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See How Their Gardens Grow

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Wainer & Son experiments with new crops on Dartmouth farm

“The idea is to turn this farm into a research and development center with 4,300 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs,” said Henry Wainer, president of Sid Wainer & Son in New Bedford and owner of the farm on Barney’s Joy Road. “This is not a money making venture for us. It’s a test to see what foreign produce can be grown in New England rather than having it shipped to our company from places like Europe.”

With the exception of a few artichoke plants, the fields in Dartmouth’s Jansal Valley are mostly brown. But come spring, this 23-acre plot of land that was once the Bettencourt Farm will be bursting with new and foreign plants. Picture a field with 33 varieties of berries, 12 varieties of legumes and 17 varieties of tomatoes, including one from Belgium that looks a lot like a miniature watermelon.

Sid Wainer & Son sells a variety of international produce to about 18,000 chefs at high-end restaurants, hotels and airlines across the nation who regularly come to New Bedford to develop menus using produce as well as cheeses and oils offered by the company. 

The Jansal Valley Farm will be the company’s research hub, developing agricultural knowledge and systems to expand the list of items that can be grown in New England. Farms in this part of the country can then grow the produce on a contractual basis for Sid Wainer & Son.

“I recognize that there is a chance to make sustainable agriculture co-exist with the increase in land value,” Mr. Wainer said. “Our company’s aim is to give chefs the diversity they are looking for, and they would rather buy locally-farmed produce over something that comes from another country.”

Jansal Valley, which also serves as the label of Sid Wainer & Son products, has had two growing seasons after work was done to remove stones from the ground and prepare the land. Many of those stones make up the walls that can be seen on the farm.

A kitchen will be put in place at the farm for visiting chefs to pick food and start cooking with ingredients fresh from the earth.

In addition, Mr. Wainer said, he is negotiation to purchase the farm across the street, which would about double the total acreage of Jansal Valley.

Mr. Wainer said he expects to increase the number of items to be grown at Jansal valley this coming growing season from the 117,000 plants in 2004.

Another development at Sid Wainer & Son can be seen from the sixth floor of the company’s headquarters on Purchase Street. On the land that formerly was the home of Alden Corrugated Co., 9,000 square feet of greenhouses have been erected to further experiment with plants.

“There is a lot of potential,” he said. “This is something that will provide jobs down the road.”

Donald Perry, Dartmouth’s planning director, said development of the Jansal Valley farm fit’s nicely into the town’s plans for the future.

“When we did an open space survey a couple of years ago, the top priority was preserving farmland,” he said. “We’ve done a lot here to try and take down barriers.”

Among those efforts are “right-to-farm” guidelines approved by the town that aim to make it easier for farmers to continue their business in Dartmouth.

Several local growers have signed on to supply Sid Wainer & Son with food, including a farm at Gulf Hill that provides milk for the company.

When Jansal Valley was created and Mr. Wainer advertised for a farmer to work the land, 23 growers in the area said they were willing to grow produce for the company.

The company has about 1,000 farms here and abroad, growing produce exclusively for it.

Brian Medeiros, owner of Dartmouth Orchards on Westport Road, said Mr. Wainer’s effort to find new crops to grow in New England are a step in the right direction, but there are plenty of other pressures on local farmers.

“I don’t think the pressures of farming today will go away with Sid Wainer,” Mr. Medeiros said. “More importantly, I think there should be more local support of farming, especially in light of the incentives given away to large retailers like Lowe’s.”

Mr. Medeiros said the future of local farming will be determined by economics and what the New Bedford company will pay for the produce it is looking to grow. He is unsure it will be high enough to offset rising costs, such as fuel, and increasing property values.

Mr. Wainer’s grandfather founded Sid Wainer & Son in 1914. The company always dealt in produce, but it was Mr. Wainer’s yen for the new and different that moved the company in the direction of specialty foods. Sid Wainer & Son carries an extensive selection of produce.

Mr. Wainer said his company was the first to import pineapples from Hawaii in the 1970’s, the first to sell baby carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, and other miniature produce, and the first to sell mesclun greens.

“I was the first to sell the kiwi in a store called Son of Sid’s on Martha’s Vineyard many years ago,” he said.

“And that excited me. I lived with chefs and shared a passion for variety, diversity, elegance, plate presentation, a better-balanced diet and a curiosity of different foods.”

Mr. Wainer developed an appreciation for the locally grown concept while growing up near Padanaram Village.

The site of the YMCA and former Children’s Museum once was roamed by herds of dairy cows.

Their milk was processed nearby and turned into ice cream that was sold down the street from where it originated.

“That sort of thing is unheard of now,” he said.

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