History of Big Train Farm

A little about Big Train Farm

The foundation was laid in 2007 when Mis Zill leased a quarter acre of what is now a larger field on Urban Edge Farm in Cranston, RI.  Mis and her friends Tara and Chris established a couple of accounts in Providence as well as a partnership with Little City Growers CO-OP, a network of small growers who pool and sell their produce in the Providence area.  The trio operated in 2007 without a farm name, and never opened a bank account.  They became known as “Mistery Farm”.  Also sometimes referred to as “Tara-ble Chris-Mis Farm”.  Either way something had begun on the top of the hill.

In 2008 the trio split up, due in no small part to John Kenny’s reemergence onto the agricultural scene after a brief hiatus in 2007.  John and Mis had worked together previously and both wanted to bring the business to a new level, with designs on a long-term operation.  More land was acquired at Urban Edge by the couple, bringing the total acreage under cultivation to around two acres, the same amount currently leased by Big Train Farm today.

The going was rough at first.  John had come from a background of work on well established farms in agricultural areas.  But what Mistery Farm had been dealing with were soggy fields of low fertility, low organic matter, that were difficult to access in the spring and fall.  Weeds at Urban Edge had a ferocity that John had never seen before.  Why was it that plants behaved so differently on this farm versus other places he had worked?  It has taken years to get a grip on understanding the delicate ecology of what makes a farm a productive, reliable environment instead of a weedy, unpredictable puzzle.

Despite these difficulties the couple had a relatively productive year, got established in a couple farmers markets, started the Big Train CSA, and opened a bank account.  John was also at the time working on finishing up a bachelor’s degree, something he finally completed in 2010.  By the end of the year Mis decided to try her luck back in her native Baltimore, started another farm business called Simmer Rock Farm (another trio!), and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Big Train Farm has been managed by John ever since.  In 2009 he began putting more focus and effort into the Big Train Farm CSA (started in 2008 with about eight members, we currently supply 130 shares to roughly 300 members) and began slowly steering away from participating in Farmers Markets.  Our long-standing relationship with the wonderful people of Bell Street Chapel began this year as well, where they generously host our CSA Pick-Up.  More emphasis and enthusiasm was put into the work-share model at the farm as well.  A Work-Share Member is one that comes to the farm on a weekly basis in exchange for a vegetable share in the CSA.  Work-share members are part of the life’s blood that makes farming such a rewarding career.

No small shake was the appearance of one Mindy Lee Walls on the scene in 2009.  Mindy began her tenure at Big Train as a work-share, and quickly insisted on coming out more often than her required shift.  Mindy became a fixture at the CSA pick-ups, farmers market, and around the fields, greenhouses, and haylofts of Urban Edge.  Fast forward seven years and the two are getting married.  Hard to believe it will be seven years this April that Mindy first strolled onto the farm.  Mindy found the work-share by flipping though an alphabetical listing of local farms, “B”ig Train being close to the top, she started there and decided it suited her.

The farm steadily began growing in productivity and through trial and error, hard work, and perseverance Big Train grew out of a awkward adolescence little by little year after year.  In 2012 Mindy stepped back from the farm and began getting prepared for graduate school.  John took his first intern since 2006 fulfilling a strong urge to help others learn about farming.  As educators we offer a three class introductory course on soil science and plant science, including current overviews of organic methodologies for students to compare and contrast.  The farm also became certified organic, a process John had been familiar with from previous farms he had worked on.

In 2014, the big jump was made when we purchased with a USDA line of credit eleven acres in Glocester, RI on the corner of Snake Hill Rd and Hunting House Rd.  Mindy and John first started walking properties in 2011 and signed a total of four purchase and sales agreements (all which fell apart for various reasons).  In 2015 spending one to two days a week we managed to clear half of the land, plowed, harrowed, amended, composted, cover cropped 2 acres of land, contracted half-mile of deer fence installation, built two greenhouses (bought three), and signed another mortgage with USDA for two buildings, a house and a barn (construction pending for 2016).  With the help of our friends, family, and the USDA we are making progress in carving out and revitalizing new farmland in Rhode Island.

Since then Mindy and John have moved into their little lunchbox abode.  Dominating the past several years have been making the farm livable and comfortable as well as profitable.  With the end of the 2019 season we have completed the first five-year block since we purchased the Snake Hill property (10/31-14-10/31/19).  With that comes some reflection and a clean transition to a new, more prudent business plan.  As with many new farm ventures in the beginning you are happy and eager to have and to get as many accounts as you can.  Over the course of years you decide what best suits your personality and you bottom line.  For instance, in the early years BTF was present at three Farmer’s Markets.  As our CSA grew year by year we slowly sloughed off the markets until by 2011 we were market-free.  Always looking for an opportunity to streamline and open up space to do things that interest us we are currently tackling the prospect of a more profitable business plan suited to our larger acreage and making sure we don’t sacrifice the important things: having fun, being present, and focusing on what we like to do.

The processes and mechanizations of farming continue to inspire Big Train Farm.  We are always changing, adapting, and learning.  Demystifying the processes that govern the natural systems involved in growing food is a lifelong adventure, one that as it illuminates exposes more questions and intrigue.  Arden Anderson quotes Charles Mercier in Anderson’s book, Science in Agriculture:  “Agriculture is the oldest of all industries and one of the most complex and difficult to master and to pursue with success.  Farming requires more intelligence than any other industrial occupation.  [The farmer’s] work is with living things; and living things. wether animal or vegetable, cannot be managed by coercion.  They must be humored.  They must be understood… The farmer is of necessity keenly observant.  His whole livelihood depends daily and hourly on the keenness and observation of a thousand things that the townsman is utterly blind to.”

We work every day and every year to live up to the expectations that nature has for us in our pursuit to grow and raise food.  Our goals are to educate, observe, and be open to methods that will make our farm healthy and produce excellent, nourishing food.  Our methods are constantly being refined and although we, pragmatic farmers that we are, stick to what works we are incrementally trying new methods all the time.