Farm on the Move
Red Planet Vegetables Takes Root in a New Spot
I first met Catherine Mardosa and Matt Tracy of Red Planet Vegetables in the summer of 2007 in a hoop house tucked on a cozy side street near Federal Hill in Providence. I was with two photographers on a four-day photo blitz, taking photos for Edible Rhody back when the magazine was just getting started. I had a tip from a chef friend that Catherine and Matt had a pretty special urban farm setup and that I should try and meet them.
That morning, we followed the two farmers into their small hoop house and discovered a riotous Eden, filled with vegetables, and even fig trees, all aglow in soft radiant light. The two were humble as we oohed and aahed over the heirloom varieties showcased in that perfect light.
Since then I’ve gotten to know Catherine and Matt and I’ve witnessed their farming journey firsthand. I’ve seen their determination as urban and suburban farmers, presented with a complex set of challenges that come with farming land that isn’t theirs to own. Their story is a familiar one to farmers in Rhode Island, where land is expensive but, thankfully, determination is strong.
When we met, the two had been farming for about four years, when they decided to start growing food on some vacant lots and backyards in Providence, plus a half-acre they leased out in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Space limitations on the original Rehoboth plot prompted their first move.
Needing more space as the business grew, they expanded to a full-acre lease just down the street. The situation there proved to be more difficult than they had expected, with more restrictions and a lack of basic necessities—plus the commute out to the farm from their home in Providence impacted their productivity. That prompted a second move.
“In the spring of 2007 we moved to the Johnston farm—Mathewson Farm on Greenville Avenue. At that time we had five lots in Providence, including the hoop house on Grove Street. We began the slow build-out in Johnston to get the farmland into production,” said Matt.
From 2007 to 2014 Matt and Catherine farmed the leased land in Johnston and grew their business. It included a summer CSA and another smaller winter/spring CSA, which I happily joined, plus direct sales to customers at Providence’s Armory Park Farmers’ Market and to restaurants as founding members of the Little City Growers’ cooperative.
Mathewson Farm provided the space they needed to expand. They signed a lease with the siblings who jointly owned the 16-acre farmland (Catherine and Matt leased a portion; about four acres). Catherine and Matt were given use of the back section of the large barn while the farmhouse was occupied by one of the siblings.
“We worked hard over the years on the Mathewson Farm, built hoop houses there and put a lot of time and effort into getting that farm where we wanted it to be,” Catherine said.
Regular readers of Edible Rhody may remember Mathewson Farm through Catherine’s “Farmer’s Diary” printed in the spring of 2012, in which she shared excerpts of her daily journal. As it turns out, it captured life on a farm that was to be short-lived.
“The family who had inherited the land couldn’t decide what they wanted to do with it. By the summer of 2014 we knew it was going to be our last season on Mathewson Farm. It was a very difficult time,” said Catherine.
As summer gave way to fall, with no secure future in sight for their decade-long farming business, Matt and Catherine were not optimistic. “When we realized we would have to move the business I thought about leaving Rhode Island. I wanted to move somewhere where we’d be more secure with the future of the farm—or whatever we ended up doing,” said Catherine.
“We wondered what it would it would take if we just liquidated [the equipment, etc.], said Matt. “But we started looking at land anyway, just to give it one more shot.”
After a search that included the towns of Smithfield, Johnston, Cranston and others around the state, they found two viable options. One was a property just a half-mile down Greenville Avenue, and the other on state-owned land further out from the capital city, where the two still live. They ended up choosing the closer farm but not without trepidation.
“There was no way I was going to end up in the same situation we were in on Mathewson Farm. I really needed to know that we were safe to farm for the long term. We were very cautious,” said Catherine.
Matt added, “We were looking for people to collaborate with and we needed a progressive lease so in the future we can think about selling the business, incorporating the improvements we are able to make.”
Moving Red Planet Vegetables took seasons of painstaking work, over a year and a half, moving heavy equipment, building out two hoop houses, preparing the land for planting and perhaps wondering “How did we get into this?”
“I’m happy about the outcome but I’m not happy we consigned ourselves to a year and a half of really hard work!” exclaimed Matt.
Their new lease is comprised of five acres and some woodland. Three quarters of the property is owned by a young couple who bought their house and abutting field out of foreclosure, with the goal of seeing the fallow fields farmed once again. The remaining parcel is divided among two other neighbors who are also very supportive of Red Planet Vegetables’ farming endeavors.
To survive the move Matt and Catherine shrank the CSA in half in 2015 and changed the structure to a debit card—like system. As members of Little City Growers Co-op, their fellow co-op members were “tremendously helpful,” growing what Red Planet would normally have supplied to restaurants and the Armory Park Market—so the level of service to those buyers didn’t change.
“While we were moving I had to look for work to bring in extra income. I took a job with the Healthy Communities Office at the Providence Parks and Recreation Department. I’ve found I really like the work—and I really like to farm. At this point, I’m trying to find balance between the two,” said Catherine.
Matt has continued with his work with the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District as well. “The decision to move the farm was tough,” said Matt. “We put a ton of sweat equity into the move and keeping our business. So, thinking ahead, we really want to get to a place where we can structure a business model that will allow for a secure future,”
By the summer of 2016 Red Planet was back up to their pre-move CSA membership (who come from Providence, Johnston, Smithfield, Cranston and other surrounding towns), plus restaurant sales, and the Armory Park Market and a handful of work-share members.
The decision between walking away from the business or preserving its value by making the effort to move to a new property wasn’t one Catherine and Matt made lightly. Despite the hard work that’s behind them—and, let’s be real, the hard farming work that’s still ahead—I sensed plenty of optimism about the future. Sitting with Catherine and Matt in the shade on a hot summer afternoon amid a display of carefully grown greens, herbs and veggies for their summer CSA, I’m relieved to see they’re back in it for the long haul—and I know their other customers are too.
Visit Red Planet Vegetables and meet Catherine and Matt on their new farm. Find the video here.