NORTH KINGSTOWN — In generations past, Slocum farmers – some named Champlin, others Brown and Tarbox – worked their land in traditional ways, growing vegetables and tending cows.
Their tomatoes led to potatoes, and potatoes led to turf at this tucked-away corner where sky seems to meet sod off Indian Corner Road.
H. Winfield Tucker, the father of today’s farm owner, Linda, grew potatoes here while considering the advice of his friend, the late University of Rhode Island professor C. Richard Skogley, who made a repeated, futuristic, four-letter recommendation: Turf.
“Richard Skogley was an agronomy professor and good friend of my father. He kept saying, ‘You need to try turf,’” recalled Tucker, leader of what is thought to be the largest contiguous farm in Rhode Island, and one that was recently singled out by the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District as one of several award winners during its annual meeting.
Linda Tucker was named Conservation Farmer of the Year, one of five excellence awards given by the group.
Notes Kate Bousquet, district manager of the conservation district: “They have developed an increasingly sustainable farm operation, becoming an example of the positive impact conservation practices can and will have on productivity and farm sustainability.
“Over the last several years, Sodco has made significant changes to the farm’s crop diversity, ultimately improving soil health, naturally increasing nutrients available in the soil, thus improving plant health and reducing the need for fertilizers and intense irrigation,” she continued.
With their familiar, three-decade-old logo of grass growing into the Sodco letters sign at the farm entrance, Sodco has grown to some 500 acres and employs 16 people on the land that was pieced together from various farms throughout the decades.
In the late 1990s, as a result of an open space bond issue, it was determined that the space would never be developed, though there were several times in its history when these old acres – rich in legends – almost lost its rural identity to construction. Town historian G. Timothy Cranston said the Indian Corner Road name derives from a legend of night-time apparitions depicting a Native American, though his research suggests that a nearby tavern in Slocumville might have had something to do with those “visions.”
Whatever the truth, Tucker sees the property as having been farmed for “at least 200 years,” and at one time “had the highest potato yield per acre in the world.” Though it almost became an industrial complex when the railroad expressed interest in it, the conversation between her late father, a 10th-generation farmer from South Kingstown, and the URI professor was a major turning point for this land.
“He only put in five acres of turf,” Tucker said of her father’s initial response. But those five acres, and the expansion that followed, provided a greater return than potato crops, she said.
“It was hard earning a living growing potatoes,” she said, and with turf being “more forgiving” than spuds with their potential for blight and drought, and with the local housing market in the early 1980s growing at a good clip, the turf business and Sodco also grew. Linda and her husband, Richard Hodgson, were equal partners in the venture for 20 years until he retired and she stayed on as farmer.
Farm manager John Eidson, 50, a North Kingstown native, said that while they must “watch out for things like pests and drought, it isn’t a minute-to-minute thing,” with turf as with vegetables. But vegetables are pretty much always in demand, while turf, they say, is not.
“It’s pretty interesting that a sod farm got this award,” Eidson said, noting that sometimes the monoculture of sod farms earns a poor reputation among environmentalists, one reason being the stress on the soil of growing a single crop.
“We were guilty of that, too,” Tucker said. “It’s bad for the soil.”
With more demand than turf, growers weren’t able to rest the fields. That led to Tucker and Hodgson’s interest in alternative crops and cover crops to feed the soil.
“Because our soils are getting so healthy we can grow our grass much faster and the fields get to rest,” Eidson explained.
“It’s less romantic than growing vegetables,” he added, and some people regard it as being somewhat “frivolous” in comparison.
But Eidson and Tucker pointed out the farm remains in business because of the sod, and it’s a profitable thing they do for the farmland while keeping it open space, which in turn keeps people working.
When sales dropped with the 2008 downturn, Tucker decided to gather her staff together to figure out a solution.
“We didn’t want to be sitting on more inventory than we could sell so we looked for something else,” she said. At that, Eidson picked up a dried up ear of corn sitting on his desk, saying: “The heat you feel in this office now is all from corn.”
He and Tucker explained how it was decided to grow corn for heating use, knowing it was risky because they didn’t know how it would go and also that it would require specialized equipment.
“We made a pretty big investment in the corn and we’ve done pretty well,” Tucker said, explaining how after combining it, they dry it, store it and bag it, so that those who have stoves can heat their homes with it. They also sell it for animal feed, Eidson said, and it is delivered as far as Cape Cod and northern New England.
They also cut electrical usage in their Indian Corner Road office by installing solar tubes for light, reusing their waste oil for heat in their garage shop and practicing low- pressure irrigation that has less chance of evaporation and is closer to the grass – so water goes where it is supposed to go.
“It’s much more precise,” Tucker said.
All of these measures and others, such as crop rotation and the use of cover crops, have led to this place of happy productivity, and the thrill they show in being singled out for the Conservation District award.
“We’re so excited about what we’re doing. Some people think it’s crazy,” Tucker said, but they work hard at keeping up with new information and staying on top of trends.
What would Winfield Tucker think about today’s turf business and the recent award?
“I think he’d be very proud, especially that we can grow it faster and cheaper. My father was a farmer, but he was also a businessman,” Tucker said. “We’re doing this for the soil, for the right reasons and we’re doing it for the economics, too.”
Tucker hopes to hang the SRICD plaque in Sodco’s main office area because even though it bears her name, she said: “It’s truly a good team effort here.”
Other award winners in the annual event were the Greene Company, Coventry, Conservation Forester of the Year; Burness Guidry of Chariho’s Reaching Youth Through Support and Education, Excellence in Conservation Education award; Thomas B. Gentz, president of the Charlestown Town Council, Excellence in Promotion and Conservation of Land and Water Resources; and Dr. Frank Golet of Richmond, retired URI professor, Professional Conservationist of the Year Award for his life-long efforts in conducting research and teaching students about wetland ecology issues.
The Southern Rhode Island Conservation District serves the cities and towns in Kent and Washington counties with a variety of programs designed to promote a healthy environment and sustainable uses of natural resources.