From the ground up
Rebecca Gilbert rests on the porch at her Native Earth Teaching Farm, cleans her seed garlic for next fall's planting, and reflects on how her mission has changed since she opened her ancestral lands to the public in 2002. A bandage binds her left ankle and a handmade crutch leans against the railing, testaments to a sprain that has forced her to abandon part of the garden and cancel some of her classes this season. Age and injury, both for herself and for her husband Randy Ben David, have contributed to a more relaxed but no less passionate view of her role in Island sustainable living.
Ms. Gilbert's connection with her Chilmark land goes back three generations. Because the property's 34 acres of fields, woodlands and wetlands have been farmed organically for over 200 years, it contains amazing soil and plant and animal biodiversity. Wanting to preserve the farm while helping others connect to the land, she sold development rights to the Vineyard Conservation Society, and established the Teaching Farm, now open three days a week for visiting and classes.
In addition to raising chickens for meat and eggs and a variety of rare and endangered ducks and geese, the couple planted an ambitious garden to feed themselves and supply the farm stand they constructed with trees from the property. They built a community garden to provide growing plots and expertise to novice gardeners. Ms. Gilbert began offering courses and demonstrations on agricultural arts and crafts from kitchen gardening to animal husbandry to spinning and dying wool.
Then Lyme disease, a hospital stay for Mr. Ben David last summer, and Ms. Gilbert's injuries caused her to reassess. "I no longer feel I have to feed half of Chilmark," she says of her decision to cut back on vegetable production. "Now, I want to encourage people to grow their own food. They need to see it modeled, so they can take a step in the direction of more sustainable living. What makes me feel successful is when someone leaves here saying 'I can do that!'"
Another shift, says Ms. Gilbert, is that she is "interested in finding ways to have more community input and to encourage people to do their projects here."
Photo by Susan Safford
Besides expanding the community garden, the farm has become home base for Camp Forward Movement in which significantly overweight young Islanders learn about growing, harvesting and preparing healthy food, while having fun and working with the animals.
The farm also helps beginning farmers start businesses before moving to other locations. Ms. Gilbert applauds the local Farm to School initiative and is advising the Chilmark Community Center on summer maintenance of the vegetable garden planted by Chilmark School students.
Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Ben David are concentrating more effort on animals, partly because plants are better able to fend for themselves when labor is in short supply. With only their own hands, an occasional intern and some volunteer effort, they use animals to do as much of the farm work as possible. Chickens pasture in the fallow vegetable garden, keeping down the bugs. Sheep mow, goats trim, and pigs till and root out stumps.
"We are teaching people how to bring an animal from yard to table, which is a hard skill to learn nowadays," says Ms. Gilbert. "My grandmother could have done it without thinking twice." Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Ben David raise heritage Berkshire pigs, a breed carefully chosen to meet three criteria: the pigs had to be tasty, active (for clearing the land), and friendly. They also raise pygmy goats, a huge hit with visitors of all ages. "If someone needs a starter animal or some advice, that's what I'm here for," she says.
Delighting in sharing her rural life and values, Ms. Gilbert believes the Island is a perfect place for a local food movement to blossom. "Our soil is less poisoned," she comments, "and we know what 'local' is because we know exactly where to draw the line."
She is distressed that children's health problems - traced to chemicals, recent outbreaks of salmonella and other results of industrial scale food production - provide negative reasons to think about putting in one's own garden. "The real reason to grow your own food," she says, "is that it tastes better, it is more satisfying, it is fun and you have a connection to the land. You can be more proud of it than if you earned the money to buy it. There is nothing better than sitting down to a meal of food you just picked and sharing it with friends. That is the ultimate life has to offer."
Photo by Alan Brigish
She laughs that wealth has never been a primary goal and notes that her husband does off-farm tractor work and runs pig roasts with their own pigs to supplement the farm's income.
She itemizes the advantages of their lives: "We eat really well. We have a lot of control over our schedules." She holds a drawing made for her by two little girls during their visit to the farm. On it is the scrawled sentiment that they love baby animals, and after a pause, Ms. Gilbert adds - "and then there are the intangibles."
Business writer and consultant Alice Early is a member of Whippoorwill Farm CSA's Volunteer Advisory Group.