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by Anne Obelnicki, RAFT Grow-Out Project Coordinator

Towards the end of July I had the pleasure of visiting John Harkins at Heritage Farm on Aquidneck Island (Portsmouth), Rhode Island. John is one of the farmers participating in our RAFT Heirloom Vegetable Grow-Out, and I’d scheduled this visit for my birthday with the premonition that this would be a special place to spend a few hours. I wasn’t disappointed.

My visit was on a rainy day, not much of a surprise in New England this summer. However, John and his two farm workers – one full-time, one part-time – bustled through the fields as cheery and efficient ever, apparently unfazed by the gloomy weather.

Like other New England farmers, John told me that his crops were about a month behind this year because of all the rain and the lack of sunshine early in the season. Luckily, he hadn’t had much disease as a result, and as he cheerfully led me through the fields he pointed out variety after intriguing variety of beautiful plants thriving in bushy, healthy rows.

John’s career path evolved into vegetable farming after spending a chunk of his 20’s in landscaping. He told me he liked the productivity of vegetable farming – creating something useful, something delicious that you can eat – and found it in sharp contrast to the unproductive nature of maintaining grassy suburban landscapes. John gave a short, ironic laugh as he commented on the discrepancy between what people will pay to have their lawns mowed (a lot!) in contrast to their expectations for the cost of good, wholesome local vegetables (not much!). Obviously a thoughtful farmer, his mind seemed to buzz a mile a minute as we continued to walk the fields.

John is growing 11 of the 16 RAFT veggies included in the Grow-Out, but his enthusiasm for heirlooms vastly exceeds the bounds of our project. As we walked, he pointed out the row where he is doing a seed trial of 10 tomato varieties for Fedco Seeds. I was impressed as John rattled off names of strange and intriguing heirloom squashes, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and other veggies, all remembered without a map. While many farmers find it more convenient to grow just a few varieties, John told me growing TONS of varieties is part of what makes farming engaging and exciting for him.

John is new to working with restaurants, but we’re hoping through the Grow-Out he’ll make connections with many chefs in his area. With all those amazing heirlooms to sell, they’ll be lucky to have him as a supplier.

[For our previous Grow-out posts, click here, here, and here]