Rhode Island has many reasons to make sure that our agricultural sector will remain strong and continue to grow. Rhode Island farms pump more than $60 million in wages, purchases and other business expenditures into the economy and generate an estimated $100 million in sales. Strengthening local agriculture helps to ensure that all Rhode Islanders will have access to affordable, healthy and culturally appropriate food. And agricultural landscapes contribute to community character, protect natural resources and provide wildlife habitat.
The state’s agricultural sector is growing – in numbers of farms, numbers of farmers, total acreage, revenue and product diversity. But the future of farming in Rhode Island is in danger. One of the biggest challenges is the high cost of land. At $12,000 per acre, the value of agricultural land in Rhode Island is the second highest in the country. This often makes it impossible for new farmers to acquire land or for current farm operations to expand. Taxes are another threat. Rhode Island’s high property taxes add to farming costs. High state inheritance taxes create particular economic hardship when farms pass from one generation to the next. Frequently the only way for a farm family to raise the cash to pay the estate taxes is to sell land.
While most municipalities want to keep their local farms, the spread of residential development into previously agricultural areas often leads to tensions between farmers and neighboring homeowners who object to the noise, dust, and smells that are part of agriculture. Many municipalities do not include strong farm-supportive language in their local comprehensive plans and have not enacted zoning ordinances that clearly spell out what agricultural activities are permitted. Zoning is particularly out of date when it comes to the new entrepreneurial efforts – ranging from expanded farmstands to agritourism – that help to make farms profitable.