With agricultural life in decline, local farmers face pressure to sell
NORTH SMITHFIELD â€“ When Manny Marshall purchased 64 acres of land off Greenville Road in the 1940s, the property was a working dairy farm with boundaries stretching all the way to Wrightâ€™s Dairy Farm in the north.
The grandson of a Portuguese immigrant, Marshall had dreams of turning it into his own working farm to feed his family for generations to come.
Now, 80 years later, all that remains of the land is a 4.7-acre parcel that includes a cornfield and historic farmhouse occupied by Marshallâ€™s grandson, Scott Marshall, and his wife, Caroline. And even the cornfield wonâ€™t remain for long. Faced with the changing economics of farming and the difficulty of caring for aging parents, the Marshalls plan to sell the land to create four house lots next to their own.
â€śI have such mixed emotions about it,â€ť Scott told The Valley Breeze during an interview on the front porch of his 1800s-era farmhouse. â€śYeah, it is hard.â€ť
Scott grew up across the driveway from his grandparentsâ€™ house in a small trailer home that now sits vacant. Next door, his aunt still lives in a third home on the property, creating a family-centered farm upbringing that Scott describes as â€śthe best experience of his life.â€ť
â€śIt was a working farm. We had horses, raised our own hay for the horses. We had chickens, had pigs,â€ť he said.
Though he initially planned to raise dairy cows, Manny Marshall was forced to abandon dairy farming in the 1950s when his herd was condemned for tuberculosis by the state veterinarian, an ironic turn of events given that his grandson, Scott, now holds that post with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Instead, Manny turned to raising racehorses, a hobby he had dabbled in over the years. Scott recalled growing up surrounded by Standardbreds, the breed best known for its use in harness racing.
â€śI donâ€™t ever remember a day in my life not being around horses,â€ť he said.
Those years, he said, were happy ones, when the family would hold an annual baseball game in the fields after theyâ€™d cut the hay for the season. After graduating from North Smithfield High School, he went on to attend veterinary school and married Caroline, his high school sweetheart whoâ€™d grown up a few streets over. The couple settled on Pound Hill Road, where they began raising their own horses and settled into a rural way of life.
Though Scott has fond memories of growing up on Greenville Road, even back then the neighborhood was changing. In the 1980s, his grandfather sold most of the land for a housing development along Village Way. The plan went through multiple versions and owners, and NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley eventually built a low-income and elderly housing complex on land that once hosted the family racetrack.
In 2004, shortly after the death of his grandfather, Scott and Caroline moved into the vacant farmhouse. At the time, they planned on keeping their own animals on the property, and used the remaining 4.7 acres of land for horses and sheep. Caroline said sheâ€™d always dreamed of living on a farm but noted the property is now surrounded by a residential neighborhood.
â€śWeâ€™re like an island in the middle of a total housing development,â€ť she said.
Over the years, the coupleâ€™s farm animals have died off, leaving just the two of them and a dog. Focused on caring for their elderly parents, the Marshalls made the difficult decision to sell most of the property, which Scott said is too small to resurrect as a horse farm. The only farming that takes place on the property now is done by Wrightâ€™s Dairy Farm, which uses about three acres to grow corn for their cows â€“ an arrangement Scott said keeps him from having to maintain the land.
â€śIf things were the way it was, I couldnâ€™t foresee ever changing it, but itâ€™s not that anymore,â€ť he said. â€śI would have a hard time selling a farm that could be productive.â€ť
The Marshalls are not alone. From 1959 to 2019, the amount of land used for agriculture in North Smithfield declined from 950 acres to about 500 acres. In 1959, a land use analysis prepared by the North Smithfield Planning Board described agriculture as the second largest developed use in town after housing, accounting for about 5.8 percent of the total land area. In 2019, by contrast, it made up about 3.2 percent of the total land area.
The trend is common across New England, where the relocation of agriculture to the Midwest was already well underway by the 1950s. The 1959 land use analysis predicted that â€śas in most of New England, it is expected that the total land area in agricultural use will decrease gradually as large tracts are sold for other uses.â€ť
â€śPost-World War II, thatâ€™s when this country really started building highways in earnest across the country,â€ť explained North Smithfield Town Planner Tom Kravitz. â€śAnd once they had the connections of highways, it was inevitable.â€ť
Today, farm owners face new pressures. According to a 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, Rhode Island has the most expensive agricultural land in the country, with market value averaging $14,041 per acre. Farmers also face the encroachment of residential neighborhoods on previously rural areas, a reality that often leads to uncomfortable conflicts between neighbors. Scott said he once had the North Smithfield Police Department respond to his property after a neighbor saw him spreading lime and thought he was contaminating the land.
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At the same time, small farms are seeing a resurgence in Rhode Island as the popularity of the local food movement sends many business owners back to the land. With a variety of state and federal programs to prop up farming, the state has set an ambitious goal of obtaining 50 percent of its food regionally by 2060, but Scott questions whether that will ever come to pass. Many people, he said, like the idea of maintaining the areaâ€™s rural character, but few of them are familiar with the actual costs of running a farm.
â€śI very much appreciate the rural character, but the people that want that, I donâ€™t think they do understand the economics of it,â€ť he said. â€śTheyâ€™re not the ones paying the taxes on the property.â€ť
Faced with new challenges, many farm owners have turned to alternate sources of revenue to maintain their family properties. In North Smithfield, the Pacheco property on Old Smithfield Road is among those that have been targeted for renewable energy as a way of generating income from land historically used as a farm. Scott said he and Caroline looked at solar panels as an alternative to house lots, but even solar developers who viewed the property said it was too small to generate any real income.
â€śItâ€™s basically unproductive land,â€ť he said.
The current plan, developing four house lots along the northern side of Village Way, will require a zone change from the Town Council and approval by the Planning Board. The Marshalls plan to stay in their home on Greenville Road, but, if the town gives its assent, the rest of the property will soon become new houses similar to those in other parts of town. Itâ€™s a fitting end to a transformation that began long before Scott and Caroline owned the property, but for a family thatâ€™s grown up on the land, it doesnâ€™t come without a touch of sadness.
â€śI feel bad for kids that are going to be growing up without that experience,â€ť said Scott.