Last week, we had the pleasure of virtually connecting with Katherine Fotiades who, along with her partner Mark Phillips, runs Skydog Farm. We talked about the impact of education, the importance of community engagement, and ideas for the future.
The Story of Skydog Farm
Skydog Farm has been producing locally grown foods for 30 years, originally operating as Absalonia Greenhouse.They grow succulents and hydroponically grown leafy greens, herbs and pea shoots Over the years, they have incorporated soil-based practices as well. Everything they grow is pesticide free.
At the start of the business, Mark maintained three large greenhouses selling primarily lettuce and basil. The business sold wholesale to local grocery stores, but as fuel prices increased and product prices stayed constant, change became necessary. Farmers markets began popping up in the state and becoming more popular. In response, Mark began diversifying the product and selling direct to consumers with Farm Fresh RI.
At the start of last year, Mark and Katherine purchased additional acres to build two more greenhouses. Both being very community-minded people, Mark and Katherine have designed the upcoming additions to be an oasis to promote wellness at all levels — body, mind, and spirit. The greenhouses will be used for educational programming and as a space for people to connect with nature.
The underpinning of everyone’s life is having a healthy food system. That means all of us together, supporting each other, from farmer to food producer to consumer.
Working with the Elements
The greenhouses are in operation all year, but the products remain seasonal. The greenhouses allow the season of different products to be extended by storing natural light and heat — no artificial elements necessary.The goal is to have a natural-feeling space acting as a transition between outdoors and indoors. Katherine who calls soil her medium, maintains, propagates, and creatively arranges the succulents. Mark also maintains rosemary bonsai trees as a form of creative expression.
Igniting Curiosity, Sharing Wisdom
An educator for many moons, Katherine has been an active volunteer in schools and even homeschooled her four children for a number of years. With the goal of creating lifelong learners, Katherine sees igniting curiosity as the key. Skydog began offering programs last year, but the plans for them have been a long time coming. A few years ago, Mark built an in-classroom hydroponic system for a Jamestown elementary school as part of a grant. Since then, Katherine has been very active in the Farm to School community, brainstorming ideas for successful educational opportunities and connections. Katherine and Mark are excited to offer the farm space they have lovingly built as an educational space and to share their wisdom with the community.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic hit, we had the pleasure of bringing a group of children from the Pawtucket Boys and Girls Club to Skydog for hands-on agricultural education. They had a blast! After a tour of the greenhouse, they learned about hydroponics, its benefits and how it works. Each child got the chance to plant a small plant called a plug into the hydroponic system. They also got small kits to raise pea shoots hydroponically at home, in order to continue learning and growing. They also learned about soil-based growing and made their own succulent arrangements.
Highlighting the food chain is central to the lessons offered at Skydog. Through a hands-on game, students can act out all the players in both industrial and local food systems to explore true-cost accounting. All of these concepts can be either simplified or expanded for deeper discussion depending on age groups. For all programs, the goal is for foster students’ curiosity to explore local agriculture and why it’s important from direct hands-on experiences. Having students come visit the farm and get to know the farmers personalizes the idea of who a farmer is and what they do. “It’s all about planting those seeds,” Katherine says. “It might be that thing that 15 or 20 years later they go ‘oh, yeah’ and that seed starts to germinate.”