Don’t call Patrick McNiff, owner of Pat’s Pastured, a rancher. Only out West, he explains, are people like him called that. “They need a cowboy hat and a horse and thousands of acres,” he says, laughing. “Here, we’re called livestock farmers.” Regardless of the moniker, McNiff sells eggs (from chickens, ducks and, beginning this fall, quail), chicken, beef, pork and lamb directly to consumers through several venues, including farmers markets and at the farm he leases, Briggs-Boesch Farm, in East Greenwich, and to area restaurants. His animals are pasture-raised and grass-fed.
McNiff, 39, grew up on Long Island, New York. Since coming to Providence in 1992 to attend Providence College – where he majored in history and minored in community and public service – McNiff has called Rhode Island home. He also holds a master’s degree in community and economic development from Southern New Hampshire University. As a member of the Farmers Union, McNiff lobbied U.S. Senator Jack Reed and met with congressional staff members to discuss the farm bill in 2013.
The perennially boyish-looking McNiff has done yeoman’s work in transforming the way Rhode Island’s farmers bring food to chefs and consumers. By establishing chicken-buying cooperatives for livestock farmers, enabling groups of individuals to buy meat in bulk, selling value-added products at farmers markets and creating fresh dog food from old laying hens, McNiff is ‘uber’-responsive to his customers. Although he considers the East Greenwich Land Trust, which owns most of the farmland he leases, “wonderful and progressive,” McNiff longs to have more land under his direct control.
As owner of Pat’s Pastured, you juggle myriad responsibilities. What’s a huge challenge?
I’m always looking for more land; our business has grown, but we’re hemmed in by how much land we have. Land isn’t affordable in the state; even land preserved from development doesn’t guarantee it will be affordable long term. Agricultural land isn’t perceived as the highest [value] and best use in Rhode Island, but if we don’t change our land policy, there won’t be farmers [here]. We fund open space preservation, but we don’t fund farmer preservation.
Education seems to be a big part of what you do. What are some of those initiatives?
We’ve collaborated with others to offer classes on sausage making, hog butchery, processing chickens and we’ll have a class on building a wood-fired oven for bread-baking this fall. We’ve also had students – from Johnson & Wales University and the Paul Cuffee School [a maritime charter school in Providence] – visit the farm.
My parents are both teachers; education is in my blood, so I can’t help myself. We can’t be farmers on our tractors by ourselves anymore. If we want to change the way things are, we have to be out there and educate [the public]. Self-servingly, it helps us market our stuff, but it helps everyone who farms. Some politician might read about the land issue and do something. If we gripe among ourselves, we won’t get anything changed. A lot of things push against us as farmers. The only way to push back is by educating our public and doing what we do and not giving up.
Eating local and buying food at farmers markets have grown increasingly popular in recent years. Do Rhode Islanders value buying local food, despite the higher price?
We see more people looking for local products and asking good questions. When people complain, ‘It’s more expensive,’ I say, ‘You don’t have to do everything. You don’t need to be a purist; just choose one thing.’ If everyone bought local milk, eggs or lettuce, we’d change our agricultural system in a second. I started a cooperative for farmers to buy laying hens together [and we] pass along those savings.
We, as farmers, must find things that create a price point that is more affordable, whether it’s ground beef or goat or whatever that might be; we have to deal with affordability of food. Farmers are not driving Mercedes; we’re trying to keep our heads above water.
Why do people romanticize farming?
Food has become sexier. It’s always been that way in Europe and I think food is slowly changing our country. Food is not just fuel or medicine.
I think people see us on a red tractor and walking the fields at sunset. But on other days, when it’s pouring rain or an animal dies, [there’s a] dark side of farming. Farmers are the smartest people I’ve ever met – they are scientists, marketers, soil conservationists, veterinarians. The number of skills you have to use in a day as a farmer is amazing and even our Founding Fathers wrote romantically about farmers. It’s a noble and important job; you have to be a Renaissance person to do this work.
What’s your favorite source of protein?
That’s tough – it’s like choosing your favorite child. The first time I had pork chop from a farm, it was the best thing I ever tasted. Pork is wonderful, but my desert island meal is a roast chicken with potatoes and some greens.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope to have a family. I’d like to have land and [bequeath] a farm with beautiful soil to my kids to do whatever they want – raise some cattle, have some horses, grow a garden. For every farmer, the soil is the bank that we all put into every day. When you don’t own it, you’re constantly improving what’s not yours – I can’t move that topsoil with me. If I had 200 open acres, I’d be psyched, but that’s hard to have in Rhode Island.
If I couldn’t physically do what I do now, I’d love to help other farmers think about what they could do. I also enjoyed the political stuff, too. The access [in Washington, D.C.] was incredible; it was cool to be part of a coalition.