Three CELS alumni, first generation farmers diversify family business

Ben (Left), Kevin, and Alex Covino

When Alex Covino came to the University of Rhode Island, he arrived with an open mind and a desire to explore. An alumnus of URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, Covino earned his bachelor of science in environmental horticulture and turf management in 2008. He paved the way for his two younger brothers, Kevin and Ben, who graduated from the same program in 2009 and 2013 respectively. Equipped with the knowledge, skills, and passion for sustainable agriculture, the three brothers began to carve a niche for themselves in the slow food movement as first generation farmers.

It was at CELS that Covino gained in-depth knowledge of plant science and cultivation, studying with professors in the Department of Plant Sciences and Entomology, including Brian Maynard, Bridget Ruemmele, and Larry Englander. “The whole horticulture program was great,” says Covino. “During my plant ID classes we would walk around campus and try to identify different trees and shrubs, which is when I started to really learn about all the different plants that I know and work with now,” he adds.

A passion for horticulture was planted in Covino long before he arrived to CELS. Covino and his brothers grew up in upstate New York helping their father with his nursery business. “My father’s owned the nursery for over 25 years now, so when we were younger, my brothers and I were always outside helping with the plants.”

Covino’s father first started Hardscrabble Farms, formerly Zino Wholesale Nurseries, in the late 1980s as a small nursery where locals could buy plants, trees, and shrubs. He later expanded the business to its second location in North Salem, where the Covinos have been managing the nursery for over 20 years.

“The whole family is involved. It’s me and my two brothers and my older sister,” says Covino, now, 32, and the primary manager at the nursery. “We’re always trying to look ahead and do something new.”

With the addition of a 1000-acre farm, the Covinos now grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as raise farm animals such as pigs, chickens, cows, and turkeys during Thanksgiving. The fruitful farmland sustains a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) that connects consumers and growers, and helps bring awareness to locally-sourced food. 

“The community is behind us and loves supporting the local farm down the street,” says Covino of the rapidly growing 150-person CSA. “It’s a meeting place where people like to gather when they come to pick up their fresh box of produce every week.”

When Life Gives You Apples

As first generation farmers, Covino and his brothers know it takes innovation and hard work to be successful growers in today’s economy. So, when an apple orchard next to Hardscrabble Farms came up for sale, it was a no-brainer to jump on the opportunity.

Alex Covino and wife Christine, farm manager at Harvest Moon Farm & Orchard

“We purchased it not really knowing what we wanted to do,” says Covino of the family’s decision to buy the adjacent farmland in early 2011. “It was this run-down apple orchard that had always struggled. We went into it thinking ‘what can we do here to make this place more exciting?’”

In addition to offering pick-your-own apples at the newly purchased Harvest Moon Farm and Orchard, Covino and his brothers also began experimenting with hard cider production. In 2015, after two years of experimental brewing, Hardscrabble Cider was born, which launched the Covinos to the forefront of the craft cider market.

New legislation signed into law in New York State in 2012 paved the way for a new venture. The measure, designed to support craft breweries, allows farmers to obtain alcohol production licenses and provides tax incentives to brewers who use locally grown ingredients like hops and barley.The young entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to launch their own micro-farm cidery, adding to the Covino’s ever-expanding agricultural ventures.

Like any business venture, farming is unpredictable and comes with its own set of challenges. “Two years ago we had a really late freeze in the spring that devastated our apple crop,” Covino explains of the unforeseeable challenges posed by Mother Nature. “We only had about 40 percent of our apple crop that we usually get.”

For a single-crop farm, such a blow to production could be potentially catastrophic.Thanks to their diversified farmland, the Covinos are able to overcome the unpredictable obstacles of farming. Covino credits his formative years at URI for instilling in him a work ethic and determination to persevere no matter what life throws his way.

“I’m proud that we’re first generation farmers because it gives us a fresh perspective on farming,” says Covino. “We’re new to everything so we’re always looking to do things differently and make it better.”