Life on the Farm

Sandywoods Farm offers affordable living for artists


Here’s the deal with Sandywoods Farm, the two year old intentional community in Tiverton that bills itself as an arts and agriculture community: it consists of 50 rental units of various sizes housed in what appear, on the outside, to be single family homes conceived of in the New England cottage tradition. There are 22 single family home lots for sale, an orchard with 50 fruit trees, a community garden, preserved open space, a wind turbine, which is currently inoperable, a community center, an art gallery and an artist’s studio. In the future, there will be agriculture, a family to run the farm, a bed and breakfast, a café and two additional single-family affordable homes. The ultimate goal is to achieve some level of self-sufficiency and to provide an affordable housing opportunity for artists.

The idea was conceived by the land owners: Joe Bossom, a retired neuroscientist with an arts degree from NYU and a PhD from Brandeis, and his wife, Mika Seeger, a ceramic artist and daughter of the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. At age 60, Bossom decided to retire, and, as he put it, pursue his post-professional career – farming. Bossom and Seeger bought the 176-acre parcel and put it to work. They built their home, a rustic ranch, and a studio for Mika, an odd structure that, from a distance, appears to be the wreckage of a UFO, and they farmed. Bossom worked 12 hours every day. “I enjoyed it, “ he said. “It kept me out of doors.” At his peak, he had 30 goats, 12 cows, and 100 chickens, and he produced 1,500 bales of hay a year.

In 2004, at age 80, Bossom realized that his time as a farmer was up. But Bossom and Seeger weren’t interested in selling their cherished land to a developer just to have it converted to a tract of McMansions. They instead envisioned a community of artists, a place where artists could live and work. Bossom called Church Community Housing Corporation, a non-profit developer based in Newport, a move he now regrets. “It hasn’t turned out the way I envisioned. CCHC is in over their heads on this,” he says.

“CCHC has dealt primarily with indigents, not artists. In time, it won’t be an artist community. It will simply be an affordable housing development with some agriculture. There’s no requirement to be an artist to live there.” Bossom takes a swig from one of his craft beers. “They [CCHC] also owe me between seven hundred and eight hundred thousand dollars. It was a loan. They’ve defaulted on it.” The collateral, he says, is the currently unsold single family home lots.

To check Bossom’s claim about there being no requirement to be an artist live at Sandywoods, I requested from the property manager, Delores Delisle, a rental application, on which the following is stated: “First preference is given to professional, semi-professional, and emerging artists and artisans in the categories of: visual arts, media arts/new genre, dance/choreography, music/com- position, writing/literary arts, and other creative disciplines, such as architecture, design and culinary arts.” Applicants are required to submit statements of interests. Those who are artists are required to submit resumes and work samples. That said, of the 206 current residents, which includes many children, only 25 are defined as artists, according to Delisle.

Steve Ostiguy, the executive director of the Church Community Housing Corporation, admits that Sandywoods was an anomaly for them. “But everything we do is an anomaly,” he says. The project was clearly difficult. It took a big hit in 2008, after the economic collapse. Cobbling together the money entailed some impressive financial acrobatics. Over 20 sources of funding, including grants, tax credits and loans, were used to scrape together the $19M needed to realize the project. Rhode Island Housing contributed a $15M construction loan.

Ground was broken in June 2009. In September 2010, people moved in. In order to qualify as a mixed-use development, they were required to include single family home lots separate from the rental units. “These lots,” says Ostiguy, “have been difficult.” The 22 lots remain unsold. Revenue from their sales, it turns out, was to be utilized to pay the RIH loan and the loan from Bossom. Regarding the latter, Ostiguy corrobates Bossom’s claim, confirming that CCHC is in default on a loan from Bossom but that the sum is much lower. “Yes, we owe Joe money and we hoped to pay him earlier,” he says. The RIH loan maypose another problem. Under the loan terms, RIH could take a portion of the lots as collateral if a revenue goal from sales was not met within two years. That two years is up and the revenue goal has not been met. “RIH,” Ostiguy says, “gets the balance of the lots that aren’t Joe’s.”

One thing is clear: people want to live at Sandywoods. The rental units are full. Turnover, according to the property manager, is low. Only a couple families have moved out in the two years since Sandywoods opened. There are 70 applicants on the waiting list.

Click the photo below to see our more from Sandywoods Farm | Photo by James Jones

The larger community seems to enjoy Sandywoods, as well. The burgeoning music series, which is held at the community center, is always well attended, according to resident and programs coordinator Russ Smith, who sports an impressive Amish beard. Smith notes that community collaboration and involvement is key. He points to a program Sandywoods and the Tiverton YMCA developed to offer local children a summer camp: Sandywoods provided the venue and the YMCA provided the staff and programming.

On the day I visit, the community center, a sort of grange hall type facility, is filling up with people attending an event called Harvest Dinner. Stephen Gordon, a Johnson and Wales student, had hooked up with Chuck Currie, of Freedom Food Farm in Johnston, to prepare a meal using only food from the farm. Gordon and a couple other students are rushing around the community center kitchen, which Smith refers to as an incubator kitchen. Anyone can rent the kitchen for “small scale food production”, according to Sandywoods brochures. Farmers and others have used the kitchen to make jam and other culinary delights to sell at farmers’ markets.

Amidst the tumult of sweaty chefs, arriving guests and a band warming up, Dave Seibert is a vision of serenity, standing at his easel painting the goings on in the kitchen. Holding up his phone, which displayed a picture of the chefs in the kitchen, he says, “I’m recreating what they did half an hour ago.” To my untrained eye, the painting, which would later be auctioned, was extraordinary. Seibert, a native Rhode Islander and RISD graduate, moved to Sandywoods to reconnect with sculpture and music. I ask how he likes Sandywoods. “We’re chipping away at the opportunities,” he says.

To the first time visitor, the sight of Sandywoods is a bit shocking: what with the brightly painted homes and community buildings shimmering against the brown and grey fall landscape. The visitor turns on, appropriately enough, Muse Way. The first sight is the village center which consists of the community center, the art gallery and the artist’s studio. The community center provides the venue for the weekly music series, a Tuesday night open mic night, and monthly contra dancing. The artist’s studio is used for art and yoga classes.

The art gallery is currently closed. Desiree Brunton, an artist, resident and part-time librarian, tells me that they had to put on the brakes and close it down. “There were differing visions on the direction of the gallery,” she explains. It’s unclear when it will open again, though Ostiguy says that a mediation process has been ongoing and that he expects a resolution soon.

Brunton, her four-year-old daughter and I ascend the hill across the street from the village center, passing through the new wildflower meadow until we come to the orchard, which was won through a contest run by the National Fruit Tree Planting Foundation. Maintained by residents, the orchard consists of neat rows of 50 saplings of various types, including apples and pears. They’ll start harvesting fruit in two years.

We head to the community garden, a short traipse through high grass. A few dozen 100-square-foot raised garden beds, which can be leased by anyone interested, are enclosed by a rustic wood slat fence. Some of this season’s food was eaten by gardeners and residents. Some was donated to the local food pantry. In the future, Brunton envisions the garden being used as an educational tool for children.

We walk down a short, winding dirt road that runs adjacent to agricultural fields until we arrive at the massive wind turbine, which is lying on its side as it’s designed to do for ease of repairs and for high winds. Ostiguy tells me that the turbine, which is designed to provide 50% of the village’s energy needs, began spinning in June 2011. It operated for only ten days before breaking down- the delay in repairs is due to the inability to get parts. According to Smith, a trailer that contained spare parts was stolen from the property this summer. Ostiguy claims that Vergnet technicians would have the turbine repaired and operating by the end of November.

We descend the hill and walk amongst the rental cottages, which come in one-, two-, and three- bedrooms. Renters must meet income requirements. The cottages are designed with a nod toward sustainability, efficiency and artists. The homes are all electric, the idea being to maximize the potential to supply energy needs with renewable energy sources. The exterior siding is composed of recycled fiberglass, the appliances and light fixtures are Energy Star certified, there are low-e double hung windows, and passive solar canopies and porches. Basements are designed as heated studio space with natural light. Residents share battery-powered lawn mowers.

The goal, according to Brunton, is a sustainable community, one that is powered by renewable energy and fed by food grown on its farm. It’s a compelling vision, a potential model for others. The community has won numerous awards. But much remains to be done in order to realize the vision. There are growing pains. “Artists,” Brunton says, “are antiauthoritarian by nature, so they want a say in everything. Consensus is difficult.”

There are plans for a bed and breakfast and a café to be located at the village center. A lot is required to build the home of the farming family who will oversee farm operations. Mika Seeger’s old UFO-like studio is being renovated for use as a community artist’s studio. Ostiguy notes that plans are in the works to build three or four net zero spec homes on some of the home lots with the aim of getting sales going. Smith notes the potential for incubator agricultural space farm startups.

The results of this grand experiment are far from conclusive. There are numerous moving parts, many pieces need to fall in place yet, and there seems to be a universe of potential outcomes. Despite being disappointed, Bossom concedes that he thoroughly enjoys the people in the community. And despite the speed bumps and challenges that lay ahead, Ostiguy is confident the community will succeed: “I see Sandywoods becoming a signature part of Tiverton.”