Big donors to fund Island Grown Initiative Thimble farm purchase

Three wealthy seasonal residents of Martha’s Vineyard have agreed to fund the purchase by the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) of Thimble Farm, the 37-acre farm property off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs.

The farm, designed by a previous owner to raise tomatoes and berry fruits hydroponically, was offered for sale last month, following a failed purchase effort by a community coalition of Island conservation, agriculture, and housing group representatives, local farmers, and interested residents, all determined to preserve the property for agricultural use.

On Tuesday, IGI president Sarah McKay, told The Times that current farm owner Eric Grubman, a National Football League executive and Edgartown summer resident, and Allan and Shelley Holt of Washington, D.C., and Chilmark, had agreed to fund the IGI purchase.

Of the Holts, Ms. McKay said, “They are seasonal residents. Very committed to the Island, and they want to give something back.”

Allan Holt is managing director of the Carlyle Group, one of the nation’s largest private-equity investment firms. The Carlyle Group buys and sells privately held companies. In the past, the firm has employed George H. W. Bush and former British prime minister John Major. The company has assets of $159 billion, according to the company’s website.

Mr. Holt also serves on the the board of directors for several corporations and nonprofits. In 2008, Mr. and Ms. Holt pledged $1 million to The Barker Foundation, an adoption organization based in Washington, D.C.

“Andrew Woodruff, Sarah McKay and many others have worked on this property project and a solution to the dilemma for many years,” Mr. Grubman said in an email to The Times received Thursday following publication of the print edition. “Without the Holts, it would not have been possible. I am very happy this project has a serious chance for success.”

Mr. Grubman bought the farm in 2007, for $2.45 million, to keep it in agricultural production, with the stipulation that his ownership would be temporary and provide time for those interested in preserving the farm to find a more permanent solution.

At the time the farm went on the market, Whippoorwill Farm owner Andrew Woodruff leased Thimble Farm for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a private farming cooperative that he ran. CSA officials said then that Mr. Grubman’s purchase of the land would give them time to set up some form of nonprofit ownership structure.

CSA members buy farm shares in advance, and their payments are used to pay for seed, fertilizer, farm maintenance, and labor. Each week in the growing season, shareholders pick up vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

In August 2011, a group that included representatives of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, Island Grown Initiative, and housing groups, local farmers, and interested Island residents met at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury to plan how they might raise money to buy Thimble Farm by the year’s end. A committee from the group, known as the Martha’s Vineyard Farm Project, set a goal to raise $2.5 million to buy the farm but faltered in that effort.

Mr. Woodruff announced in the Whippoorwill Farm CSA newsletter, published online May 7, that he had received an email from Mr. Grubman informing him that Thimble Farm’s sale “…could be imminent.”

He had already moved the CSA headquarters back to Whippoorwill Farm in West Tisbury for the 2012 season.

“Unfortunately, as I understand it, this effort died several weeks ago due mainly to the lack of funds,” Mr. Woodruff wrote in the CSA newsletter. “Mr. Grubman has held this land for four years now and has not seen enough interest from a financial standpoint from others in the community to feel comfortable in pursuing this effort further.”

Despite the end of the Farm Project committee, Mr. Woodruff made what he called “one last plea” for some significant donations to move the project forward. He also thanked Mr. Grubman for his generosity in giving the Island an opportunity to save the farm.

News reports in The Times and the Vineyard Gazette about the failure of the Thimble Farm effort reached the Holts in Washington and they in turn called their friend Mary Kenworth, co-owner of State Road restaurant in West Tisbury, noted for its support of local agriculture.

“They called Mary,” Ms. McKay told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “They knew she was involved with the Island Grown Initiative and they asked her what they could do to help. They wanted to get involved with this and that started the ball rolling.”

Ms. McKay, manager of Cronig’s Market, said that the Holts and Mr. Grubman have contributed all of the money to allow IGI to purchase this property, listed last month for $2.6 million.

“We are in the final stages of signing documents and will possibly close later this week,” Ms. McKay said.

She said she was not at liberty to disclose the purchase price. Late Wednesday, Ms. McKay said the sale was still pending.

Ms. McKay said IGI would own the property. Mr. Woodruff has a lease that extends to the end of the 2012 season.

“From there we have a lot of transitional things to figure out,” she said. “We haven’t had much of a chance to talk about any of that stuff yet. It’s kind of one step at a time.”

The purchase represents a major change for an organization that currently is lead by volunteers and owns no hard assets. “Yes, it’s fast forward for us for sure,” Ms. McKay said.

IGI leaders thought “long and hard” she said, before deciding the organization is ready. “We have the support from other organizations, we have experienced people in our groups, so yes, this is a fast-forward thing, but it also makes perfect sense given our programs, our mission, and our relationships with other nonprofits and the farming community.”

Ms. McKay added, “It is kind of an amazing 11th-hour thing. We are excited, but we’re also keeping our feet on the ground and staying clear-headed.”

According to the IGI website, the nonprofit strives “… to increase both the supply and demand of locally grown food for the health of the environment and our community through our five core programs: Island Grown Schools, our farm-to-school program; Island Grown Meat; Island Grown Poultry; Island Grown Bees; and Island Grown Gleaning.”

For more information, go to islandgrown.org.