Tiny Portsmouth farm is certified organic
PORTSMOUTH — Behind Matt Plumb’s Middle Road home is a 17x96-foot hoop house and a few tiny plots of soil that you can barely even see from the roadway.
But this isn’t any backyard garden. It’s ROMA Farms, where Mr. Plumb and his partner, Phil Hadley, pick purple beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and more for their customers.
They represent the growing number of young farmers — Mr. Plumb is 33, Mr. Hadley, 37 — who, with just a few acres of land, are meeting a growing demand from foodies, restaurants and grocery stores for fresh, organic produce.
It’s not a big operation — it’s not even a full-time job at this point — but don’t tell that to these two “slow food” farmers.
“We are passionate about growing food that not only tastes better but helps people be healthier,” said Mr. Hadley.
In May the business got a big boost when its Portsmouth site — ROMA has another one-acre spot in Middletown — received its USDA Organic Certification.
“We feel it’s a nice accomplishment,” said Mr. Hadley, noting there are only a handful of organic farms in the local area and that ROMA hopes to get its Middletown site certified next year. “Everything in this hoop house is certified organic — no pesticides, no fertilizers. We started everything pretty much from seed and bought some potting soil that was certified organic. We started pretty much in Matt’s basement and then once we put the hoop house up, we were able to put everything in there and we had to follow all the guidelines for certified organic.”
Since it’s difficult for the major farms to “get all that certified,” the smaller farms have a leg up on them when it comes to meeting the demands of customers who want nothing but fresh, organic food, according to Mr. Hadley.
“If you’re diligent and you do the paperwork and abide by their rules, it’s a unique opportunity to bring more organic products onto the island,” he said. “For example, Whole Foods has to buy everything certified organic, although we don’t have a Whole Foods close to us. But if we get more people on board and are successful growing, we might attract a Whole Foods onto the island and be able to sell directly to them.”
Currently, ROMA’s customers include two businesses near and dear to the two men: Brick Alley Pub and the Spring Street Inn bed and breakfast, both in Newport. Mr. Plumb’s family owns Brick Alley, while Mr. Hadley is the general manager, innkeeper and chef at Spring Street Inn. They’ll often pick a fresh batch of produce from the hoop house and prepare it the same day for diners.
“We’ve got basil, beets, carrots, a couple different kinds of beans, about 50 tomato plants, butternut squash and cucumbers,” said Mr. Plumb. They’re also hoping to take advantage of the hoop house to extend the season by offering a fall crop.
Being a chef, Mr. Hadley likes to get creative with whatever looks good in the gardens on a particular day.
“I picked two zucchinis around 5:30 two mornings ago and I wanted to do something different, so I made zucchini pancakes for the guests that morning with grated parmesan, eggs and I added some fresh basil,” he said. “People were like, ‘Wow!’ The reason I got out of the restaurants is that I didn’t prefer cooking the same meal 40, 80, 100 times the same way. This way, I go to the farm in the morning and the menu changes every day and artistically, you’re still involved in the food movement and doing stuff that’s so unique.”
ROMA also sends produce to Bossman Burger in Middletown and West Main Pizza in Portsmouth, and hopes to add more customers in the future. “There’s a lot of opportunity, with 200, 300 places you can sell product to locally,” said Mr. Hadley. “If you go on TripAdvisor, there are 100 inns and how many restaurants in Newport and Middletown?”
First dibs on the pickings, however, go elsewhere.
“Today I’ll be picking for our farm share customers,” said Mr. Plumb, adding that ROMA currently has about eight such customers. “They’re our first priority because they were the first ones to put their faith in us as first-year farmers to grow things for them.”
In a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, customers pay in advance to receive a “share” of the farm’s weekly harvest that can either be picked up or delivered.
Started in 2011
ROMA Farms was launched in 2011 by Mr. Plumb and Rory Hennessey, and later joined by Mr. Hadley as they incorporated into MPH Agriculture in January 2014. The partners say they’re committed to “connecting people with the earth” along with fresh, healthier and better-tasting food.
“The movement towards slow food is here to stay,” said Mr. Plumb. “It’s nothing new; it’s how it always was until the middle and late part of the last century, and then everything became easy and fast. Those people didn’t know what was in that food and how bad it may have been for you. Eating tomatoes that we grow here are going to be a lot fresher and they’re going to be more nutritious than if they came in from California or Mexico.”
Not only is the food “slow,” so is the growth of the business. But that’s by design.
“We wanted to start small and simple and make sure it’s done right. This first couple years for us, we’re looking to slowly grow but mostly learn as much as we can from the people around here who have been doing it for a long time,” said Mr. Plumb. “Harry Chase (of Chase Farms) has been very helpful to us. It’s great to get that feedback from people; it made it easier for us to get started.”
Added Mr. Hadley, “There’s this patience to it. Watching it grow is amazing. You get so busy at work sometimes, we’ll go down pick on a Sunday for the farm share and then the next thing you know, on Tuesday or Wednesday, it’s like, ‘Wow, look at what just came up.’”
Time management key
Although both men have other jobs, they spend a few hours each week tending to and picking at the gardens whenever they can.
“Phil and I do it in our recreation time, more or less,” said Mr. Plumb. “It’s hard work, but we don’t go fishing, we’re not big boaters. This is what we like to do. As long as you keep it small and manageable, it’s manageable.”
Added Mr. Hadley, “It’s a matter of time management and working together. ‘OK, if you’re doing that, I’ll do this.’ We just bought a tractor, which helps us with our time management,” he said.
Eventually, they’d like to bring a few more people on board. “It would be fun for someone who’s looking for an extra 10 hours who doesn’t want to be inside the office,” said Mr. Hadley.
And if you’re interested in establishing your own little farm, they said there’s nothing from stopping you.
“Just jump right in,” said Mr. Plumb. “You don’t necessarily have to have a ton of space to do it; you can do it really small. Do a little bit of research but just do it as you go. You’re going to have a bunch of hurdles to overcome and you’re going to make mistakes, but then once you begin to figure things out, it’s rewarding to see.”
As Mr. Hadley likes to say, paraphrasing a Buddhist quote: “Small drops in the bucket and the bucket eventually overflows. Start small, keep it simple.”
His partner has his own philosophical take on the tiny farm’s future.
“Even if we don’t sell anything,” said Mr. Plumb, “we’re still going to eat well.”
For more information about ROMA Farms, click here.