Our first question to Mark and Betty Garrison, owners of Rocky Point Blueberry Farm in Warwick, Rhode Island, was: “What inspired you to turn this beautiful residential property into a farm?” We were having coffee in the living room of the three-bedroom (plus “in-law apartment”) house designed by Mark and built in 1984, while admiring the lovely view of Narragansett Bay in the distance beyond the spacious front deck.
“The minute we looked at our first property-tax bill,” Mark answered with a smile. Obviously, the town of Warwick had put a high value on the Garrisons’ newly acquired eight and a half acres, once part of the U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich (1841-1915) estate. But if the property could be categorized as a farm, the taxes would be significantly lower. So, for sure, a farm it would be.
Mark and Betty first opted for a Christmas-tree farm, but then, after seeing how well several wild-blueberry bushes on the property were doing, they purchased 1,000 cultivated blueberry bushes and cleared two acres where the property bordered Rocky Point Avenue. (Their house, about a five-minute woodsy walk from the cleared field, is on Aldrich Avenue.) Then they transplanted their new bushes to those two cleared acres, added another 1,200 bushes, waited about four years for those 2,200 bushes to produce blueberries, and, voila, they owned a blueberry farm.
Starting in 1991, after the farm had been featured in several local newspapers, and the Garrisons had obtained some mailing lists and later visited a few farm Web sites, oodles of customers of all ages began coming to their new farm stand during July and August, the blueberry-picking season. With the colorful pails that Mark and Betty provided, they proceeded to pick to their hearts’ content, paying $1.85 a pound but enjoying considerably lower prices through “frequent-picker discounts.” Last year the Garrisons sold about 10 tons of blueberries, realizing about $30,000, close to their yearly average. (For the past couple of years, they’ve turned much of the operation over to their friend and neighbor, Paula Palumbo, who receives a percentage of the profits.)
We asked Mark about the possibility of expanding the business. “Well, more land could easily be cleared for more blueberry bushes,” he replied. He also pointed out that new owners might want to raise prices a bit and perhaps wholesale their blueberries if they were willing to pack them into containers, deliver them to stores, and so forth.
Yes, Mark and Betty have reached an age when, despite lots of help, occasionally even from their four children and nine grandchildren, they’ve decided to retire from farming and live in a smaller house. After all, blueberry farming isn’t just picking blueberries. Every year, the fields need to be mulched, the plants pruned and fertilized, and the bushes sprayed several times (using nonchemical pesticides so that customers can be tasting while picking). And, before the berries ripen, netting has to be put over the entire two acres to keep away the birds–and then taken down again every fall.
They could sell this beautiful property to a developer for, we’d guess, around a million dollars, maybe more. Then there would be houses instead of blueberries. But Mark and Betty appreciate how much people in the Warwick area love bringing their children and grandchildren here to pick blueberries. Like everyone else, they want Rocky Point Blueberry Farm to continue. So they’ve decided to put the entire property under a conservation easement, which means it will be forever limited to agriculture or open space. It also means that the price comes down to $550,000. Included in that price are the house and a small barn, a two-car garage, a lean-to greenhouse/workshop, a storage building, most of Mark’s farming tools and equipment, and even a 1986 Toyota truck. Prospective owners may negotiate for the John Deere tractor with loader and backhoe.
Incidentally, new owners will also inherit Mark’s beloved pawpaw orchard, possibly the only pawpaw orchard in New England. Pawpaws? Never heard of them? Well, they’re a fruit native to the United States, great in ice cream, custards, and even beer; when eaten fresh off the tree, they taste like a cross between a mango and a banana. Mark gave us one to try. Delicious!
As to the house overlooking Narragansett Bay, it’s on two levels, surrounded by more than 1,200 feet of hundred-year-old stone walls dating back to the Aldrich era. From the 2,112-square-foot living room, one can hear water gently flowing down over rocks to a small pond. The dining room has 10-foot ceilings and sliding doors opening to a deck. On the same level are the kitchen with its granite counters, the study with oak-paneled shelves, the master bedroom and bath, and a powder room. On the level below are two more bedrooms and a bathroom, plus the in-law apartment featuring bedroom, bath, kitchen (where Betty makes all her jams and jellies), a door to the garage, and a lovely, spacious living room.
While visiting with Mark and Betty, we noticed a handsome plaque hanging over a German-made tile coal/woodstove located in the usual fireplace spot. It appeared to be St. George slaying not a dragon but a bunch of nuclear missiles. “That was given to Mark,” said Betty, noticing our interest in it, “by the widow of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, the late Thomas J. Watson Jr., who served during the years before the Soviet Union began to collapse.”
Turns out that Mark was the deputy chief of mission during those same turbulent years, and, as Betty said quietly in an aside, “Everyone knew that it was the deputy who did all the work.” Suddenly we realized it would be no exaggeration to say we were sitting in the presence of a man who had actually played a significant role in protecting U.S. interests during the Cold War!
So, hey, don’t ever underestimate a Rhode Island blueberry farmer.
For details, contact Mark Garrison at email@example.com, or visit: yourblueberryfarm.com