There is no doubt that the last couple of months have been a struggle for people. Every aspect of our lives has been changed by the Coronavirus. One bright spot that has come out of this has been the discovery, or re-discovery, of the wonderful conservation properties of the Westerly Land Trust.
“We are blown away by how many people are accessing the land trust properties and using our trails app since Governor Raimondo closed the state parks and the parking areas,” said Jennifer Fusco, Executive Director of the Westerly Land Trust.
The Westerly Land Trust has almost finished renovating an old farm into its new headquarters. The property, The Eleanor F. and Edward W. Barlow Nature Preserve, is a rare example of a depression-era Rhode Island farm. The property’s unique bio-diversity from agriculture, wetlands, and upland forest make it the perfect place for the Land Trust’s new headquarters.
Jennifer spoke about the opportunities the property brings to the Land Trust.
“When we knew that this property was going to come to the Land Trust we immediately saw this as an opportunity because it had been a farm, and most of the farm infrastructure was here. Typically our properties are open space without buildings. The Land Trust has a wonderful, thriving, education program bringing school kids out onto the land. And now we have a new component to that education–we can show kids what it means to grow food and a little about what life is like as a farmer. We have the space now and the opportunity to do that. I’m really excited about what might happen here and we’re eager to get going.”
The history of the property can be traced back as far as 1830. The farm changed hands a number of times before 1931 when it was purchased by Vincenzo Ferrante. Vincenzo immigrated to this country from Italy, with his wife Maria, in 1910. He came here to work as a stonemason at Westerly’s Sullivan Quarry.
Life must have been difficult in the early 20th-century on the hardscrabble farms of southern Rhode Island. Today you can still see vestiges on the property of that life; the rusted water pump, its large red bucket still hanging on the handle, the outhouse on the side of the yard, the summer kitchen, its utensils hanging by the iron stove, the musty barn, all look like they’re still waiting for the farmer who just stepped away for a moment. There was no electricity on the farm until 1935 but Vincenzo, his wife Maria, and five children somehow made it work and lived on the farm for more than 50 years. In 1985 the old farmhouse was torn down and a new house was built by their daughter, Eleanor Barlow. Eleanor was one of the five children who grew up on the farm and she eventually inherited the property. Eleanor wanted to leave the farm to the land trust. She passed away in 2015 and the property was transferred to the land trust in 2018.
“It took us about six months to get our arms around what we really wanted to do with the property. In the late fall of 2018 we established a proposal process for potential farmers and received a good amount of interest. We met with the three farmers that we work with now. Cassidy Whipple runs Frontier Farm. She’s a new farmer and she’s going to do a full vegetable crop. Already started are garlic, onions, and blueberries. James Cruso of Vita Nova Compost, a subscription service in Westerly. He picks up clean kitchen scraps and turns the scraps into beautiful compost using his worms. And Stephanie Bennett who is Echo Rock Flowers. She has a budding flower business. It couldn’t have worked out any better and everyone is doing their own thing. They are their individual business but everyone has a nice symbiotic relationship here at Barlow.”
There are two trail systems on the property. One overlooks the farm and the hayfield and the other is adjacent to the 111-acre Newton Swamp Management Area. This trail is more biodiverse, with lots of wildlife, large hardwood trees, pine grove, and beautiful views of the marsh.
Jennifer spoke about the effort that went into planning the new headquarters:
“There were so many costs that we did not incur because people raised their hands and stepped forward to help out. Lyman Goff donated his time doing the architectural drawings for the house. Eric Fiske of Anchor Insulation was able to get a partial donation of material. Sheilia Beattie, our board president, has been at the forefront of all of this coordinating and trying to get as many donations as possible. We should have our certificate of occupancy within the next month, that’s the goal. It’s so exciting to see the farmers at work and see this place come alive with the goal of, at some point, having our operations up and running here.”
“The Barlow Preserve is going to be a wonderful flagship for the Land Trust when it comes to teaching children about the importance of land conservation, about farming, and about nutrition and eating local food,” said Jennifer. “We haven’t talked about our bees. We have beehives and we’re really excited about that. Both the benefit to the farm and to education and the benefit to our honey source,” she laughed. “We all need honey.”
Finally, I asked Jennifer about the challenges the world faces.
“Going forward as a society this whole healthcare crisis has taught us we all have a part to play in conservation. We hope that people appreciate the trails, appreciate the properties, and appreciate the conservation and then do their own part in their own way. We know that this is something that’s not going to go away. We have to fight to be resilient,” she said. “Not just resilient ecologically but resilient as humans. This is a wakeup call that we are a very, very small piece of the puzzle. We have to re-imagine everything from our daily lives to the running of this organization. The constant is that you look outside and nature is doing its thing. Nature is not stopping because of this but it’s making all of us hit pause. It’s making us all stop in our tracks and reexamine what’s important. And I think that’s a good thing.”