Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, RI chemical-free
Some of what we grow is available year-round.
Fax (401) 364-9930
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Earth Care Farm is Rhode Island’s oldest compost producer and a regenerative, no-till family farm. We are most well know for our Organic Merner’s Gold Compost, Raised Bed Mix and Potting Soil. Please come visit our farm!
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Charlestown, RI - Rhode Island fresh compost?! Believe it – it even has quahog shells in it! Since 1979, Mike Merner and his family have been making organic compost for their own use and for sale to others. It all began in 1979, when Mike confronted his growing disillusionment with agriculture as he had been trained to do it in the 1960s. “It was ‘better living through chemicals’ in those days,” he recalls, and working in landscaping he became disgusted by the quantity of chemical products he found himself putting into the land, as his old URI lesson plans had taught him to do. He started making compost as a replacement for chemical fertilizers, and phased himself off of chemical pesticides, fungicides and all the rest. By 1985, he was working entirely organically. Though challenging, the process was an enjoyable one, “a journey into ecosystems and nature” as he put it. Eventually, the compost pushed out the landscaping, although they have always had some other form of production alongside the compost.
When he began making compost, Mike had to seek out a good range of ingredients to make it well-rounded and nutritionally balanced. Plants need a balanced diet as much as people do, and good compost should deliver the range of components a plant needs to grow. SO Mike went looking for fish and seafood processers, to get their waste products – fish heads and quahog shells may be their garbage, but they are one of the key ingredients that makes Earth Care’s compost so rich. He also puts in seaweed cleared from nearby towns’ waterfronts, manure from local farms with livestock, and leaves and woodchips from town yard-waste pickups.
This last material is not only good organic matter that adds to the compost, but it serves an important function in the process of making compost – keeping the neighbors happy. When the Merners first bought their land in 1977, they didn’t have any nearby neighbors, but through the years, their road has come to be lined with family homes tucked into the woods. As houses popped up, the Merners have become increasingly careful to do everything they can to limit the occasional inevitable smells that come from composting. SO, after careful layering of components into the house-sized heaps of composting materials, they place a thick top layer of leaves and the like all over the more nitrogen-rich (and stronger-smelling) materials inside. The high carbon content of dried herbaceous materials helps counteract and contain the odors of the more pungent concoction inside. They build up berms and swales – slight banks and troughs – in the land to contain and direct water flow to prevent run-off from causing problems. And lastly, they just don’t take in fish waste in the summer, when the odor is the hardest to control. The day of my visit, he had just incorporated a shipment of clam waste, but not a hint of it was on the breeze; instead, rich earthiness pervaded the breeze, like spring plow day on a fertile farm.
It takes about a year for the compost to mature. In order for it to work, a compost pile has to heat up inside, allowing the microbial activity to flourish – Earth Care gets theirs up to 160 degrees to encourage the right thermophilic creatures feel right at home. The compost is also turned 12 times a year with a backhoe, so the microbes can breathe, also essential for their ability to flourish and get their job done. The heat and turning ensures there are never any weeds or seeds in the compost, too. Once it’s completed, the compost is screened to remove any big, undecayed material (like bigger hunks of wood or the occasional soda can that got tossed in a yard-waste bag). Picking up a handful of newly-screened compost, the next years’ work of product for sale, Mike lets some of the black-brown dirt slide through his fingers. “There are more microorganisms in this handful than there are people on the planet,” he explained, “and their biological activity is what releases the nutrients for plants.”
The farm sells four products from its compost: sifted compost ready to go straight into your garden, unsifted compost more suited to larger farms and landscaping, raised bed mix suitable for use as soil as-is, and fill from materials too big to compost. All are available bulk from the farm, but in a minimum order of a truckload. The Merners are self-conscious that they live at the end of a residential road now, and they don’t want any more traffic than necessary passing through the neighborhood. But for everyday gardeners who want to supplement their vegetable gardens or planters with the finest of RI controlled decay, Earth Care’s compost is as near as your local garden center in more convenient bags.
Meanwhile, the quest for the best way to make use of their farm’s own soils continues. Mike’s daughter, Jayne and her husband Ryan Senecal ran a CSA off the farm for a few years, but stopped it in 2006 to focus on seedlings. They will soon have to decide whether they’ll make another go at vegetables or go back into animal production as they prepare for the 2007 season. Mike really misses having animals around, and especially misses having home-raised meats on the table. “You just can’t get a chicken like that at the grocery store,” Mike sighed wistfully, and I can only agree.
Beyond preserving access to farm-fresh foods from well-nourished soils, Mike is also very concerned for the future of farmland and rural values in RI, and through his participation in several agricultural organizations he works to make the problems facing RI farmers known and understood to the people making policy by bringing on-the-ground experiences into the equation. Mike is worried about the loss of farmland, but understands that most farmers don’t have a pension and if they can’t work to the end of their days, they have no choice but to sell their farm in order to afford their later years. And, given the price of fuels and the state of food security, he believes we need locally produced foods to ensure we have secure, affordable access. He would hate to see RI end up like the county where he grew up, in old “Garden State” farm country. When he left home for URI in 1967, it was all farmland; today, one farm remains in the whole county. And that is a loss to everyone.