunset Orchard, which has been around since 1963.
“We do pick your own apples and peaches in season. Pick your own is like 90 percent probably of what we do. It’s a real big part of our business,” he said.
Regardless of why they visit, Darlene Dame likely speaks for other farmers when she says that they are grateful for every customer. As business picks up, Dame is hopeful that more people are recognizing the value in purchasing fresh, local produce.
“I think our country has so many resources that we sometimes think they’re always going to be there. You take it for granted,” she said. “I’ve never taken the land for granted. I’ve always had a great respect for farmers.”
Getting back to the land is exactly what Doreen Pezza loves most about her job, as one of the owners of Pezza Farm on Plainfield Pike.
“I love the feel of the dirt and just living outside,” she said.
Pezza Farm was originally a dairy farm in the 1940s, but they began growing flowers and produce in the early 1960s. Walk into the shop today, and you’ll also find seasonal gifts and tools for gardeners.
And for children, Pezza Farm offers a make your own scarecrow service in the greenhouse. On the other side of the business, visitors can pet a pony or check out the other farm animals. Hayrides run from 1 to 4 p.m. on weekends, and Pezza offers birthday parties and field trips as well.
“The kids really enjoy it; there’s a lot to do,” Doreen said.
Doreen and her husband Michael are often joined by their children, Shelley and Craig, who help out around the farm.
“It’s always been a family farm,” Doreen added.
One of the unique things about Johnston, Michael Pezza said, is that in less than 10 minutes, he can be in the town’s center, which he considers a city. Ten minutes in the other direction and residents or visitors find themselves in farm country.
“It’s a rare opportunity,” he said.
An opportunity that farmers have seized.
Wayne Salisbury took over his father’s dairy farm in the mid- to late-seventies as the farm was adapting to include farm fresh produce. With Wayne at the helm, it wasn’t long before their product base expanded.
When his son asked if he could plant strawberries for a class project, Wayne consented. That first batch of 500 was sold in no time.
“He said, ‘I think we ought to plant more,’ so we did. It all started with a high school project,” he recalled.
Strawberries are still offered at Salisbury, as well as pumpkins, sugar snap peas, corn and many other vegetables.
The Salisbury kids are still involved too. Fourteen years ago, they designed the region’s first corn maze. The Salisburys are proud that none of their attractions have a spooky twist, and young children can enjoy the corn maze – as long as they have an adult with them.
“There’s been a push to do things together as a family,” Wayne said.
He sees a push for buying local as well, especially with the state Department of Agriculture launching its own Buy Local campaign.
“People are more aware that the stuff that’s coming from outside the country that they may have used chemicals on it that we don’t even know about,” he said.
Doreen Pezza couldn’t agree more, and said that every time there is a food scare, she sees the lines get longer at the farm.
“Buy local is working for everybody,” she said, smiling.