Tyler and Karla Young reflect on the farming industry’s old and new ways
By Andrea Cale, The Good News Experiment
LITTLE COMPTON, RI — Rhode Island farmers Tyler and Karla Young’s roots run deep along Little Compton’s West Main Road, a dreamy street that features patches of fog, picturesque farmhouses and lush, green land until it reaches the ocean’s edge at nearby Sakonnet Point. Birthplace of the first “Rhode Island Red” hen, the town offers a quiet, comforting glimpse at what life may have looked like in an earlier century. And for Tyler, his personal connections to the road date back to his English ancestors who settled there.
“Everyone down the road here is a relative,” he said with a smile. “My grandparents had a farm nearby called Ferolbink Farms raising potatoes, and I farmed with my grandfather and my uncle for years before I started our farm here.”
The Young Family Farm, which began with a strawberry stand in 1997, has steadily grown into a 300-acre property that features 100 acres of potatoes, 50 acres of sweet corn, and rows of other vegetables, including squash, kale, Swiss chard, turnips, peppers and pumpkins — to name just a few — alongside vibrant orchards of pears, peaches, apples and nectarines.
Karla runs the family’s retail stand and “pick-your-own” offerings in the strawberry fields and orchards, while Tyler runs the farm’s wholesale operation, a business that provides fresh produce to a dozen regional Stop & Shop stores, a Shaw’s supermarket in Middletown, RI, several stores in Cape Cod and other small businesses throughout New England. In addition, the farm delivers potatoes to Boston for repacking and Johnston, RI for peeling and processing.
To get to know the Youngs is to understand that their way of farming is their way of life. They’ve succeeded in growing their farm so steadily over the past 20 years by mixing their ancestors’ old style of hard work and dedication with a progressive appreciation for the ever-changing nature of their industry.
“Farming is always evolving,” Tyler said. “Whether it’s technology or people’s diets. My grandfather never ate kale a day in his life and now everyone wants it. My wife loves it and put it in my oatmeal one morning. And you look at the chemistries used by farmers now and they’ve become so much safer and so much more environmentally friendly. Toxicity levels aren’t there. The technologies are unbelievable. A lot of the computers we use are on tractors, equipment and sprayers. They’re accurate; there’s no waste. We’re constantly educating ourselves and learning new things.”
This old-meets-new approach complements the husband-and-wife team’s outstanding commitment to Rhode Island communities. Young Family Farm “seconds,” an industry term for excess or slightly flawed produce, goes to supporting families in need through partnerships with a food pantry in Little Compton and The Rhode Island Community Food Bank, which recently informed Tyler that his farm’s dozen years of contributions to the organization has reached the equivalent of more than 1.1 million donated meals. In 2016, The Food Bank recognized Tyler at its annual meeting with the Guy Abelson Leadership Award, an honor presented every October to “celebrate the generosity of spirit that Guy embodied,” the Food Bank web site says. Individuals and organizations receive the award for outstanding commitment of food donations, funds, volunteer time or pro bono assistance.
“The way I look at it, farmers don’t have a lot of money in the bank and so to give back, we work with folks with food,” Tyler said. “You hear about the number of children in need of food here in Rhode Island, with one in five children having only one meal or less a day. How do you run a society like that? So we donate potatoes, turnips and winter squash. We start working with the Food Bank every September and they usually come and pick up six pallets of produce at a time.”
Karla and Tyler’s partnership began during their college days at an agriculture and business school in Minnesota, where they met at a social gathering and became engaged to be married soon after. Their love for agriculture has been passed on to the next generation of Youngs, daughters Emma, Hattie and Sarah, whose respective diplomas from James Madison University, University of New Hampshire and Boston University hang in the Youngs' farm office on a wall adjacent to four Norman Rockwell prints. Collectively known as “The Four Freedoms,” the Rockwell artwork is meaningful to Tyler because it symbolizes the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear, a human rights theme in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. The theme was later featured in the Atlantic Charter and was also part of the United Nations Charter.
“We always encouraged our daughters to work for themselves — unless it’s to learn from somebody,” said Tyler. “And so I would say to them and all of their friends, ‘Why don’t you guys become entrepreneurs? You can make or break, but you can learn and create great things.’”
Daughters Hattie and Sarah created Young Designs, a growing floriculture business in its third year in Boston that provides floral designs for weddings, residences and four-season containers. Daughter Emma is in Australia and engaged to be married. She earned a Master’s Degree in Business from Melbourne University, where she was recognized for being the first female president of her class, Karla said.
“When they were three and five and seven and nine years old, they cut buckets upon buckets of flowers,” Karla said. “Now, I’m cutting for them.”
The Youngs’ busy days vary from season to season, but on the clear May day when I had the pleasure of visiting their beautiful farm, their work had begun at 5 a.m.
“With weather like this, you go, go go,” Tyler said.
The morning’s chores had included pruning apple and peach trees. The afternoon brought potato planting across 12 acres of ground, a plot that had been plowed the day before to give the area the right amount of time to dry. The evening’s work involved preparing yellow Prince Edward Island potatoes in a machine in advance of planting them as seed.
Looking ahead to the upcoming harvests on the farm, the Youngs said local customers can look forward to their second consecutive season of pick-your-own strawberries, which peak on the farm in mid-June. Summer vegetables and fruits will be ever-changing in the retail stand’s wooden shelves of colorful produce. Karla said Massachusetts and Rhode Island customers annually delight in apple-picking that continues on their farm in October, when most other New England orchards, which are typically located farther north, are closed for picking. This year, the Youngs' apple-picking season will feature 1,300 apple trees, including an additional 60 trees of Macoun, Pink Lady and Red Cameo varieties. The Youngs are also planning their signature Bluegrass festival in October, complete with live music, pumpkin-picking, face painting for children and “Ty’s Fries” — Tyler’s popular red potatoes fried in peanut oil. The weekend event has drawn up to 3,000 people in the past with ideal weather, the Youngs said.
In addition to highlighting the fruits of their work, the Youngs said it’s important to raise awareness for the plight of good, local farmers.
“There’s a lot of concern out there regarding too much regulation of agriculture,” Tyler said in reference to the Food Safety Modernization Act. “Basically, the idea was good, but we already have a good agriculture practice program here in this state and all of the farmers are on board with that, but this has gone too far. It seems like you can’t laugh, sneeze or cry without doing something wrong. We have to monitor deer. On top of the extensive farm chores, we’re supposed to manage wildlife with all of their droppings. And how are we supposed to manage it when the government can’t manage it themselves? When you over-regulate a small margin business you have a chance to put them out of business. One thing that needs to be said is that once you’ve lost your sovereignty to feed yourselves, you’ve lost a nation.”
“It’s important for the consumer to understand this because yes, everyone wants safe food, but none of us want to be on the front cover for making someone sick,” said Karla. “We eat it ourselves. Our children eat it. We all have to be conscious of what we do.”
In other farming trends, the Youngs said that they are enjoying how the food movement has progressed toward a more plant- and protein-based diet. Tyler pointed to the potato — the crop they harvest most — as an example of how preferences are changing.
“The white potato is now a dying thing,” he said. “Now, we’re raising blue potatoes, yellow potatoes and striped potatoes. I truly believe that the standard, old sit-down-and-eat white potato, meat and peas has gone by. People want color, diversity and change. And a colorful plate.”
Karla added that her favorite moments on the farm tend to come from customers as they discover the taste of fresh, local produce.
“From the farmstead perspective, when the customers come and they see all of the fresh vegetables, they might not identify the difference between a ‘cuke' and a ‘zuke,’” she said. “But then they bring it home and they eat it and it’s fresh and they say, ‘I can’t believe how good it tastes.’ That makes us feel good. And if Tyler is out and about, he teaches them about agriculture. They leave with not only a good flavor taste, but a good appreciation for local farming.”
When asked about his favorite part of being a farmer, Tyler recalled a particularly memorable moment.
“So the orchard was my wife’s idea,” he said. “We’ve got Asian pears now along with peaches, nectarines and apples. I deal with wholesalers, but when I see Karla’s customers come down, they are less familiar with what we do. And I had a little nectarine tree and its nectarines tasted like candy. There were five nectarines on that tree. I asked a woman, ‘Have you ever had a white nectarine?’ She bit into that and by the time I turned around she had taken another three off of the tree. We’ll have people eat a raw ear of sweet corn. Not many people have done that, but we have them try it. It’s picked that day and it’s fresh. When you teach people something new, it’s special.”
For more information on Young Family Farm, please visit http://youngfamilyfarm.com/. For more information on Young Designs, please visit https://www.ydflowers.com/.
Writer’s note: Before I left their farm, Karla gave me a container of basil to plant at home and Tyler filled my camera bag with four yellow Prince Edward Island potatoes and a couple of blue potatoes. On the following night over dinner, my family and I enjoyed a home cook’s version of the Youngs' locally famous “Ty’s Fries.” In lieu of a fryer, we added a savory dip and baked them. They were also delicious on their own (no dip needed). My simple take on Ty’s Fries is here:
Ingredients for fries:
Farmstand potatoes (July 4 is peak harvesting time at Young Family Farm)
Baking instructions for fries:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
Peel and cut potatoes into 1/2” strips
Lightly toss them in olive oil
Season with flake salt and pepper
Arrange in single layer on baking sheet
Bake until crisp, about 20 - 25 minutes, turning occasionally
Top with a few pinches of flake salt
Instructions for dip:
- Mix together:
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup mayo
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Dash of salt