The Pezza family has been working their land on Plainfield Pike since 1947. Over more than six decades, they have provided fresh produce to Johnston families, educated Rhode Island students about agriculture, and preserved the rural character of the town.
Those promises will continue in perpetuity, thanks to the acquisition of farmland development rights to all of Pezza Farm’s 30 acres.
“Abutting our property is industry and then there’s the landfill, so as the landfill creeps closer and closer, we were getting more and more nervous,” said Shelley Pezza. “It’s a huge weight lifted off our shoulders.”
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) purchased the land rights for Pezza for $1.2 million, the bulk of which – $714,000 – was funded through the USDA Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. The remaining funds came from the state’s Agricultural Land Preservation Committee’s state farmland bond funds ($271,000) and The Nature Conservancy and The Champlin Foundations ($215,000).
In a release, DEM Director Janet Coit said the acquisition is good news for Rhode Islanders.
“It is about looking out for the future of Rhode Island’s farmers and protecting a precious resource – our arable rich soils,” she said. “It is about the members of the Pezza family and their fortitude and strong desire to keep this prime land as a working farm, against all odds. And it is about recognizing the benefits that accrue to all Rhode Islanders when we can purchase local fresh fruits and vegetables and connect with the people and places that provide healthy food.”
Pezza Farm was initially purchased in 1947 by Michael Pezza Sr. His son maintains control of the property today with his wife Doreen and their children, Craig and Shelley, as well as Shelley’s children, Sydney and J.C.
Shelley admits that rebuffing the advances of developers has become increasingly difficult.
“We’re being surrounded. Industry is coming further and further up the Pike. We’ve been approached numerous times to sell,” she said. “We want to protect it as farmland.”
At the farm, the family grows nursery stock, flowers and vegetables, keeps farm animals and also raises Hereford cows. Beef there is sold to local customers, and the farm is a member of the Rhode Island Raised Livestock Association. Throughout the year, Pezza Farm hosts birthday parties and school field trips, offers fall hayrides and participates in six farmers’ markets during the year. Locally, they grow product that is served in Johnston schools as part of the state’s Farm to School Program.
Sixty-eight percent of the soils on the property are prime or important farm soils. The acquisition brings the state’s total acreage of protected farmland to 570 acres in the area of western Cranston, Johnston and Scituate. According to DEM, Rhode Island has 1,219 farms that occupy 61,000 acres. In 2012, conservation interests protected 1,275 acres statewide, including 170 acres of active farmland.
“I am glad to see that this deal has been finalized and that it will preserve one of Johnston’s working farms,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena. “This will ensure that agricultural use will continue to provide jobs as a small but important part of our economy. Preserving farms from residential subdivision is an important strategy to control expenses for future town services.”
Shelley Pezza hopes that Johnston residents feel the same way, and are glad to see a piece of town history preserved, not to mention open space. In November, voters affirmed that preservation is a priority, approving a $1 million bond referendum to acquire open space.
“I would hope it would mean to them that they have a family farm in their town; it’s protecting the natural resources in the area,” Pezza said.
For her family, it is not only a weight lifted off their shoulders, but also a boost for business. With the money from DEM, they hope to fix the roof on their signature red barn visible from Plainfield Pike, rebuild greenhouses damaged by Hurricane Sandy and make other investments into the property.
“Hopefully now we’ll be able to do things we haven’t been able to like fix the barn up,” she said. “As far as farming, nothing is going to be different. We’ll still be working seven days a week.”