Soundings : View to a new season
Some of the Island's largest and most productive farms are landmarks along our major roads - Bayes Norton Farm, Morning Glory Farm, Allen Farm and Nip 'n' Tuck Farm among them. These places are lovely to look at, but they nourish more than our appetite for scenery; here, the farmers whose use of the land is sometimes called husbandry are cultivating food for our tables.
Farming is an important part of the Vineyard's traditions, but not at all in the same sense as whaling, an industry whose time has passed and whose implements belong in schoolbooks and museums. To frame our discussion of Island agriculture in the language of nostalgia or historic preservation is to miss the entrepreneurial energy that makes this such a hopeful moment for an essential aspect of our economy.
Jim Norton of Bayes Norton Farm likes to say that he sees no disconnect between his careers as college professor and farmer. "My function in farming," he says, "is trying to create the healthiest environment I can for the plants we grow on our land, in the hope that they will produce the best they possibly can. I don't think that's very different from what I was trying to achieve in the classroom."
He pauses, and admits to one big difference: "Of course, the plants don't talk back."
Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm says, "My job is the management of time and water. The water part is getting it out of the ground and into the plants, or out of the hay. But time - that's a constant struggle, and we're trying to manage it all year long. Until winter, when we can finally just let it flow."
This spring at Morning Glory Farm, the Athearns have been coping with the breakdown of the big Caterpillar machine that hauls their compost onto the fields - Dale McClure kindly stepped into the breach with his heavy equipment and got them through that crisis. They've also been busy planting a whole new field of strawberries where persistent deer had broken through fences and devoured what was supposed to be this year's crop. Mr. Athearn is philosophical about these setbacks. "A farmer knows disappointment," he says, "like an Eskimo knows snow."
At Bayes Norton Farm, Jim Norton has handed the operation over to his son and daughter-in-law, Jamie and Dianne, keeping for himself only the responsibility of growing the farm's tomato crop. "I can be involved with that for the whole season," he says, "and I don't have to be a kind of shadowing presence on everything else that's going on. In fact I've been amazed, now that I'm doing this, that I was able to grow any tomatoes at all when I was doing everything else."
The New York Times has reported a resurgence of interest in farming by the younger generation as a national trend. Jim Athearn says it gladdens him that his sons are taking an active interest in Morning Glory Farm and intend to take it over someday. "That means so much for what I can invest in the land," he says. "I don't have to worry about the payback; the payback is in what they will accrue from it."
Mr. Athearn speaks of farming as a life that connects his whole family intimately to both the land and the community. He says, "I remember talking with a farmer in West Tisbury, Ronnie Silva, years ago, and how he could speak about the parts of his field and what the character of each was. That surprised me then, but now I know exactly what he was talking about."
And even as he applauds the new Community-Supported Agriculture model being pursued by Andrew Woodruff of Whippoorwill Farm, Mr. Athearn wants to say that his farm has depended on community support from its beginnings three decades ago. "I put up a couple of tables in a field that first year," he recalls, "and sold squash and beets, and everybody came out and bought them all and said, grow more! So the next year I grew more, and they all came out and bought it, and they said, grow more! So I feel I've been supported. Sometimes, I just have to shake my head with wonder at how supportive people have been."
This beginning of a new season, says Jim Norton, is a heady time for a farmer, full of promise and connected to the deep rhythms of the year. "The opportunity, right now," he says, "is to come alive with the world, to experience that in a very immediate and fulfilling way. Everything is blooming, and so am I."