NORTH FEATURES


History of Growth

Family farm has become large in a small state
By Patrick White


The Confreda family has been farming in Rhode Island for 90 years. What started as a 25-acre family farm in Warwick has grown to a 400-acre, diversified family enterprise. Were it not for Rhode Island's status as the nation's smallest state, Confreda Greenhouses & Farms (www.confredas.com) might be even larger. "It's very hard right now to find open land in this state," says Vinny Confreda Sr. "Unfortunately, the priority here has been farming houses instead of farming vegetables."


Confreda Greenhouses & Farms grows vegetables on 400 acres in Rhode Island. The farm has diversified, with strong retail and ag entertainment components that keep it operating nearly year-round.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CONFREDA GREENHOUSES & FARMS.

The Confredas, now assisted by anywhere from 70 to 150 employees, are still farming the original acreage in Warwick, as well as a combination of land they own and rent in about 15 locations in the area. "We're probably one of the biggest vegetable growers in the state," says Confreda. Much of the growth began about 30 years ago under the guidance of Confreda, his father John and his uncle (now deceased). Confreda started working on the farm full time in 1976, and now his children are working in the family business. "My father is 83 years old and he's still working, and my three boys are involved, so right now there's three generations actively involved with running the business," says Confreda.

About 15 years ago, a larger facility, Confreda's Farmer's Market and Garden Center, was built in West Cranston. It houses a retail store to sell bedding plants and vegetables, as well as a bakery, ice cream shop, playground and café. It also serves as a base for ag entertainment, including hayrides in the fall and two corn mazes. "My father and uncle always had a smaller retail operation," says Confreda.

The decision to expand that side of the business was important to supplement the farm's wholesale vegetable business and support the entire farm operation. "With the retail business, I think we're educating the customer about how important farming still is in the state of Rhode Island, and it lets us extend our season, which helps us with our labor," he explains. "By diversifying our business, we can now keep a lot of our employees almost year-round, so they stay with us. We're able to swap help out between the different areas to keep them going almost year-round. If not, they'd be limited to working only a few months a year."

For the most part, the farm runs as four separate businesses: retail bedding plants, wholesale bedding plants, retail vegetables and wholesale vegetables. He notes that there aren't often conflicts between these different operations. "Sometimes they do overlap. Like the month of May, which is usually very hard because we're selling the bedding plants at full speed and we're also trying to get the farm planted," he explains. "Then, in October, we're trying to finish with vegetables and there's hayrides going on, so there's a couple of months of chaos."

Confreda has about 2 acres of greenhouses in two locations. One of these is dedicated for the farm's wholesale bedding plants, and the other allows the farm to start some vegetables in late February.

In addition to specialty items grown for the retail market, the farm's wholesale vegetable offerings include peppers (Italian, bell and other varieties); green and yellow squash, as well as winter, butternut, spaghetti and acorn squash; tomatoes; eggplant; sweet corn; and pumpkins. For the most part, the selection has remained relatively the same in the recent past. "Maybe we've decreased our winter squash over the past few years, just because people seem to be going more toward prepackaged squash that's already peeled," says Confreda.

The acreage of each crop planted varies a little each year, depending in part on the land available. The farm rents about half of its 400 total acres. "It's hard to know from year to year what we'll have available for rented land. That makes it difficult, because sometimes we'll spend three years getting land up to where it should be - getting the pH and everything right and getting the rocks out - and then we might lose it to development," he says.

There's also an effort to rotate crops when possible. Crop placement is done strategically to minimize risk. For example, some rented land cannot be irrigated, so some crops might be lost in the event of a drought. "Then we also have some land that's on the dry side, and some other land that's heavy. So we'll try to plant some of each crop on the dry land and some on the wet land, so we'll almost guarantee that we'll get some of the crop," says Confreda.

The farm's main crop is sweet corn. "We grow about 250 acres of sweet corn," he says. "We pick every day fresh." He arrives about 2:30 a.m. during the picking season to run the harvester, and the crews arrive around 4:30 a.m. to start bagging. The farm utilizes a Pixall four-row harvester, but also keeps an older Byron four-row harvester on standby. "That's one of our original harvesters and we use it as a backup," Confreda explains. "That's sort of our insurance policy in case we have a breakdown."

Wholesale customers begin arriving at 5 a.m. and include a number of local stores and supermarket chains including Shaw's, BJ's and Whole Foods. A number of local restaurants also buy produce on a daily basis. Most of the vegetables are packed in standard cases and boxes. Some restaurants, however, buy by the half-box or pound. "That can be a little bit of a challenge, especially when you're running a production crew," says Confreda. "It's also tough because some customers think the product is like a nut or a bolt, but we pick everything fresh; we're not like a wholesaler that has everything already in our coolers."


Three generations of the Confreda family have worked to build up one of Rhode Island's largest vegetable farms. They've also added retail and greenhouse components to create a diversified agriculture operation.

The crews sometimes have to calculate which produce should go to particular wholesale customers. "With tomatoes, for example, restaurants want them to be red so they can be used that day. But some of the supermarkets want them more in the break, so they'll have a few days of shelf life," he explains. Fortunately, some members of the packing crew have been with the farm for 30 years and are able to quickly make these adjustments. "We have a very good staff here. If it wasn't for our crews, we wouldn't be able to do what we're doing," says Confreda. He adds that his father still handles a lot of the quality control: "He'll go around and just open boxes to check everything ... he's packed a few boxes in his day."

Some vegetables are packaged for BJ's. "Everything needs to be bagged specially for them, so there's a little extra work," says Confreda. "We just started that and we still have a few kinks to work out to make it cost-effective. It just takes the employees a little while to get used to packing a new way. But it's our job to try to satisfy all of our different customers and keep everyone happy."

In addition to the produce being picked up by wholesale customers, the farm has four trucks that deliver vegetables as far away as the Boston Market, with deliveries made there each night. "We used to go further, but now we try to sell as much as we can locally," says Confreda.

The message of locally grown vegetables is promoted even with the farm's wholesale customers, he points out: "A lot of the grocery stores have a photo of my father and I right there next to the product, and in a lot of different restaurants our name is right on the menu."

This helps customers make the connection between the vegetables they're consuming and the farm where they were grown. Of course, it does cut a little into the farm's retail sales. Because Confreda's Farmer's Market is surrounded by about 200 acres of vegetables, retail customers can see they're getting fresh-picked produce. "Once people see that the fresh product is in, our business just about triples," says Confreda.

Managing employees and regulations are challenges with a farm this size, but Confreda says the most difficult factor is weather. "The weather is a lot more extreme than it ever was," he observes. Last year, for example, Tropical Storm Irene hit New England. "That almost put us out of business; we can't afford another year like that," he says. In that one storm, the farm lost 90 acres of corn, 90 percent of its pepper crop, and nearly all of its yellow and green squash and pumpkins.

Beyond the threat of extreme weather events, Confreda says the generally warmer, wetter climate in recent years has led to more prevalent disease pressure. "We've had a lot of problems with tomatoes and peppers and squash. We've really had a difficult time trying to keep everything healthy," he says, noting that wasn't the case in past decades. "Our fungicide bill is now larger than our pesticide bill. With IPM we've been able to cut way back on our pesticides, but the disease pressure over the last three to five years has been really tough. All we can do is try to look at the southern states to help predict what's coming our way with the weather and the prevailing winds."

In addition to changing weather patterns, Confreda thinks that chain stores bringing bedding plants north from southern locations might also be responsible for increased disease pressures. "A lot of times our winters will kill off a lot of the disease, but I think these diseases are being brought up from the south. I'm not a scientist, but that's what I believe," he says.

In response to disease pressures, Confreda has switched to some new varieties with mixed success. For example, some new vegetable varieties being tried have shown some resistance, or at least tolerance, to powdery mildew, "but the production just isn't there like it is with the regular varieties, and at some point [the powdery mildew] still sets in," says Confreda.

What's helped more has been the decision over the past few years to move the farm's tomato, pepper and eggplant production into raised beds. "That helps with some of the soilborne diseases, and also keeps some of the product off the ground so it's cleaner," he explains. "It's the only way a lot of these vegetables can survive now." The move required some investment in equipment, including a new Rain-Flo bed maker. "That's worked out very well for us, and they've been a good company to deal with," he says. A new specialty transplanter was also needed.

Fortunately, Confreda says the trickle irrigation system being used in the raised beds has reduced water costs and helped offset at least some of the equipment expenses. It also provides greater control over nutrient delivery. "We do tissue samples on the product every two weeks and add just what plants need. This helps us get the maximum production per acre," he adds.

Confreda Greenhouses & Farms utilizes a fleet of modern John Deere tractors equipped with ACS technology for most farming tasks. "We also still have the old International Farmalls, and in fact, my father still uses his 1941 Farmall BN to cultivate with," says Confreda. "They traded in their horse for that tractor and he's still using it today."

It's a little reminder of how long the Confreda family has been farming in Rhode Island, and how much the business has grown along the way.

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 11 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.