EAST GREENWICH — All the paperwork has made Erik Eacker a better farmer. It forced him to better track his methods and taught him to more easily spot trends.
Besides, with the exception of an occasional ink smudge dispensed from a worn pen, writing up reports and filling binders with detailed information momentarily keeps his hands clean.
Organic farming is dirty work. The New Hampshire native should know; he’s been cleaning dirt out from under his fingernails for the past 13 years.
“There’s a lot of hand labor involved,” said the farm manager for Ledge Ends Produce Inc., on South Road. “Growing up doing landscaping, I knew this was what I wanted to do — be good to the earth and friendly to the environment.”
He just didn’t realize the amount of paperwork the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management — and all similar state agencies, for that matter — require from organic farmers. They need to keep a detailed written record concerning every aspect of production, from the field to the point of sale.
Eacker’s collection of work sits in different colored binders that fill several shelves on a wooden bookcase.
An avid surfer, Eacker began is organic-farming career in rural upstate New York, on 170 acres of farmland owned by his parents. He operated Son E’Acres Farm from 1996 to 2003, but it’s tough to catch a wave in northern New York.
In 2004, he relocated to the Ocean State, to the town-owned Briggs-Boesch Farm, which has roots that date back to 1672. He signed a 20-year lease to live and work on the 72-acre property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The East Greenwich Municipal Land Trust acquired the site in 2001 from the Boesch family with the intention of preserving the property as open space.
Soon after beginning his Rhode Island farming career, Eacker started calling local farmers for advice. One of his first phone calls was to Mike and Polly Hutchinson, who were then running Casey Farm, a nonprofit operation in North Kingstown.
The Hutchinsons quickly became his mentors.
“They were very helpful right from the start,” Eacker said of Polly and Mike, who now own and operate Robin Hollow Farm in Saunderstown. “They helped me make the transition to Rhode Island. The whole agricultural community here has been open and welcoming.”
Ledge Ends Produce is now one of 23 certified organic farms in Rhode Island — a farming trend that is growing here and across the country. The number of organic farms in the United States jumped from 12,000 in 2002 to 18,200 in 2007, according to the Earth Policy Institute.
“More farmers are going this way,” Eacker said. “The market is asking for it, especially in Rhode Island and especially at farmers’ markets.”
Ledge Ends Produce sells its fruits and vegetables at five farmers’ markets. But most of the vegetables and fruit grown on the farm are sold to families enrolled in the farm’s community-supported agricultural (CSA) program.
From April through November, a full-time staff of eight, including Eacker, tends to 12 acres of vegetables and two acres of fruit.
The farm also is a compost-licensed facility, which allows the staff to turn the nearly 4,000 gallons of coffee grounds supplied annually by Blue State Coffee in Providence and other organic materials, such as manure donated by local stables, into nutrient-rich soil.
The farm’s 14 acres of working land enables Eacker to produce about 50 different crops, from apples to zucchini, for a maximum of 240 CSA participants.
The cost is $600, and participants, during the different growing seasons, receive weekly bags of fresh produce, from arugula to beets to broccoli, to scallions, peppers and radishes, to onions, kale, melons and carrots, depending on the time of year.
Since his arrival in Rhode Island, Eacker has become an active member of the agricultural community that was so quick to embrace him. He’s served as a member of the Organic Advisory Committee and as president of the Coastal Growers Market.
The nonprofit branch of the farm — the Ledge Ends Learning Center — is focused on providing fresh organic vegetables to low-income families and providing educational opportunities for both adults and children, by holding cooking classes, lessons on growing and using culinary herbs, and hosting discussions about biofuels and alternative energy.
For nearly two years, he’s served as president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island, invigorating the once-stalled organization.
“I wish we would value our farmland as farmland and not as houses,” he said. “Protecting farmland is a complicated problem; farmers making thirty thousand dollars a year can’t buy farmland that is valued at three million dollars. They have to get into an alternative-type situation like I am in now.”
When his alternative-type situation lapses 15 years from now, Eacker hopes he winds up surfing in Peru.