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 guitar.
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,” Paul said.
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
“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 September.
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
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
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 matter.”
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 weeds.
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
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 got.”
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 flowers.”
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 CSA operation.
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