Scratch Farm is a worker-owned, two-acre farm near Providence, RI. One of seven independent farms on a 35-acre property managed with the Southside Community Land Trust, Scratch Farm grows over 100 varieties of sustainably grown vegetables and fruits each year. Produce is available through CSA shares and the Little City Growers Cooperative to Providence restaurants. Uncommon offerings in 2012 included ground cherries, Asian greens, celeriac, celery, collards, nettles, parsnips, rutabagas, sunchokes and tomatillos.
Honeybees help ensure crop pollination and seed setting; the honey will not be harvested for sale. Greens are harvested and then let go to seed for future crops. Husk cherries, tomatillos and parsnips grown for seed continue to pop up around the farm. Careful ‘editing’ and relocation determines where the ‘volunteers’ may reach harvest size. When new seeds are needed, Katie Miller prefers ordering from Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and High Mowing Seeds.
The high yield of celeriac made it one of the most lucrative crops in 2012 with over $1,000 per bed compared to the farm average of $400. Husk cherries were another high value crop; alas, there was a relatively small market for this crop. Despite being toppled by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Super Storm Sandy in 2012, the fall popcorn yields were excellent.
Sustainable Soils, Compost and Water
Fertile soils help Scratch Farm, but Katie wants her zone 6b to 7 farm to be sustainable and remain productive well into the future. One of the basic principles of organic growing is encouraging soil health. Scratch Farm builds soil fertility and improves drainage with generous additions of purchased and site-made compost. For many years 60 yards of compost from Earth Care Farms was purchased. Since 2011, the have bought compost from Smithfield Peat and the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. Site-made compost includes leaves from several local landscape companies, farm prunings and weeds (before seed set). Prior to seeding, the beds will be weeded and amended with compost.
A perched aquifer means Scratch Farm fields remain wet late each spring. The Farm’s high water table minimizes but does not eliminate watering needs later in the year. Water is available from a pond shared by all seven farms at Urban Edge Farm. Pumps bring water to each farm and flat hoses bring water across the various fields.
Scratch Farm minimizes water loss and weed pressure using with plastic mulch on some crops. Organic standards allow the use of black plastic mulch for one year. Katie leaves the mulch on over the winter to reduce weeds. Next spring, the soil underneath will be ready to plant with the next season’s crop of onions. The quality and quantity of melons, squash and sweet potato yields have been significantly improved using the black mulch and easily justified its cost. However, Katie hopes to switch to using re-useable landscape fabric in the future to avoid creating too much trash from the black plastic.
“Using Reemay row covers over squash plants vastly reduced our mouse and vole issues,” said Katie. Reemay covers are also used to protect greens overwintering as future seed crops.
Crop Rotation and Season Extension
At Scratch Farm, all fields are carefully rotated to minimize pest and disease pressure, increase fertility, improve soil health, and therefore, harvest quality and quantity. The cycle rotates through sweet potatoes/melons then garlic/onions/fall brassicas. Next come tomatoes/peppers/eggplants followed by spinach/lettuces and seed crops. After resting fallow for a year, the next plantings include beets/basil/carrots/flowers and celery. Next come winter squash/cucumbers/zucchini followed by potatoes/radishes/scallions/parsnips and cabbages. After another fallow resting period, the cycles begin anew. The fallow rows are planted with clover, oats, rye, vetch, bell beans, buckwheat, or a combination of these to improve nitrogen levels and to prevent erosion. This green manure is killed and raked to the pathway before seeding another crop.
Aided by a 2010 Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) cost sharing grant, Scratch Farm was able to purchase a 30’ by 72’ foot High Tunnel sold by Ed Person at Ledgewood Farm. In full production during the 2011 season, the high tunnel raised tomato yields and allowed at least an extra month of harvest. As the prolific indoor tomato plants finally finished producing this fall, one row was replaced by carrot and greens each week since late September. The high tunnel has allowed Scratch Farm to offer 7-week fall CSA shares.
The Scratch Farm website explains their CSA program as a way to “become a shareholder in the farm for a season” helping maintain small-scale, organic farms in Rhode Island. Scratch Farm had 100 shareholders in their 20-week summer program in 2012.
Shares promised eight to ten different items each week with greater volume in summer and fall as plants mature and ripened. Additional share options included meats from Simmons Farm in Middletown, eggs from Zephyr Farm in Cranston and fruits (peaches and apples) from Hill Orchard in Johnston.
The farm depends on eight Work Share volunteers who commit to work at Scratch Farm each Sunday June through October. Many loved their work so much they brought friends to help with the harvesting. Each Monday morning Torpey and Miller wash the produce (two pickup truck-loads) and prepare for afternoon CSA pickup.
Produce share fees are offered on a sliding scale with the goal of allowing low-income families access to healthy fresh produce. In a wonderful partnership with Farm Fresh RI, Scratch Farm was able to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vouchers as payment for CSA shares. SNAP recipients went to one of nine Rhode Island Farmers Markets and exchanged their vouchers for special tokens, which were then used as payment for their weekly share pickups.
Katie has spent several years volunteering as a board member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of RI (NOFA/RI), which serves farmers, gardeners and consumers with education and outreach.
Little City Grower’s Cooperative
Scratch Farm works with other growers as part of the Little City Growers Co-op. The four urban and two suburban farms produce chemical-free greens, herbs, vegetables, cut flowers and honey for online ordering and weekly deliveries to seven local restaurant chefs from May through mid-December. The Co-op participated in the Armory Park Farmers Market in Providence from May through October.
Co-op Member Farms
It has been almost ten years since the co-op was formed. Little City Growers Co-op has grown to include four urban and two suburban farms. The farmers sell chemical-free greens, herbs, vegetables, cut flowers and honey using online ordering and weekly delivery to Providence restaurants. The Co-op participates in the Paradise and Hope Street Farmers Markets in Providence.
- City Farm
- Front Step Farm and CSA
- Florence and Manton Farm
- Red Planet Vegetables and CSA
- Scratch Farm and CSA
- Sidewalk Ends Farm
Scratch Farm was run by Katie Miller and Isaac Bloch from 2005 to 2011 when Isaac left the farm. Ben Torpey started at Scratch Farm in March, 2012. Torpey apprenticed at Natural Roots, a horse-powered farm in Conway, MA before running a CSA in Germantown, NY for three years. He moved back to RI a few years ago and taught English to refugees at the International Institute.
Learn more about Scratch Farm here, email Katie, call (401) 351-4633 or write 305 Dudley St, Providence, RI 02907. Visit Scratch Farm at 35 Pippin Orchard Road, Cranston, RI by appointment. (Enter at Urban Edge Farm and follow the dirt road up the hill.)
Little City Grower’s Cooperative is a group of farmers in Providence, Johnston and Cranston, RI who sell at Farmers Markets and deliver to Providence restaurants. Learn about the Co-op here or call (401) 273-0914 or write to 75 Marshall St. Providence, RI 02909.
Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) provides access to land, education and resources to urban and suburban farmers in Greater Providence allowing them to grow food in environmentally sustainable ways and expand community food systems. Learn about SCLT or call (401) 273-9419. You can visit the SCLT at 109 Somerset Street, Providence, RI 02907.
A similar story ran in the March 11, 2013 New England edition of Country Folks.