This week, we had the privilege of sitting down with Allison Jaswell on her family’s beautiful farm in Smithfield, RI. Allison and her brother Chris have been running Jaswell’s Farm for 20 years, taking over from their parents when the farm turned 100 years old. Their farm grows a variety of crops and makes delicious apple cider and pastries on site. We talked with Allison about the realities of being a farmer and the importance of Farm to School.
4 Generations and Counting
Started over 120 years ago by Allison and Chris’ great-grandparents, Jaswell’s was, in its first iteration, a self-sustaining farm with a variety of animals. As the reins were passed down through the generations, the farm opened up its business and did wholesale orders. At the age of 16, Chris and Allison’s father took over from his parents, dropping out of middle school to do so. Having seen firsthand from his parents the challenges and struggles of keeping up a farm, Chris made several changes. He got rid of the livestock and focused on growing crops, seeing diversification as key. Additionally, they started to do retail sales directly to customers. In the early 1970s, they invested in a cider mill, which the family still uses to make fresh apple cider today.
Life as a Farmer
While days are long and workloads demanding, Allison says the benefits of being a farmer far outweigh any challenges. “To be with family every day—it’s unrivaled,” she says; her brother lives on the property, while her family is right across the street. She also loves the continuity. Every season, they have families coming to pick pumpkins or apples, with some of those families having participated for three or four generations.
Fruits of their Labor
On the property, Allison manages the farm stand and orders, while Chris does the planting and oversees growing. Allison and Chris value certain characteristics in their produce. If an apple is traditionally large and sweet, for example, they focus on growing that apple to achieve those qualities. They currently grow a variety of crops, including 13 varieties of apples (including greening apples, the Rhode Island State Fruit) and offer apple picking, pumpkin picking and fresh cuts of holiday trees. They also make their own cider on premises, along with doughnuts and other baked goods.
Farm to School
Jaswell’s occasionally partners with schools to bring their fresh produce into local cafeterias. They mostly sell cider to schools, giving students a chance to taste 100% apple juice from a local farm. They also offer school field trips, and have welcomed many students to the farm to experience and interact with agriculture first hand. In fact, they have been offering school trips for 25 years—a tradition first started by Allison’s mother, and an unusual idea at the time.
“The support for the program is just fantastic!” Allison says. As a member of the Department of Environmental Management’s Advisory Board, Allison loves seeing the “wheels in motion.” She talked about the growing push for students to be aware of where their food comes from, since those students represent the future. “We need them to be sustaining,” she says.
When people come to pick pumpkins, some think that the farm takes the fruits and artificially arranges them in an open field. Allison explains to them that this is actually how pumpkins grow—that the orange gourd they’re all familiar with actually comes from a plant! When children learn this new information, they become curious about where their other food comes from and how it arrives on their plate. Farm to School is a key part of feeding that curiosity and spreading awareness, Allison notes. As a movement, Farm to School is also more sustainable: instead of having food shipped across the country, it’s coming from down the street.
As a mother whose children get hot lunches at school, Allison loves talking with her kids about what they eat in the cafeteria. “When I visit, I hear [the cafeteria workers] saying ‘take a fruit, let’s add a vegetable’ – I love that!” she says. Allison particularly appreciates the produce, since it wasn’t a part of school lunches when she was younger. “I love the fresh options,” she says.
While agriculture is never easy, it’s an exciting time to be a farmer. Given the excitement around Farm to School right now, the steps being pursued at multiple levels in the community, and the changes in school food generationally, Jaswell’s has a lot to look forward to.
Jaswell’s Farm is located at 50 Swan Road, Smithfield, RI. They are open daily through the end of the season on December 24th. Stop by for some hot apple cider, pumpkin picking or to pick some fresh local produce.