Jayne Merner Senecal says there is a stigma surrounding farming and working with one’s hands, a belief that labor-intensive careers shouldn’t be revered as much as white-collar jobs. Senecal takes issue with that belief, and as the owner of Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, works to convince others of the value of farm work.
Her efforts were recognized last year when Providence Business News named her one of the “40 Under 40” to watch in the Rhode Island business community.
“It was exciting, because it felt like what I had been working toward for 20 years — to bring more reverence to the agriculture community — was finally successful,” she says. “When you look at those kinds of lists, it’s always the traditional white-collar jobs represented. And now, farming is getting more respect.”
Senecal grew up at Earth Care Farm, a commercial composting operation that her father, Mike Merner, started in 1977 at a time when composting was a newfangled concept.
“He was part of the hippie generation, wanting to do no harm and realizing that the chemicals he’d learned so much about in college were having an adverse effect on soil and water and human health,” she says. “So he re-educated himself, practiced composting at a small scale and used it for his landscaping business, but it kept growing. And there were no other compost operations around.”
She recalls driving around the area with her father collecting whatever they could find to compost.
“Dad said we had an organic eye,” Senecal says. “We’d go to the Big Apple Circus and collect elephant manure; we’d go to the fishing pier for fish scraps. You come to realize that there’s no reason for waste because there’s no waste in nature.”
After earning a degree in environmental economics from the University of Rhode Island and running her own community-supported agriculture farm for six years, Senecal started Golden Root Gardening, a garden design, installation and maintenance service she still operates year-round with a staff of women who care for about 25 properties throughout the region. As her father began thinking about retirement, a transition plan was developed, and Senecal took over Earth Care Farm in 2017.
“I always knew I wanted to farm at some level, but I had seen farmers struggling financially, and I didn’t want that to be the case with me,” she says. “My heart was always at the farm, and it needed me, so we figured out how to make it work. And Dad was thrilled.”
The compost made at the farm — long called Merner’s Gold by its customers — comes from a wide variety of organic materials sourced from the local area, including bedding and manure from the animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo, fish scraps from New Bedford fish processors, seaweed from beaches in Groton, and woodchips and leaves from throughout the region — all of which is given to the farm for free. It’s a year-long process to transform those materials into compost.
Senecal describes compost as “a soil amendment meant to increase the organic matter in the soil.”
“But for us, it’s also about increasing the diversity of life in your soil,” she said. “It’s when you have a living soil that your crops are going to be healthier and be able to defend themselves against pests and disease. Compost brings life into your soil.”
It’s not a concept that everyone intuitively understands, so Senecal spends considerable time educating gardeners, farmers and others through videos and social media postings. She also hosts a variety of events at the farm, from story hour for young children to school field trips to gardening and cooking classes for adults.
“Last fall we had a class of third graders come, and we were supposed to plant garlic but it was raining, so we went into our high tunnels (open greenhouses) and dug sweet potatoes,” she says. “It was sort of like an Easter egg hunt. They dug up some huge sweet potatoes, one that was six-and-a-half pounds. You could see the sparks of wonder and curiosity on their faces. They were really into it.”
Her customers range from local gardeners looking for a single bag of compost — available for pickup at Earth Care Farm or at local garden centers — to landscaping companies and large agriculture businesses who buy it by the truckload, including a farm on Martha’s Vineyard that ordered 130 yards of compost in January.
Demand for compost increased dramatically during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people started gardening for the first time while in lockdown at home. Compost sales doubled in 2020, making it the farm’s busiest year ever, and Senecal and her small staff had difficulty keeping up with the orders.
“We really had to scramble, but in a positive way,” she says. “We figured it out, though, and for the first time ever, we sold out of compost.”
To ensure the farm’s continued success, Senecal has participated in training programs for entrepreneurs and small business owners, met with innovative farmers from across the country, and supported efforts by the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association to encourage others interested in careers working in the soil. She also practices yoga regularly to avoid the physical pains associated with the farming life.
She has even developed a successful new compost blend for the cannabis industry that is tailored to the particular needs of the cannabis plant, including a slightly different pH and a little more calcium.
Other than investing in some new equipment, however, Senecal isn’t planning to change much about the compost manufacturing process that her father perfected over the previous 40 years.
“I’m still settling in here at the farm and looking forward to continuing on this path,” Senecal says. “Nature is abundant, and the farm mirrors the abundance of nature.”