Vegetable grower hired by URI to serve needs of state’s farmers

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East Providence resident says farmers have bright future in Rhode Island

KINGSTON, R.I. — March 16, 2006 — For the last two years, Whitney O’Hanian has helped produce tons of food for the state’s hungry, and during the next two she hopes to guide the state’s farmers toward a new crop—a bright green future.

O’Hanian, who grew up in Warwick and now resides in East Providence, recently became the project manager of a new initiative aimed at addressing the needs of the state’s vegetable and forage farmers who by most accounts have been underserved.

She has been hired by the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to provide technical support to Rhode Island’s farmers.

“We want to renew our efforts to provide outreach to farmers, particularly small-scale farmers,” O’Hanian said.

The project will provide commercial farmers and growers with research-based agricultural information, problem solving recommendations, and consulting services in such areas as crop production, sustainable agricultural practices, farm diversification enterprises, marketing, and other aspects of farm development and management. The free services are offered to all Rhode Island farms and will include special outreach efforts to farms where technical assistance is needed most and where there is the greatest potential to enhance farm viability.

O’Hanian, who will have the title sustainable agriculture specialist, was selected by a search committee made up of URI faculty, farmers, educators, and agricultural agencies, including the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture and the Rhode Island Center for Agricultural Promotion Education.

For the last two years O’Hanian has been working toward her master’s degree in plant sciences at URI. Part of that effort involved a vegetable growing project in which she, along with URI Master Gardeners and others, raised some 40,000 pounds of tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, spinach and cabbage, all of which went to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

O’Hanian is a longtime volunteer at the food bank and worked there full-time before taking her new job. Now she is visiting the scores of farms in the state to find out just what services farmers could use from URI.

“What distinguishes this from other projects is we just don’t know with certainty what technical needs are desired,” said Ernest Morreira, a URI Cooperative Extension specialist who secured the USDA grant. It has been suggested “that people want the university to get more engaged with farming and get those farms on a sustainable and profitable path.”

The purpose of the grant is to determine what the farmers need. To accomplish this O’Hanian will conduct case studies on some 35 farms over the next two years. She will conduct focus groups, give presentations around the state, and test a range of delivery methods for the services she determines are most needed.

Morreira and O’Hanian are optimistic about the project. In bond issue after bond issue, they note, Rhode Islanders have supported the concept of preserving farmland.

“People want the farms to remain part of the Rhode Island landscape,” said Morreira. “With Whitney onboard, we are now open for business and encourage farmers and growers to contact her for technical information, problem solving and in-depth, whole-farm consulting services,” says Morreira.

O’Hanian can be reached at 874-2967 or at

URI News Bureau photo by Michael Salerno Photography