Dame Farm in Johnston, RI
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Johnston, RI - Darlene Dame vividly remembers the day, as a young bride newly moved to the farm, that she was asked to bake something for afternoon coffee. When her husband Jay bit into his brownie, though, he proclaimed it wasn't homemade. "Yes it is!" she retorted, pointing to the baking pan indignantly. But he could smell brownie mix at 100 paces, and on Dame Farm, fresh, good food was the rule. "Brownies are the only thing I'd use mix for," Darlene told me, decades after the trauma, her tone begging for absolution. The still-warm chocolate cake she and her daughter Kristen gave me as we sat down to talk proved the family hasn't compromised since, that little transgression notwithstanding.
Of course, most people go to the farm for its produce, not the family's dessert. From strawberry season through apple picking, the shady, cool little stand's shelves teem with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors. The stand has evolved in recent years, diversifying as part of the family's farm business plan. In the 1990s they did a lot more wholesale, with just a little stand to sell a few beloved crops (especially sweet corn, the only retail crop when Jay and Darlene were married in 1975). Wholesale may have assured them some big markets, but it had its own constraints - harvesting large quantities in short periods of time required a crew and adherence to order schedules instead of the crops' schedules. Direct sales may have their own demands, but the farm gets the whole price of the food, and by growing more crops they could fill out the growing season and spread the work out more evenly.
Strawberries are one of these additions. When the Pick-Your-Own fields open in mid-June, EarlyGlow jam-berries launch harvest season after the interminable wait of spring, followed by three slower-ripening varieties in subsequent weeks. For that short glorious season, a parade of customers with seeds in their teeth and red-smeared knees tote away boxes of fruit for jam, shortcake, and freezer. By the time berries are gone, summer crops are in - green and yellow beans sell as fast as they can pick them, converts rediscovering what a real bean tastes like. Summer squash, broccoli, beets, eggplants, cabbage, cukes, tomatoes, and the long-awaited mid-July arrival of corn bring some customers back daily.
Back when Jay and Darlene first planted zucchini, she remembers Grandpa Dame's skeptical "what kind of squash is that!?" Accustomed only to yellow summer squash, he was sure no one would buy this emerald impostor. Today's farm is more cosmopolitan, and they look to their customers for cues. "What kind of hot peppers would our Hispanic customers like?" Darlene wonders. "What vegetables are our Asian customers looking for? People said that eggplant would never sell, but now it's one of our bestsellers." From their old apple orchards they produce Macs, Cortlands, Ida Reds, Mutsus, and the old variety Gravenstein - a family favorite because it arrives first, and was Grandma's favorite for pies. Newer plantings include blueberries, plums, and pear trees, especially popular with neighborhood deer, to the Dame's eternal chagrin.
Kristen and Darlene may not both know every customer's name, but they both know who the "Two Ears of Corn" guy is. They try to get to know everyone a little, because "we like to be a welcoming place, and to give them that kind of attention." It's usually a Dame that's serving you at the stand, and that's how they prefer it, so they can give real personal attention. "We like to be appreciated for our work, but we really want the customers to know we appreciate them," whether it's a family on its annual "farm day" to pick apples and buy pumpkins or an elderly devotee who drops in for her daily tomato.
If the family seems rather particular about how the farm is run, it might be because their sentimental bonds to the farm have deepened to compensate for the inherent insecurity of tenancy. The family has been farming this land since the 1890s, but in 1969 the state of Rhode Island seized part of the land by eminent domain for the Green Acres Project, a public parks initiative that Darlene terms "a college thesis that became political will." When much of their farm was chosen for Snake Den State Park, along with parts of neighbors' properties, they were "traumatized," Darlene recalls. "At the time everyone had the mind-set that you can't fight government." Grandpa was depressed, and Grandma refused to leave. Some of the family took farm labor jobs in Vermont, but Jay's parents Jim and Marcia decided to stay with Jim's aging (and melancholy) parents, who the state let stay in the house for the time being.
Meanwhile, the community watched in dismay as the other seized farms were torn down, closing in on the Dames' 18th century home. The neighbors' "Save the Silos" campaign morphed into RI Historical Farms, which jointly rented part of the farm with the Dames, allowing them to farm while the buildings served as a museum. With time it became difficult to be both a viable home, farm business, and living history museum, the historical group disbanded, and the Dames renegotiated the terms of the agreement to allow them to do home improvements and regain privacy in the house.
Eventually the uncertainty of tenancy was too much for Jay and Darlene, who moved to a dairy farm in upstate NY in the early 1990s. The senior generation stayed on, the orchard on their remaining land providing enough income to get by, and rewarding productive work to feed the elder Dames' souls. Darlene fondly says that her father-in-law, like every Dame, "loves this land and the work." That same love of their land pulled the younger generation back from exile in 1994, with resolve as well as a plan. They transferred the lease to Jay and Darlene to ensure generational continuity, and made a new commitment to make farm and family work in tandem. Today the farm is worked by three generations, going on four. "We have a responsibility to do business realistically," Darlene said pragmatically. "Emotions don't pay the bills, and now we have an obligation to our daughter and to our son and his family." Those changes on the farm in the last decade are how they have chosen to re-shape their business.
Today they own half the farm, and lease the other half from the state - including their house, which is frustrating when it comes to making repairs and improvements. They have found constructive ways to keep people from using their farm as an extension of the adjacent park, voluntarily constructing a public parking lot just up the road. The RI Department of Environmental Management has helped maintain historical details of the property, like the 2006 restoration of those beloved wooden silos, but the working farm is a self-supporting independent business. Most of their challenges are familiar to all family farmers - long hard work days, the vagaries of crops, weather, and injury, the stress of small business ownership, and maintaining a healthy family life. "The big challenge is balancing love of the people you work with, and honoring each other, while you have this business angle," Darlene explained. "From an interpersonal angle, your coworkers are family, and you live at work. We love farming and the whole life, but if you aren't careful, you'll end up resenting it." It takes considerable work to not be consumed by the farm's demands.
For daughter Kristen, though, the farm itself provides ways to grow personal talents. When she returned to the farm a few years back, she added draft horses to the farm's holdings and now offers horse-drawn farm tours, through field and forest, on a bobsled if it's snowy enough. As a trained teacher, she can also offer lively educational farm visits to visitors of any age. "To be able to tell people about farms is rewarding. I get to talk about something I enjoy, and give kids exposure to something new." She pointed out how her mother's skill as a cook has helped customers learn to eat new produce finds, and how brother Justin and father Jay have applied their woodworking talents, like their forbears, to built the very farm itself, from the horse-drawn cart to the beautiful kitchen cabinets made from wood cut on the property.
The strain and risk of farming mean some years can be very difficult, as in 2006 when early spring rains killed off their early field tomatoes, wasting the expenses and labor that had brought them so close to bearing fruit. Strawberries molded on the plants, since people didn't go picking in the rain. Darlene says wryly "Some people go to Foxwoods, we farm. That's our way of gambling." They wish that customers could realize just how demanding and risky farming is - when a customer complains that an ear of corn is 50 cents, it's all they can do but to ask if they wouldn't pay the same for a packet of fries without a second thought. Happily, those skeptics are few, and Darlene finds that people are getting more educated and appreciative of quality produce. "I want them to have a taste of the farm," she said, "and I think society is coming to realize they need a connection and access to the outdoors."