Jun 9, 2021Mother, Marine son take over blueberry farm nestled in city
What do a retired music professor and a retiring U.S. Marine have in common?
Why, a blueberry farm, of course.
Mother and son, Nancy Cornish and Stephen Cornish, and his wife Sonya, went into business together in the summer of 2020, buying Rocky Point Blueberry Farm in Warwick, Rhode Island.
Unlikely growers and business partners they may be, the family says it’s right where they should be after buying the small blueberry farm and farm stand.
It’s a happy next chapter for a farm that’s nestled in a heavily built-up corner of Warwick. And it’s a fortunate turn during a time in which farm succession is generally considered to be a challenge. On a national level, family ownership isn’t a given where small farm operations don’t always survive the sale of the property and assets. In the U.S., the number of farms has steadily decreased over the years, while the average size of the farms continues to increase.
“I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘I’m glad you kept this a blueberry farm,’” Sonya said. “I think they thought when we bought this property we were going to tear it down and put apartments up. The folks around the neighborhood are really happy we’re keeping it farmland.”
Making the decision
Keeping the farm with a country feel was not only a dream come true for the Warwick community, but also the Cornish family.
“It started off, nine years ago, as my idea,” Nancy Cornish said. “I knew the people that owned the farm at that time. They were putting it up for sale. I was teaching in the state of Wyoming as a music professor, I was getting ready to move back to Rhode Island to help take care of my parents, and I came to see the people who owned the farm. And it just so happened that Stephen and Sonya were being stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and going out to Okinawa (Japan) for the Marines, and they just happened to be here to visit. They came with me to see this farm. And we all loved it.”
The agricultural interest for Stephen stemmed from his childhood in Kansas where many of his friends’ families owned farms. Nancy’s parents in Rhode Island had been avid gardeners. The consensus among the three then was to buy the farm, and then Stephen and Sonya could quit military life to help her run it. And although that’s eventually what they did, it didn’t happen as soon as planned.
“Well, I missed getting this farm by one day,” Cornish said. “They had sold it just the day before, and only because my printer wasn’t working to get the offer to them. But God, in His wisdom, said, ‘Not now – later,’ because I was going to have to spend the next eight years taking care of my elderly parents that lived to 107 and 102. And then a year ago (2019), I found out on Christmas Day that the farm was for sale again.”
Given a second chance, the group didn’t hesitate. Nancy and Stephen now equally own the property.
“Sonya and I, I don’t know how much we brought that up in the last 8-9 years,” Stephen Cornish said. “Honestly, it was a no-brainer. You don’t miss something like that twice.”
On the farm
“It’s well-known in the area,” Nancy Cornish said. “Rocky Point was one of the earliest amusement parks in the country, and everybody and their brother and sister and cousin – everybody who ever lived anywhere near here knows where Rocky Point amusement park was.” As a state park, Rocky Point still attracts a lot of traffic for concerts, movie nights and other events – and the farm market reaps a reward from its location.
It’s a relatively young farm. A residence was built on the property in 1984, and the couple living there had established the blueberry farm by the 1990s, Nancy Cornish said.
“They started off with Christmas trees, and then they decided that wasn’t their thing,” she said. The marshy corner of the property, with dark, rich, acidic soil was perfect for blueberries.
Today, about 2.5 acres are planted with blueberries, with an acre for the residence and five acres containing a forest, meadow and small orchard with a couple of dozen pawpaw trees and a few peach trees.
“It’s like a piece of country in the middle of the city,” Nancy Cornish said.
The farm’s harvest lasts about 6-8 weeks starting in mid-July. Despite some timing problems taking possession of the farm and finding help, the family sold 6 tons of pick-your-own blueberries last year. The berry patch includes 13 different varieties of blueberries that successively ripen throughout the season.
“It’s a little bit earlier season this year,” Nancy Cornish said. “We already have blossoms, so we’re hoping to have a real full crop this year and sell lots and lots of pick-your-own blueberries.”
In July 2020, Nancy and Sonya took over farm operations and coordinated the pick-your-own blueberry operation and the select pawpaws.
Stephen, who is technically still in the Marines, was called back to Hawaii during the summer and missed most of the first season.
“Time was really the hardest piece,” he said.
Mother and daughter-in-law Sonya “found that we worked really well together,” as Nancy put it.
The farm receives some summer help from the Comprehensive Community Action Plan, or CCAP, a program that pays disadvantaged teens to work and study through the summer, while also paying businesses like Rocky Point Blueberry Farm to provide work.
“They pay them a wage to come work for us, and they pay us to train them how to be employees,” Nancy said.
The operation went smoothly despite the advent of COVID-19.
“We have customers who are repeat customers – they knew exactly which bushes they wanted to pick on,” Sonya said.
“Some people said, ‘My favorite row is over here. I always pick over here,’” Nancy added.
The farm offered a touchless checkout and cash register system. Sonya said they also set up handwashing stations and precautionary signs. Steve said the farm was kept very clean and there were no COVID-19 related issues.
Like many other farm markets have reported, the pick-your-own operations were a hit with otherwise homebound customers.
“You have fun doing it, and it was a safe thing for you to do with your family during the summer, of course during COVID time,” Nancy said. “With 52 rows and a family per row, they were naturally socially distanced. … It was a healthy activity and they were so happy to get out of their houses and go somewhere and do something as a family.”
The market has two stands – one for fresh produce, another for other products like jars of honey and jam, pottery and towels. There are also two big picnic tables and chairs where people can lounge.
Today, Stephen and Sonya live on the farm, while Nancy has moved into her late parents’ old home a short distance away. At her own home, Nancy gardens strawberries and peppers and squash in a 40×8-foot garden. She hopes to sell produce from the garden at their roadside stand.
As of early May, Stephen was still in the Marines while dealing with some medical issues and preparing to retire after 25 years of service.
“They put a lot of focus when you’re getting out of the military, like what do you want to do when you’re out, and what are your further plans? To have those questions answered has been the best.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor