Change And Diversify

Change And Diversify

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Change And DiversifySweet corn. That’s the No. 1 draw at Manfredi Farms’ roadside market. Why? Because it tastes good.

Just ask Richard Manfredi, owner of Manfredi Farms in Westerly, RI. He grows 40-plus acres of sweet corn, tomatoes, berries, pumpkins, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and leaf lettuce. About 15 of those acres are dedicated to sweet corn. All of the fresh produce is sold at the farm’s roadside market.

Staying ahead of the competition, Manfredi typically is the first in his area to offer sweet corn and he sells the corn by the ear. Yes, you read that right — by the ear. How much for one ear? 75¢

“I started selling by the ear about five years ago,” Manfredi explains. “Around here, families don’t eat together anymore, and people were only buying three ears at a time. So, we were selling by the ear already, unless someone was having a cookout or other gathering.”

He adds, however, that if customers don’t want to buy sweet corn by the ear, some options are available. For example, customers can buy six ears and get one free, or purchase small ears by the bag. All of Manfredi’s sweet corn comes with a guarantee.

Roll With The Changes

Times have changed over the years, and the Manfredis have made the effort to adapt to those changes. Because the farm is located in a medium-size affluent town, Manfredi says most of the people who live in the area are disconnected with the farm, but they like the fact that the farm is nearby. He has also found that customers, in addition to purchasing fresh vegetables from the farm market, also enjoy the experience of picking their own produce.

Diversity is key, Manfredi continues. Today, the focus is not only on offering superb, tasty produce, it is on providing an atmosphere to the customer. Manfredi says it is a challenge to come up with new things to entice fickle consumers. Some of the farm’s biggest draws, he says, were discovered by accident.

One in particular was having animals located near the roadside market. “We used to have a few animals to keep the grass clean,” Manfredi begins. “Because we were busy and couldn’t tend to them, we brought them to a fenced-in area near the market and people really enjoyed seeing the animals. We initially had one donkey and now we have three, as well as some sheep and a couple
of baby goats.”

Now, he says people stop to feed the animals and pick up a few things at the market. Manfredi doesn’t allow people to enter the fenced area with the animals, due to liability concerns. However, that didn’t stop him from making the animal area look more attractive. He painted and dressed up the fence, hoping to entice a few more visitors to stop.

To keep customers coming back, Manfredi realizes that he has to go the extra mile. In addition to sweet corn, in the fall pumpkins are a big draw, and it is important to create an atmosphere with them, he says. “We do a lot of decorating, complete with hay bales and old wagons. We don’t just put the pumpkins in a pile in the field. We put quite a bit of effort into the display.”

Manfredi says he gets many of his marketing ideas from attending various grower meetings. “I even went all the way to New Zealand on a farm exchange,” he says. “I’ve seen things that I know wouldn’t work here, but I can tweak some of those ideas to make them work. We are always looking to make a change.”

Taste Matters

Atmosphere and animals are a good start, but Manfredi says offering tasty varieties will encourage repeat business. “You can’t make a living selling squash and beans,” he explains.

“We have to do something different, and we have to be consistently good. It has to be superior all the time. And, customers like it best when they know that you grow it.”

Providing customers with many choices, he grows several varieties of sweet corn, pumpkins, and his No. 2 draw — tomatoes. In addition to taste, he is looking for varieties with disease resistance packages. Sweet corn and tomato varieties are supplied by Sieger Seed Co. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is his supplier for basil, cucumbers, beans, peas, squash, and onions.

Manfredi grows four to five varieties of tomatoes, 20 varieties of pumpkins, and six to eight varieties of sweet corn. For sweet corn varieties, he starts with ones that are cold tolerant and then shifts over to sugar enhanced and triple sweets.

His biggest concern, however, is with the quality and texture of the corn and not so much on the size of the ear. “We want it to taste good,” he adds.

Production Pointers

Because Manfredi realizes that he can’t be good at everything, he buys plugs when necessary. He hires someone to start his tomato plants in plug trays and he takes over when it is time to transplant. About 6,000 tomato plants are produced each year. He does, however, start his own peppers, squash, cucumbers, basil, and lettuce plants in three greenhouses located on the farm.

Manfredi, his son, and his son-in-law, handle all of the planting and other field work. They transplant through black plastic mulch with a waterwheel transplanter. For sweet corn and direct-seeded crops, a precision vacuum planter is used.

In general, Manfredi tries to keep the use of crop protectants to a minimum. He’s been growing strawberries for 30 years, and in the past had some issues with botrytis. After attending grower meetings, he learned that he can significantly reduce disease risk by placing a thick layer of straw on the soil to keep the strawberries from touching the ground and making sure plants have enough air space.

“Consumers are happy to know that we aren’t spraying the strawberries or blueberries,” he says. “We also use IPM practices and follow Good Agricultural Practices. There is no need to spray, spray, spray. Don’t do it if you don’t have to.”

A Family Venture

The farm has been a staple in the community since the 1930s when Manfredi’s grandparents, Carmine and Dominica Manfredi, Italian immigrants, began working the land. Originally a 100-acre dairy farm, the land was later used to grow potatoes and sweet corn.

Manfredi credits his father, Cosmo, who is now deceased, as the reason he has been successful. His mother, Viola, gets the credit for starting the retail operation in the family’s garage. The present market, which is about 1,800 square feet, was built on-site about 15 years ago.

Coming from a farm family, Manfredi is happy to see his son, Chris, a recent high school graduate and his “trainee in the field,” follow in his farming footsteps. Chris is joined by his sister, Melanie, who handles the retail business and the greenhouses. Melanie’s husband, Raymond Alberts, also is an integral part of the farming operation, helping out with the store, as well as field work.

Manfredi’s two oldest sons, RJ and Jake, operate a diesel repair business and have opted out of farming. His oldest daughter, Melissa, has a farming-related job as the head of farm service agency in Rhode Island.

Not An Overnight Success

What is the secret to Manfredi’s success? “Sheer determination, the desire to succeed, listening to other people, and using their knowledge to help you along,” is Manfredi’s response. “Somebody will give you something you can use, if you just listen.”

The farm market continues to do well and Manfredi believes that, together with his family, they are doing a good job of making the market grow to fit the needs of customers. “We are heading in the right direction, and that direction is being dictated by customers,” he says.

Down the line, Manfredi would like to continue to progress using the latest equipment and technology that would eliminate some of the more back-breaking work.“Because we do it alone, we have to be more productive and do 50 different jobs a day. It takes a lifetime to learn all the things that have to be done on the farm.”