While the prospective new tenant of Boesch Farm has won over some of his previously skeptical new neighbors, other remain worried about the transition of the 85-acre farm from organic vegetable growth to the raising of small animals and livestock.
The East Greenwich Land Trust and Pat NcNiff, owner of Jamestown-based Pat’s Pastured, began negotiations for a permanent lease on the South Road site after the trust’s 4-0 vote Aug. 2 to approve him as the farm’s new tenant and a sometimes contentious public hearing Monday night that packed the Town Council chambers at Town Hall.
McNiff, who is currently on the land under a temporary caretaking agreement after previous tenant Eric Eacker departed in June due to health issues, is moving ahead with plans to bring in a crew of Providence College student volunteers next week for cleanup and clearing duties.
Opponents of McNiff’s selection, however, have not given up on their fight to maintain organic vegetable farming at the site.
Steve Gouveia of 920 South Road, an abutter, hinted Tuesday night at a possible lawsuit against the Land Trust, claiming the trust did not give nearby residents proper notification and that the process was rushed through. He also disputed claims at Monday night’s public hearing by McNiff supporters that the operation would not produce odor problems.
“There is noise and smell with one proposal, and the other one doesn’t have it,” said Gouveia, referring to a competing proposal by Matt Thibodeau of the local Lucky Foot Ranch. “There is slaughter with one, while the other doesn’t have it.”
McNiff said a portable processor will be used for chickens and turkeys on the site, but other animals such as pigs, cattle and sheep will be processed elsewhere.
Donna Dyer of 50 Narrow Lane, a volunteer at Boesch in its former incarnation as the R.I. Community Farm, was frustrated with what she saw as a lack of response from Land Trust members.
“They’ve allowed us to make statements, but there’s no discourse,” she said.
Land Trust Chairman Steve Whitney, one of only four active members on the usually eight-member board, said the board would eventually issue a statement in response to the concerns raised at the public hearing.
“We intend to do out best to address whatever we can,” he said after the hearing. “There’s a lot of true and false information out there, and people want answers.”
Whitney and Vice Chairman Kevin Fetzer were the only trustees attending Monday’s hearing.
While a number of neighbors spoke in opposition to McNiff’s proposal, at least two thirds of Monday’s audience, many from outside East Greenwich who have worked or volunteered on his other properties, wore green “I Support Farmer Pat” stickers and cheered those speaking in his favor.
McNiff, who has farmed for 14 years and hosted tours of his Jamestown operation for those living near Boesch Farm, touted his experience in farm and property renovation, and tried to reassure those who feared the farm would be less accessible for passive recreation use.
“I feel like I’ve earned people’s trust, and I hope I’ll be able to earn your trust,” he said.
One of the key components the Land Trust looked at, he said, is the operation of educational programs for both children and adults.
“I think a farm is a magical place to teach kids/ The diversity of a farm really provides an opportunity to learn for adults and kids,” he said.
He also said rotation of grass-fed animals among several fields on the site would ease drainage problems and enable him to maintain state certification as an organic farm operation.
Diane Lynch of 1400 South Road was opposed to the conversion from organic vegetable farming at first, but said her concerns were eased after visiting McNiff’s Jamestown farm.
“I learned they were very similar operations. There were animals there, but not a lot of machines. There were pigs, but almost no smell, and not a lot of mud. I didn’t see a lot of difference,” she said.
Ken Ayars, chief of the state Department of Environmental Management’s agricultural division, added his personal support for McNiff and the principle of locally raised food.
“Agriculture is one of the few bright spots in our state’s economy, and one of our goals is to bring back locally-based agriculture. We want a system in Rhode Island where people know where their food comes from,” Ayars said.
Alexandra Barretta, a college student, said McNiff served as a mentor during three years of working for him.
“I hope he’ll be my neighbor so that local children will have that opportunity,” she said.
Tracie Truesdell, marketing manager of the East Greenwich Farmers Market, said the Land Trust’s process in choosing McNiff had been above board, and endorsed his operation.
“It’s my responsibility to do farm checks, and his farms are certainly among the most clean and well-kept,” she said.