alewis@ricentral.com

SOUTH COUNTY – All across Rhode Island, a dozen local agricultural and food businesses will soon be able to expand their services thanks to nearly $100,000 in grants announced by the Department of Environmental Management and the RI Food Policy Council. 

Close to home, Moonstone Mushrooms based in Wakefield and Stony Lane Apiary based in Exeter will both benefit from the funds made available through the Local Agriculture and Seafood Act (LASA). 

For Luke DeStefano, the $15,000 awarded to Moonstone Mushrooms has been “a game changer.” What started as a small operation, based in his mother’s basement in Wakefield less than a year ago, will now be moving up to a large warehouse in Charlestown. This grant will not only ease that transition, he said, but provide funds for a top-of-the-line climate control system. 

“Up until now, I’ve been doing fresh mushrooms direct to chefs,” DeStefano said. “But what I’m really passionate about is using mushrooms as medicine also. We’re going to expand our offerings into extractions, teas, elixirs, supplements and things like that.”

The grant and his new space will help to make this possible. 

His mother’s 200 sq. ft. basement was enough space to keep up with supplying vendors like Matunuck Oyster Bar, the Coast Guard House, Belmont Market and a few restaurants in Providence, but DeStefano found that he was quickly outgrowing the space. 

“As word spread, I was getting more demand than I could really handle with the space,” he said. “The space certainly had its limitations.”

A major issue DeStefano was running into was not being able to purchase products essential to the cultivation, like soybean hulls, in units less than three tons. It wasn’t only an issue of storing the product, but also of getting it delivered in the first place. 

“I kind of came to a point where I was like, ‘Well, either I shut it down or I go big,’” DeStefano said. 

With the help of his cousin, Steve Medgyesy, DeStefano decided to go big. Together, with his own experience cultivating the mushrooms and Medgyesy’s experience in the food industry and sales, they decided to lease the 2,500 sq. ft. space in Charlestown. 

“He was the one who told me about the LASA grant,” DeStefano said. “I read about it and part of me was like, ‘I’ll never get this grant. This is too good to be true.’”

DeStefano ended up filling out the application but quickly forgot about it while working with Medgyesy to expand the business and renting out the new space.

“I was laying in bed at night thinking, ‘How are we going to afford this? This is crazy,’” he said. “Then I wake up one morning to an email from Nessa [Richman] at the [RI Food Policy Council] saying ‘Hey, congratulations! You got $15,000.’”

Going forward, DeStefano said he hopes to continue expanding offerings throughout the state and providing people all the medicinal benefits mushrooms have to offer. Before returning home to begin his business venture, DeStefano traveled the world for ten years, learning and experiencing as much as he could. 

In Exeter, Patrick Flood will be able to build a dedicated, free-standing honey house to process and sell honey and honeybee-related products, and to collaborate with and mentor other beekeepers with the $3,445 he was awarded. 

Although Flood’s products can be found at a number of locations, such as Narrow Lane Orchard or Spring Hill Sugarhouse, almost all of his business is done through word of mouth. When he first set about beekeeping five years ago, it was simply a hobby. Now, with 23 beehives and counting, Flood has been able to cultivate his passion into a successful small business. 

“One winter I was bored and I started watching YouTube videos about it,” Flood said. “I got into it, and the following year, I started with two hives and it went off from there.”

Even in winter months, though, Flood said there’s still a lot of work and maintenance to be done. The business of tending after a beehive has “a lot that goes into it,” and it’s not as simple as it seems. 

“It’s a lot of work,” Flood said. “You have to like it to want to do it. I really enjoy it.”

Over the course of the past five years, Flood luckily hasn’t been stung very often. Even when he is though, he said it’s not too bad.

“Once you get stung a couple of times, it’s no more than a mosquito bite really,” he said. 

Other local agricultural and food businesses to benefit from grants this year include Sweet and Salty Farm in Little Compton, the Local Patch in Middletown and the Warren Cider Works Company in Warren.

“We’re excited to award these grants to help farmers, fishers and food businesses start or expand their operations in Rhode Island,” said DEM Director Janet Coit. “LASA continues to be an important catalyst in growing a wide range of food and agricultural businesses across our state, and we look forward to celebrating the success of these outstanding initiatives.” 

Now in its sixth year, LASA has provided over $1.2 million – through grants of up to $20,000 – to support the growth of Rhode Island’s local food economy. Already, the local food industry supports 60,000 jobs, and the state’s green industries account for more than 15,000 jobs and contribute $2.5 billion to the economy annually. 

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