Perhaps the shrewdest business decision made in 21st Century Rhode Island didn’t occur in a board room, but rather a dairy barn. In 2004, five local dairy farmers – led by Portsmouth icon Louie Escobar, who runs Highland Dairy Farm not far from East Main Road – decided to cut out the corporate middle man and go into business for themselves marketing and selling their milk.
Now Rhody Fresh – an employee-owned cooperative that sells locally made milk (and butter now too!) across the Ocean State – is nine farmers strong (nearly half the dairy industry in RI) and they do more than $3 million in business every year.
But a sustainable agriculture sector is much bigger than just the additional money it puts into our local economy. Food, after all, is actually the third most important part of any economy, after oxygen and clean water (if you don’t have those, your tax rate or regulatory process won’t matter much at all!).
If that’s too abstract for you, read this passage from a recent Mark Patinkin story in the Providence Journal about Rodney and Judy Bailey, who own dairy farmer near where I live:
I pointed out that his land seemed hemmed by a lot of development.
“When I was in grammar school,” said Rodney, “there were 30 to 35 dairy farms in East Greenwich. We’re the last ones. I think we’ve been the last ones for close to 20 years.”
Most, said Judy, decided the land was too valuable not to sell.
If the Bailey’s decide to do what is in their own financial best interest and sell their farm to a real estate developer, my community will need to build a new school to educate all the new children who would move there. Last time my town built a school it cost $32 million.
That’s why Senator Jack Reed will announce today new federal funding to help these local farmers sell local products to local people. We can help too by buying their milk and butter.