JAN AND MICHELLE ECKHART RECIPIENTS OF 2017 AWARD
The New England Fellowship of Agricultural Adventurers presented Jan and Michelle Eckhart, owners of Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, Rhode Island, with the 2017 Agricultural Adventurers Award at the Annual Meeting of Eastern States Exposition (ESE), May 25, in West Springfield, Mass.
Sweet Berry Farm had its beginnings in 1980 when Jan, a veteran, teacher, real estate developer and restaurateur, began growing strawberries as a hobby. With little or no farming experience, he hand-planted a small patch of the sweet fruit and opened for pick-your-own. This was the beginning of his career and passion for farming.He expanded his fields, began to sell vegetables and met his soon-to-be wife and partner, Michelle, an artist, who began to grow and sell flowers at the small stand. All while they maintained their full-time jobs in their fields of expertise.
In 1996, “Sweet Berry Farm” was born, and the tented farm stand evolved into an ever-expanding selection of fruits sold in an old goat shed with staked down canopies using beer coolers for produce, buckets for flowers, and a small metal cash box and a calculator. Neighbors traveled their long, dusty driveway in search of their fresh produce and, listening to their customers’ requests and needs, Jan and Michelle began adding new crops.
With the help of the Aquidneck Land Trust, they were able to purchase nearly 60 additional acres of abutting land, add more products, including raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apples, pears, pumpkins, melons, more vegetables and cut flowers. They developed a strategy to be able to offer something for pick-your-own opportunities throughout the entire season.
In 2004, Jan, using his expertise and Masters’ Degree in Business Education, and Michelle, with her fine arts degree, developed a business plan that would integrate their abilities, knowledge and experiences into a complete package providing food and atmosphere for purchasing and consuming the food they raised. The result was a 1,500 sq. ft. post and beam farm stand with an atrium. The recognized potential to produce and sell value-added products and meals led them to turn the basement into a commercial kitchen. They also created space for other local farmers’ products such as meat, eggs, milk and cheese.
The talented chefs in the kitchen prepare everything from pastries and baked goods to soups, quiches and prepared meals. The expansion continued, and the latest phase features a free concert series with local musicians and themed meals. A post and beam event facility was built for breakfast and lunch diners as well as a space for weddings, bridal showers, social activities, meetings, classes, and small events.
Michelle is growing her interest in art by showcasing her works and those of other famous and local artists, lending a very unique atmosphere to the farm stand.
Jan is active in the community serving on the Board of Directors of the Aquidneck Land Trust. He is a founding member and chair of the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership, a privately funded organization formed to improve agriculture. A first-ever five year strategic plan and an economic impact report have been developed in cooperation with the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture, the University of Rhode Island, legislators, community leaders and most importantly, farmers and agricultural service providers. The report has shown that agriculture is the second fastest growing industry in Rhode Island, second only to healthcare, yet its economic impact was previously unrealized. This has led to a renewed respect and recognition of the economic importance of agriculture. Farms are now looked upon as being small businesses which pay taxes and provide employment as well as contributing to the quality of life of a community. Jan has done much to help this effort. He has become one of the most respected farmers and farmer leaders in Rhode Island. He is a member of the Rhode Island Fruit Growers and Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers associations.
He has also served on the Planning Board and the Planning Commission.
Visit www.sweetberryfarmri.com to find out more about this farm-to-table agricultural destination, its pick-your-own fruits, market café, menus, concert series and more.
The Eckharts were also honored with a citation from Rhode Island Governor, Gina Raimondo, which was presented by Chief of the Department of Environmental Management, Division of Agriculture & Resource Marketing, Kenneth D. Ayars.
The Fellowship of Agricultural Adventurers has honored outstanding leaders in New England agriculture since 1953. A special committee, appointed by the trustees of Eastern States Exposition, selects its annual fellow on the basis of innovation, pioneering and lifetime dedication to the betterment of agriculture.
The Big E takes place September 15 to October 1, 2017, in West Springfield, Mass. For more information and to interact with the Fair through social media, visit www.TheBigE.com.