The Diversifier

Grower Tyler Young of Little Compton, R.I.

Published online: May 24, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the June 2017 issue of Potato Grower. Photos courtesy Marianne Lee Photography

The smallest state in the Union (as measured by land area) is the proud owner of the longest official name: the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It’s an appellation that honors the state’s long agricultural history, a history all but forgotten by a general population that only knows the place for its miniscule borders and location somewhere between New York and Boston.

Native son Tyler Young cherishes that agricultural legacy and has spent his life adding to it. He balances that with a healthy understanding of and appreciation for his farm’s location in the southeastern corner of the second-most densely populated state in the U.S.


Sticking to the Plan

Throughout his youth, Young spent a lot of time with extended family members on their farming operations. Most notable among those influential family members were his grandfather and uncle, Bernard and Jason Peckham, with whom he worked over weekends and summers as far back as he can remember.

“Since I was two years old, I knew I wanted to farm,” Young says now. “But I had no farm; I always farmed with other people on their places.”

After high school, Young earned a degree in agribusiness from the University of Minnesota, where he met his wife Karla, a retail merchandising major. They returned to Rhode Island in the early’90s and farmed with Tyler’s uncle, Jason Peckham, for a few years. In 1997, an opportunity arose for the Youngs to purchase a neighboring 180-acre farm. What else could they do? With a lifelong dream in reach, they made the transaction and suddenly had the farm Tyler Young had wanted his whole life.

The farm was a great piece of land—but that’s all it was. None of the necessary equipment to operate a modern farm was included in the purchase price. Young rented equipment from his uncle the first few years, but quickly realized that wasn’t sustainable.

“So we saved,” he says matter-of-factly. “I had a Coke machine on my uncle’s farm, and I bought and paid for my first tractor with those quarters. It was a little 66 Oliver cultivator tractor, and we still use it.”


Potatoes and Beyond

Young Family Farm has steadily grown in the ensuing two decades. It now comprises some 300 acres of oceanfront property. Potatoes have grown on Young ground for the entire life of the farm and have been a big driver of the enterprise’s success.

“I love growing potatoes,” Young says. “It’s an addiction.”

An average growing season at Young Family Farm sees around 20 potato varieties spread over about 100 acres. Among those varieties, Norwis is the most prominent. Most of Young’s Norwis potatoes are sent to a local processor that peels and cuts them for restaurant use. Reds, yellows and whites are shipped straight from the field to a fresh packer in Boston, about an hour and a half away. Smaller plots are filled with different blue and specialty cultivars, bound for several clients, some of whom may order as little as a single truckload of potatoes.

“I talk with my customers all the time,” Young says. “I ask them what they’d like me to grow for them, and whether they know which varieties they like. They give me suggestions, and I try it.

“You’ve got to grow what they want, not what you want.”

Catering to customers has made Young Family Farm a vibrantly diverse operation. Aside from their 20 potato varieties, they grow and sell sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, beans, peas, zucchini, squash, apples, peaches, strawberries and cut flowers. Contracts with several local grocery stores and an on-farm retail business and supply Young’s diverse products to a diverse customer base.  

“I call that diversification my insurance policy,” Young says. “If, say, I have a bad year with butternut squash, maybe the potatoes will make up for it. If I have bad year in potatoes, maybe the corn will make up for it. The most important thing is finding good clients who will pay you and who you can trust.”


Sweet Spot

The farm on the coast has been good to the Youngs. Tyler and Karla raised their three daughters—Emma, Hattie and Sarah—on it, and they couldn’t be more happy with the results. All three girls are now grown with their own degrees and big plans for life. The sisters have a successful floral business in Boston named Young Designs. One of their biggest flower suppliers is, you guessed it, Young Family Farm.

As for the location? Tyler Young wouldn’t ask for any better.

“We do have a lot of populace here,” he says. “It’s not good in some ways, and it’s good in other ways. We do feel like we always have neighbors right there, watching what we’re doing.”

Then he looks out from his front porch at the beach, 150 feet away, and smiles.

“But this is a pretty good place. When you can put your heels up on the dashboard, plow a field and watch the sailboats go by, it’s a pretty good gig.”