From a humble beginning as a small strawberry patch in the early 80s to a beautiful farm market, café, wedding venue, pick your own and “the place to go” in the Newport, RI area, Jan and Michelle Eckhart’s Sweet Berry Farm of Middletown, RI is the hallmark of a true agricultural adventure.
With little to no farming experience, Jan hand-planted a small patch of strawberries 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, 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 products and, listening to their customers’ requests and needs, Jan and Michelle began adding new crops.
They purchased additional acreage of abutting land, added more products and developed a strategy, through trial and error, to have something for pick-your-own throughout the entire season. Jan recognized that to be successful in Rhode Island agriculture one must diversify.
In 2004, Jan and Michelle developed a business plan that would integrate their abilities, knowledge and experiences into a complete package of providing food and atmosphere for purchasing and consuming the food they raised. They constructed a 1,500 sq. ft. post and beam farm stand with an atrium and, recognizing the potential for value added products and meals, they turned 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.
Jan is active in the community and Michelle’s art is showcased, as well as pieces of other famous and local artists, lending a unique atmosphere to the farm stand.