Michael Sullivan has testified in court about why a resident’s grass turned brown, advised the U.S. Olympic Committee when turf from Rhode Island was installed at a field for the 2004 Athens Olympics, and traveled to China 28 times to consult on how to increase the productivity of its agricultural soils.
Now the Narragansett resident and retired University of Rhode Island professor has been appointed by the Trump Administration to serve as the executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency in Rhode Island. In his new capacity, Sullivan is working to boost the state’s agriculture industry by providing financial assistance to farmers in need.
Agriculture generates more than $2 billion each year in revenue in Rhode Island, but the state’s farmers face very different issues than do those in more traditional farming states. Whereas corn, wheat and soybeans are king in the Farm Belt, it’s turfgrass, oysters, apples and nursery plants that drive the industry in the Ocean State.
“I’ve created a term among my counterparts – the ‘non-commodity caucus’ – because the big corn, soybean and wheat programs that are so important in the Midwest don’t mean a whole lot to our farmers,” said Sullivan, who formerly served as a state senator, president of the Richmond Town Council, and director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “We’ve got very different challenges here.”
Chief among them is the price of land. Sullivan recently hosted a visit by William Northey, the USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation, who said he had never paid more than $200 per acre per year to farm corn in Iowa.
“He was dumbfounded when I told him that the sod land around URI is rented for $1,425 per acre per year, more than 7 times what he thought was a high price,” Sullivan said. “Our farmers also are faced with a lack of infrastructure to support agriculture. Where’s the local tractor supply company? If your bailer breaks, you have to drive to western Massachusetts or western Connecticut for parts. There’s no fertilizer made in the state. The goods and services supportive of agriculture are no longer here.”
On the other hand, many of Rhode Island’s farmers produce much higher value crops than do farmers elsewhere – like $2 oysters that are served in raw bars versus the oysters raised in the Gulf of Mexico that Sullivan said sell for 15 cents each and end up being canned.
Nonetheless, financing is often a stumbling block for local farmers, and that’s where Sullivan and the Farm Services Agency comes in.
“We’re basically the lender of last resort for agricultural operations,” explained Sullivan. “We’re heavily invested in beginning farmers, those who don’t have a portfolio of accomplishments or experience but who are committed to the farming life. And we are particularly focused on programs for the socially disadvantaged.”
Sullivan was appointed to head the Rhode Island office of the Farm Services Agency due in part to his extensive background in soil science and his history of supporting local farmers. He joined the URI faculty in 1981, working first as a Cooperative Extension agronomist responsible for helping commercial farmers maintain or enhance their crop production.
“I came in when potatoes for chips occupied about 3,000 acres of Rhode Island, we had an emerging turfgrass industry, and we still had 12,000 acres in nursery stock,” he remembered. “But potatoes left because of the cost, turf became dominant, and 20 percent of our farmland went to houses. I focused on what the farmers asked me to focus on, and I became part of that community when I bought a farm from a potato grower.”
The state’s agricultural shift from potatoes to turf meant that Sullivan changed his academic research focus as well. He got involved with the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program and ended up looking for what he called “the bluest bluegrass, the most drought tolerant fescue, the variety with the best insect resistance, a lot of the same kind of plant phenomena I was looking for with potatoes, but it was just a different plant. I went from figuring out the yield of chips per ton of potatoes to the yield of marketable sod per acre.”
When the Olympic Committee came calling, he spoke to the South County sod producers and coordinated the harvest. “It had to be washed free of soil, chilled, trucked to New York and put on a plane to Greece,” Sullivan said. “I was in Rhode Island and Athens during the process. It was kind of a geeky thing, but that’s what I did.”
Along the way, he raised three children in Richmond with his wife Mary, a URI nursing professor and former dean of the URI College of Nursing. Together they farmed sod on as many as 70 acres. Today they are happiest spending time with their three grandchildren. “I just love singing ‘the wheels on the bus’ to my two-year-old,” he said.
He’s also happy to continue to have a hand in supporting local farmers.
“I spent my adult career working in agriculture, from soil conservation to farm preservation to helping start Rhody Fresh and an array of other ventures,” Sullivan said. “This position is a chance to have my only responsibility be as an advocate for people interested in agriculture. The Rhode Island agriculture community has my heart and much of my intellect, and it’s a way I can give back.”