Grant will help Portsmouth farm, others expand business

Sen. Jack Reed (left) and Louis Escobar make a celebratory toast using Rhody Fresh Milk. Sen. Jack Reed (left) and Louis Escobar make a celebratory toast using Rhody Fresh Milk.

Sen. Jack Reed (left) and Louis Escobar make a celebratory toast using Rhody Fresh Milk.

Sen. Jack Reed (left) and Louis Escobar make a celebratory toast using Rhody Fresh Milk.

PORTSMOUTH — A big cheese showed up at a well-known local dairy farm Monday.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed visited Escobar’s Highland Farm Monday to announce the awarding of a $150,000 federal grant that will be used expand Rhody Fresh‘s business operations. The Middle Road farm, owned by Louis and Jane Escobar, is part of the Rhode Island Dairy Farms Cooperative, which produces Rhody Fresh Milk.

“Louis has been here for years and is one of the great mainstays of the agricultural community,” said Sen. Reed.

The funding will be used to bolster Rhody Fresh’s next phase of marketing and help promote new products, such as its locally made cheeses.

“We’re now producing cheese on a very small scale,” said Mr. Escobar.

Last fall, Rhody Fresh unveiled a new variety of artisan cheese: Butterkase, a hand-crafted artisan German-style soft cheese that’s made at Providence Specialty Products, using milk from Rhody Fresh dairy farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded 110 federal Value-Added Producers Grants to local farming and agriculture producers nationwide out of more than 430 applications. In 2009, Sen. Reed, a member of the Appropriations Committee, secured $32,000 in federal funds to help Rhody Fresh begin planning for the expansion of operations in cheese production.

A sampling of some of Rhody Fresh's Butterkase, a hand-crafted artisan German-style soft cheese.

A sampling of some of Rhody Fresh’s Butterkase, a hand-crafted artisan German-style soft cheese.

“I am pleased Rhody Fresh won this competitive federal grant to help increase production and promote the sale of fresh, local dairy products that are made right here in Rhode Island,” said Sen. Reed. “Buying from Rhode Island farmers has important environmental, economic and health benefits. It also helps preserve open space and active farmland. This federal grant will help ensure our local dairy farmers can compete and earn a living producing fresh, local products.”

Upon approval of the grant, Steve Volpe, chief operating officer of Rhody Fresh said, “This grant will be used not only to create awareness of new Rhody Fresh products but to help sustain a vibrant agriculture industry in this state, especially the local farm-to-table initiatives.”

After the speeches, Sen. Reed. Mr. Escobar and others from Rhody Fresh made a celebratory toast — using Rhody Fresh Milk, of course. After that samples of Rhody Fresh Cheese were distributed to all.

“I never pass up the opportunity before a group to say a few more words,” joked Mr. Escobar, before encouraging people to drive by the other Rhody Fresh farms.

“When you bring home Rhody Fresh, you’re bringing home a staple and you’re preserving open space.”

Nine years old

The Rhode Island Dairy Farms Cooperative was formed in 2004 by a group of five dairy farmers who believed the Rhode Island community was thirsty for locally produced, fresh milk. Rhody Fresh Milk has grown to include eight dairy farms throughout the state and is sold at retail stores, colleges and other locations. Rhody Fresh Milk is also used to make several varieties of local artisan cheese and butter.

According to Rhody Fresh, not that long ago there were 80 dairy farms in Rhode Island. Today there are about 20 and the demand for subdivisions has reduced the amount of active farmland in communities across the country.

A 2012 R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM) study found Rhode Island’s agriculture industry has an economic impact of $268.2 million and supports 2,330 jobs statewide. DEM also notes that the state has 50 seasonal farmers markets, seven indoor winter markets, and numerous pick-your-own farm stand operations throughout Rhode Island and ranks as one of the top three states in the country for direct marketing sales of fruits and vegetables from farms to consumers, on a per-farm basis.

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