Farmer Storytelling: Gnarly Vines Farm Is Trying to Keep Up With Demand for Local Meat
The Tiverton homestead family farm is selling locally raised meat and eggs at their farm stand and through Farm Fresh RI's Market Mobile.
This article is part of a four-part series on local farmers, in which we tell their startup stories and check in on how they’re dealing with business during COVID-19. We originally heard the farming stories at an event produced by the Young Farmer Network of Southeastern New England, which is an organization of beginning farmers that serves the surrounding region, including farmers from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The event was called “Landing on the Right Acre: storytelling for and by farmers” and it was a partnership with Land for Good, which helps to connect land-seekers with fertile acreage for farming. We decided to update these stories with more current information relating to what’s happening with local food right now. We’ll release a new story every Thursday.
Ester Bishop, Gnarly Vines Farm, Tiverton
It was a rough start for the Bishop family to pack up everything from their former city life in Woburn, Massachusetts, to buy a rural farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island. There was a lot of time and labor that went into getting the huge greenhouse ready and clearing the property and then deciding on what type of farm they would be. But right now, they are glad they steered Gnarly Vines Farm in the direction of providing locally raised meat, poultry and eggs. As grocery stores are selling out of pork and chicken products, COVID-19 is creating a huge demand for locally raised meat from area farms.
“Yes, it’s true,” says Ester Bishop, co-owner of Gnarly Vines Farm with her husband, Joel Bishop. “We had been wholesaling to local restaurants. When they closed, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had a bunch of animals ready for processing and nobody to buy them. Thank goodness Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile opened up for retail to the public. The community came to rescue us! We are selling lots of meat and eggs. We are struggling to find a place to process our large animals because they are packed!”
The family is working on increasing production while figuring out how to complete processing faster. But it’s a good problem to have, considering their startup story, which involved many struggles.
After being married for ten years, Ester and Joel Bishop decided to leave suburban sprawl for farm life. It was time to start a family and follow a simpler way of life. They put their Woburn, Massachusetts, home on the market and quickly found a beautiful sixteen-acre farm with a five-bedroom house and two large greenhouses in Tiverton for about the same cost as their former home. Ester grew up in Sao Paolo, Brazil, with parents who had grown up on a farm, and her husband, Joel, grew up on a New Hampshire farm, so they wanted the farm experience for their own children.
“We got married, had a lot of fun as dinks (double-income, no kids), and then ten years into our marriage, we decided to start a family,” Ester Bishop says. “Then we started paying more attention to what we eat.”
They researched and learned about all the pesticides and GMOs that are in some foods, and decided to start their own homestead farm in order to grow and raise their own food. It was very hard for them to get an affordable mortgage on the Tiverton property because there is a huge commercial greenhouse on the grounds. It was a non-conforming property. “No one wanted to give us the mortgage unless we took down the greenhouse,” Ester says. “We didn’t want to do that, so after many phone calls and weeks of researching, we finally found the bank that would give us the loan.”
When they bought the farm, Joel Bishop was commuting to Boston for a job in IT, while Ester decided to leave her job as a medical interpreter. At that point, they needed to figure out how to make the greenhouse viable so they could afford the rising mortgage payments. At first, they thought they would grow hops and start a brewery. But the town of Tiverton would not allow it due to zoning, so they had to come up with an alternative plan.
They started a garden to grow their own food, then bought laying chickens and meat birds, and goats for milk. Joel continued to drive to Boston for work while Ester stayed home with the kids. They put all of their money into growing the farm, while working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to clear the invasive “gnarly vines” on the property – which give the farm its name – to make it more productive. They also received a LASA grant from Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Once they started to grow the farm and get more animals for meat, they realized they needed more land for the animals to roam. Fortunately, they were able to team up with the Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol to give their livestock access to more land.
“They had forty-eight acres of land with no farm activity and we had all this farm activity and we needed more land,” says Ester. “We brought our chickens and turkeys there this year, as we wanted them pasture-raised, and it was a success.”
The Bishops used their LASA grant to purchase a mobile processing unit and they hope to be able to put in a well on their Tiverton property so they can do the slaughtering of the chickens there instead of outsourcing it. They have a small storefront for selling the meat and eggs, and they are thrilled that the partnership with the Coggeshall Farm Museum has helped them take their business to the next level.
“That initial desire to feed our family healthy foods in a healthy environment is going very well,” Ester says. “Our kids now know how to choose healthy foods. They know about life, they know about death and where their food comes from.”
The Bishops hope the desire for locally raised meat and eggs continues to soar, even though the increased demand for it came out of a crisis.
“We are nervous, and we all hope our communities will stick with us after this is over,” Ester Bishop says. “They took care of us and we will surely take care of them. We are increasing production in the hope that we can supply the demand.”
Pick up Gnarly Vines Farm products at the farm or order home delivery through Farm Fresh RI (Providence, Pawtucket and East Bay). Order Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday for next day pickup at the farm. Monday and Thursday are reserved for Market Mobile from Farm Fresh RI.org
241 Cornell Road (off King Road), Tiverton, 401-816-5021, gnarlyvinesfarm.com