Farms here sell wholesale, at farmers markets on the Island and throughout the state, at farm-stands, in a Community Supported Agriculture model, and to Newport’s many restaurants.
History & Conditions
History of Farming on Aquidneck Island
Agriculture has a long history on Aquidneck Island, beginning in the 1630s with the founding of Portsmouth and Newport, where settlers farmed for subsistence as well as commercially. By 1885, there were 97 farms in Newport, 192 in Middletown, and 270 in Portsmouth, covering a total of 11, 636 acres of combined plowed land and pasture. At this time, nearly one out of every six people living on the island was a farmer. At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, Newport’s use as a Navy base increased the pace of development, reducing the amount of farmland on the Island. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many farms were foreclosed upon, and the industrial boom of the mid-1900s further urbanized the Island4.
Development booms steadily reduced farmland and working farms on the Island, and in the state overall, to present conditions. Today, much of the remaining agricultural land is in Middletown and Portsmouth, and lies on the eastern side of the Island represented through a variety of nurseries, vineyards, dairy/cattle hay pastures, horse farms, and vegetable farms. While development slowed during the housing recession in 2008, ALT has observed an increase in development, including on farmlands, in the last few years. Farmland is typically easy to develop, and local farmlands continue to be purchased for residential subdivision development at high values by developers.
Rhode Island has lost over 80% of its productive farmland from development and forest succession on abandoned pastures and fields since 19405. While many farms have been lost to development locally, a wide variety of farms still exist on Aquidneck Island. These range from large nurseries and large grass-fed beef operations to small vegetable farms to horse farms.
Over 1,450 acres of farmland has been conserved by ALT (1,100 acres) and other parties (350 acres). Still, roughly 2,600 acres of farmland on Aquidneck Island is susceptible to being lost in the future to development or land use conversion.
As of 2012, approximately 69,600 acres of land in the state was in farming across 1,243 farms6. Farms in the Aquidneck Island region are typically smaller, with 73% of USDA defined farms less than 50 acres in size in Newport County.
Soils on Aquidneck Island are some of the best in the state, with much of the Island’s land consisting of USDA prime farmland soils
The average age of farmers in the state is in the mid-50s, and in 2007, more than one in four farmers in the state was older than 65 years7. While many farmers are older and approaching retirement, our survey shows many do not have succession plans for the future of the farm. Furthermore, surveys and research show prospective farmers hoping to farm have found finding land to lease difficult, and the cost of purchasing land of their own to farm impossibly high.
Despite challenges to land access, between 2002 and 2012, the number of young farmers under 34 doubled in the state. In RI, 33% of farmers in 2012 were young farmers, according to the USDA.
The cost of land in the state is extremely high. In fact, according to USDA, the state of Rhode Island has the highest market value per acre of farmland out of any state in the country at over $14,000 per acre, and the average value of one acre of farmland in Newport County (Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport, Jamestown, Tiverton, Little Compton) specifically is $22,2488. ALT has observed unrestricted farmland selling at much higher values for development in recent years.
4 Garman, J. E. (2010, August). Agriculture on Aquidneck Island, 1638 to World War II, A Historical Perspective. Retrieved from Presentation in Portsmouth, RI.
5 RIDEM Division of Agriculture. (2008). Farmland Loss in Rhode Island, 1850-2007.
6 USDA. (2012). Volume 1, Chapter 2, County Level Data: Table 1 County, Summary Highlights. In US Census of Agriculture (pp. Rhode Island 210-211). US Census of Agriculture.
7 USDA. (2012). Volume 1, Chapter 2, County Level Data: Table 43, Selected Practices. In US Census of Agriculture (p. 558).
Middletown, RI 02842