Brandon Family Farm
Juicy Red Strawberries Help a Young Farmer Get into the Black
The first time I encountered Alby and Lisa Brandon was at the 2016 East Farm Spring Fair in Kingston. It was mid-May, and their vendors’ space at the South Kingstown Farmers Market was crowded with people craning their necks to see (and reach for) the juicy red jewels piled into small green cartons.
The table was covered with strawberries! Large and flavorful and early! And organically grown, “in tunnels,” said the young farmer, Alby Brandon, now 24.
I pictured “tunnels” on the ground, black plastic greenhouse-type constructions. Only part of that is true. These tunnels are actually clear plastic stretched atop rounded frames to form a passive greenhouse (not heated), and they are built on top of raised beds. And they are retractable, meaning that the amount of plastic over the berry plants can be adjusted.
“I learned about Canadian low tunnels,” Alby later explained, as we chatted at a Kingston coffeehouse. “And that’s what we use for the strawberries because they block the rain and prevent disease and rot.”
He’s experimented with day-neutral strawberry plants, which would bear fruit through the summer and fall, but the pressure from bugs and diseases is too high. So he’s going back to doing just spring strawberries.
“They are one of the most difficult crops to grow organically,” he said, “but they are also one of our most profitable ones, so we’ll keep planting more of them.”
“Fruit growing is so variable,” he continued. “Just a cloudy day is a problem. You need warm and sunny days for strawberries, especially to get end-of-season quality berries.”
Alby got interested in gardening while still in high school, and after graduation, he set out on several WWOOFing adventures. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s an international network that links volunteers to farmers, so that they can live and learn “on the job.” Alby WWOOFed in Florida, Connecticut, Hawaii and Australia. And he came back determined to replicate what he’d seen.
He leases a 10-acre field “on the fertile outwash plain of West Kingston,” a phrase he never tires of, because its soil content makes it ideal for growing and its flatness for tilling. When the glacier that overwhelmed Rhode Island was receding, it left behind stratified sand and gravel, and in valleys such as in Matunuck, Slocum, the Great Swamp and West Kingston those layers were followed by great drifts of silt.
“I knew the landowner and just lucked into it,” Alby said, his eyes glowing, still so amazed by it. “In the late 1600s this was one of the first areas in Rhode Island to be plowed. There is 90 feet of sand and gravel, and it’s full of water. It’s the best growing spot in the state.”
Lisa Brandon is Alby’s mom and partner at the farm and the markets. But as for the farming enterprise, she maintains that she’s just “along for the ride” and that she always recognized what a hard worker her son was.
“I never thought he wasn’t going to succeed,” she said emphatically.
She was so impressed with his business plan that she sold the gift shop she owned in Wakefield (Spangles) to be “more available to him.”
“I saw the customers’ happiness and appreciation,” she said, “and that fuels you to produce good food for them.” Her grandfather was a dairy farmer, and her mother is still an avid gardener, but Lisa feels as though she’s always learning something new. In addition to Lisa and Alby at the farm site, they hire approximately five part-timers seasonally. And, in true family-business fashion, Alby’s dad, Neil, a full-time cardiologist, helps with the bookkeeping.
Alby was surprised that the farm was profitable the very first year they were farming, with 30% of their business for wholesale customers. It’s given him the confidence to expand each year, and this year they’ll be using all the land, because they’ve been able to acquire the equipment to do it.
“We prioritize the most profitable things to grow, such as tomatoes and strawberries,” he said. “We have to grow a wide variety of things for retail sales. We like to try unusual things, such as fennel and celeriac. And we grow about 35 different kinds of fruits and vegetables.”
Alby emphasizes that he learns something every year—he’s also a student in environmental science at the University of Rhode Island. Related to the farm, however, he lost five beds of lettuce to over-fertilization, and he harvested small celeriac roots, because of planting the seeds too late.
“All plants have specific needs,” he said, “and it takes a while to learn them all. And lots of things are hard to grow in humid New England.”
And then there is the wildlife.
“We laugh every week,” Lisa added. “Seeing a woodchuck running out of the greenhouse with a big tomato in its mouth. Finding birds’ nests in the plants. Or noticing that our neighbor’s peacock has had a few strawberries.”
“We just live with the wildlife,” Alby said with a smile. “We try to harmonize with them.”
Last year, Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) organized a tour of the Brandon Family Farm by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Jim Langevin, because they are particularly interested in environmental management and making farmland more affordable.
“I’m an environmentalist at heart,” Alby said, “and we try to minimize the pollution on the farm, such as the use of plastic. We do crop rotation and also cover-cropping, planting cereal grasses to soak up excess nutrients and carry them over to the next year, when we till the greens into the soil.”
And, because pawpaw trees are remarkably pest-free, Alby has plans to plant a pawpaw orchard this year.
“It will be one of the first commercial pawpaw orchards in the state, and it will be organic,” he said with pride.
And while the lines that form at the Brandon Family Farm’s booth throughout all four seasons of the South Kingstown Farmers Market are partially due to being the only certified organic vendor at the market, they are also due to the friendly, helpful and cheerful team of Alby and Lisa Brandon.
Visit Brandon Family Farm at the South Kingstown Farmers Market or on Facebook.