On a crisp October morning, leaves turning the color of the rainbow and pumpkin patches filled with pumpkins awaiting children to turn them into Jack-O-Lanterns, thousands of parents, children, and grandparents would flock to Schartner Farm in Exeter.

They’d likely find the home-cut French Fry stand, and inside freshly baked pies, homemade jams and newly picked apples of every variety, fresh vegetables and fruits, and an array of Mums.

But that was all a few years ago, before the 150-acre farm closed when a fire partially destroyed its main building in 2015, leaving fields that once produced corn and strawberries, pumpkins, and large variety of vegetables, to go fallow. The farm was founded more than a century ago, in 1902.

Farm buildings were left behind decaying, greenhouses in disrepair, and nearby residents fearful that the land would become a strip mall, the likes of which are found only in Rhode Island’s more urban areas.

On Wednesday, the Exeter Town Council will hold a public hearing on a proposal for a zoning change that will allow for the development of a high-tech farm, with huge parking areas for trucks, a building the size of the Warwick Mall, and a 13 acre solar farm. 

Some in the community are fearful the council will approve the zone change and a project that will forever change the character of the land, and possibly the community. Others see it as providing a needed food source, making the property productive again.

The zone change, proposed by Richard Schartner of RI Grows, would establish a Controlled Environmental Agricultural Overlay District that, according to the town’s public hearing notice “would contain eligibility and process standards for establishing Controlled Environmental Agriculture (“CEA”) facilities which provide a controlled environment for year-round production of food and plants using a combination of engineering, plant science, and computer managed greenhouse control technologies to optimize plant growing systems, plant quality and production efficiency. The “CEA” facilities would also include onsite solar power as a ‘by-right’ accessory use to the primary CEA agricultural facility.”

In other words, high-tech greenhouse that are driven by technology, a building that would reportedly be 35 feet high and cover 20 acres, powered by solar energy.

The council’s public hearing is being held at the Metcalf School and begins at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

In June, Rhode Island Grows broke ground for a 25-acre indoor tomato farm on Schartner Farm. At the time it was reported, the farm would have hydroponics technology, powered by solar energy, using recycled rainwater.

According to the RI Department of Environmental Management, the tomato farm facility would cost $57 million and take eight months to build, produce 14 million pounds of tomatoes, and employ 80 people. DEM said it is only the first phase of the $800 million project that will eventually add 10 greenhouses over the next decade.

“As industrial agricultural in other areas of the country and central America have squeezed out local farms, this self-sufficient facility will enable the Schartner family to continue their century of farming in Rhode Island with another 100 years,” the DEM said in a statement.

Opponents of the proposed zone that would permit the new high-tech farming, are concerned that the process is more manufacturing than farming and “since a CEA (Controlled Environmental Agriculture) does not need farmland, should a huge CEA be located on a farm when preserving what’s left of Rhode Island’s farms is critical?” wrote Megan Cotter of the Exeter Democratic Town Committee.

“The project would negatively impact the scenic beauty of Route 2 and disrupt the quality of life for all in the vicinity,” she wrote. Cotter emphasised she’s not opposed to high-tech farming but feels it’s more appropriate in industrialized locations.

Another Exeter resident, Asa Davis, who owns more than 100-acres in town, is a strong proponent of the project.

“If you really want to preserve things like natural resources for future generations, you don’t use them,” Davis wrote. “Traditional agriculture can wear land out, and uses a lot of water, fertilizer and pesticides. The 1930’s Dust Bowl in the Midwest was man-made, not a natural occurrence. If we want to preserve water and farming resources for future generations, CEA looks like a good solution. The greenhouse is big, but it’s got a dirt floor. If it doesn’t work out, it wouldn’t be hard to remove it and revert to traditional farming – nowhere near the cost or effort of removing a shopping mall.”

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal....