In the 1970s, Skip Paul lived
in Colorado, where he helped establish several natural food
cooperative grocery stores. Paul’s interest in organic
farming spurred him to delve into growing and selling his own
organic food. It may not have appeared an obvious career move,
since he had no farming experience, had grown up in suburban
Washington, D.C., and held a university degree in classical
Yet, on a visit to his native Rhode Island, he met the woman
who would become his wife, and together they discovered a
small farm for sale. At the least, they thought, it would
make a good investment.
For a time they lived on the property and allowed a neighbor
to farm it, but Paul grew increasingly frustrated with the
neighbor’s heavy dependence on chemical pesticides,
herbicides and fertilizers. His, wife, Liz, was familiar with
planting and cultivation from her family’s nursery.
Her experience, and Paul’s 10 years of involvement in
the organic and sustainable foods community, convinced them
to try to do better. Another factor helped make the plunge
easier — their initial endeavor was less than an acre.
That changed quickly though, as Paul’s comfort with
farming grew, and as he began realizing that his marketing
experience could contribute to his family’s success.
Their first step was a roadside stand to sell the produce
they grew in their garden-sized plot. Paul said that simply
by listening to his customers, who asked for bread, pies and
recipes, he got inspired to add value to what he was selling.
“I realized that if they were coming all the way out
to the end of the little peninsula where we lived (near Sakonnet
Bay, just north of Rhode Island Sound) to buy produce, they
were likely to spend more on almost anything we offered, as
long it was made from quality ingredients and done right there.”
Skip and Liz invested in a commercial, state-inspected kitchen.
They marketed their value-added products, such as salsa and
dips, under a “Babette’s Feast” label. They
also began leasing land and buying small plots when they became
available —“stringing together a farm,”
Just as they experimented with what types of produce to grow
and how to grow it, the Pauls also experimented with and adjusted
their marketing. By the early 1990s, their rising yields were
overwhelming the on-site farm stand, where sales were limited
by their remote location. He opened a few other farm stands
with other farmers, but experienced management and staffing
problems that soured him on that approach.
By the late 1990s, the Pauls’ marketing strategies
had evolved to include limited sales and Babette’s Feast
products at their farm, establishment of their own community
supported agriculture (CSA) project, an increasing presence
at a popular, bustling farmers market in downtown Providence
and increasingly frequent direct sales to area restaurants.
Paul recognizes what works and what doesn’t. For him
and his family, sales at the Providence Farmers Market are
key, and he concentrates his energy on strategies to increase
the volume and diversity of what they produce for sale there.
In fact, even though the CSA project brings in needed income,
he hopes to expand his presence at the market in Providence
and others he has helped establish.
“There’s just a kind of energy at the market
that I don’t find anywhere else,” he says. “People
appreciate what we offer, they line up at our three cashier
booths before we even get our displays set up every Saturday
morning, and they come back week after week.
“It’s incredible. They inspire me to keep thinking
about new products we can offer, how we can provide more of
the produce they like, and how we can get it to them earlier
and deeper into the season than the competition.”
To extend the season, he invested in greenhouses that allow
him to be among the first at the market to offer tomatoes.
Providing vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes for sale in June
in Rhode Island is quite a coup, and they can sell them through
October, while others’ seasons run from mid-July to
He also depends on temporary, easily constructed shelters
— high tunnels — made from heavy-gauge plastic
stretched along ribs of one-inch PVC pipe. Inside the 10-by-40-foot
long structures he grows herbs, lettuce and greens earlier
and later than the traditional growing season.
With direct marketing, Paul says he’s limited only
by his imagination and energy. “The constant exposure
to my customers helps me understand what they want, what new
things they’re willing to try,” he says.
The feedback resulted, for one, in the family’s evolving
investment in poultry product marketing. They raise 250 range-fed
laying hens and have offered their organic eggs at premium
prices for nearly a decade. Now, Paul is helping coordinate
a joint venture with several other local farmers that will
give him the opportunity to offer range-fed chicken, too.
With a state grant, they hope to build a mobile processor
outfitted with all the evisceration and cleaning equipment
for licensing. They’ll move it on a coordinated schedule
from farm to farm, so all can process birds just before market.
Once he’s offering fresh chicken, Paul predicts he’ll
be asked by a customer to cook some; thus, prepared chicken
may become another value-added item offered by Wishing Stone.
Economics and Profitability
The Pauls’ CSA operation makes up about 45 percent
of the business, farmers market sales 30 percent, and Babette’s
Feast 25 percent. Combined, the three pursuits grossed an
average of $250,000 annually in the past few years.
“That sounds good, and it is good, but there’s
a lot of work involved in getting to that figure,” Paul
says. With up to nine employees, “it takes a lot of
money to make that much.” Still, Paul admits he and
his family live comfortably and are at a point where they
don’t feel the need to scrimp. He was able, for instance,
to pay more than $30,000 in cash for a new tractor.
Though the Babette’s Feast portion of their business
is profitable, he and Liz have decided to sell it. “It’s
incredible how much you can ask for dips and salsas that are
pretty easy to prepare and don’t have a lot of ingredients,”
he says. But, multiple pursuits are becoming more difficult
to manage at a time in their lives when they are beginning
to think about doing less.
Paul reports the most noteworthy change his family’s
efforts have made is in the quality and health of the soil.
Using compost made of horse manure and bedding from nearby
stables, plus fish waste from canning factories and fish processing
houses, Paul can see an improvement.
“I can feel the difference in the soils of my fields
when I walk them now,” he says. “They’re
less hard-packed than they used to be, with a lot more organic
Paul follows a “three-years on, one-year off”
rotation schedule in his produce fields. Typically, that means
a root crop such as carrots in the first year to help loosen
the soil and to bring minerals nearer the surface. In year
two, he follows up with tomatoes and/or eggplant. That field
in the third year will then host a cabbage crop. In the last
year of the rotation, Paul takes the field out of commercial
production and sows green manure crops such as oats or peas
—or both — in the spring, and red clover in mid-summer.
The green manure crops have the added benefit of suppressing
Paul usually adds compost every fall, allowing it to break
down during the winter in time for spring planting. Plants
like garlic, lettuce, beets, carrots and small seed greens
generally follow a compost application.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Along the way to becoming an experienced farmer and marketer,
Paul became a recognized leader among organic growers in Rhode
Island, as well those who market their goods directly to consumers,
stores and restaurants. He’s served as vice president
of the state chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association,
and has been a driving force behind the central farmers market
in Providence as well as six other markets in the region.
Considering the lifestyle choices available in an increasingly
complex, technology-oriented society, Paul says he’d
choose farming all over again because “it puts you at
the heart of some pretty basic and wonderful things.”
He believes too many people have become removed from a basic
awareness of how their food is produced and prepared, activities
he sees as central to what life is all about.
At the farmers market, “I get to connect with people
who live in urban areas and don’t get to see much open
space, trees, vegetables or flowers on a daily basis,”
Paul says. “They just light up when they see what we’ve
Paul welcomes visits from those interested customers. “I
can just see how much it means to them,” he says. “Farms
can be a chance for people to have real experiences, be in
a real place. I think farms can offer a different experience,
and I’m glad to be part of it, especially when people
come around and share it with us.”
“Do everything you can to improve the condition of
your soil, don’t let weeds get away from you because
they can be very difficult to control when you’re using
only mechanical or hand methods, and be wary of anyone who
tells you it’s possible to make a living raising cut
Skip and Liz have begun thinking about the kind of farming
they can do well into old age. Even with the sale of Babette’s
Feast under consideration, they say they’ll maintain
the scale of their efforts for a few more years while son,
Silas, finishes his education. If he chooses to join the family
business full time, they say his services will be welcome.
Should he choose another direction, they will likely phase
out their participation in farmers markets in favor of a small
But that won’t be all. Paul says he’s increasingly
interested in passing on what he’s learned about organic
farming, ecology, and horticulture, and hopes to turn the
farm into an education center.