Native Earth Farm festival was a popping success

The pygmy goats were a big attraction. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

The Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark hosted its annual Popcorn Festival on Sunday. It provided a delightful afternoon of animal visits, agriculture-related demonstrations, food, and even a crowd-pleasing pygmy goat race.

For the eighth year in a row, the small working and educational farm on North Road in Chilmark invited the public to come check out some of the many sustainable practices that they engage in throughout the year. Visitors were able to try their hand at wool dyeing using plant materials from the farm’s new dye garden; sample local honey; and practice making bee fodder balls — nutrient rich nuggets packed with seeds for growing wildflowers.

While the free popcorn fed a number of hungry mouths — both human and livestock, visitors could also purchase farm fresh food and drinks. Co-owners Randy Ben David and Rebecca Gilbert offered up sausages and chili made from their farm-raised pork and homemade sodas and carrot cake. A new company, MV Sea Salt, donated the salt and salt blends for sprinkling on the popcorn.

The inaugural festival was inspired by a plentiful crop of popping corn harvested on the farm around Columbus Day weekend 2004. Although Native Earth no longer produces popcorn, the name and date stuck. Referring to the European namesake of last week’s holiday, Ms. Gilbert said, “Nothing against Columbus, but popcorn is sort of the American side of things.”

She has kept the festival going over the years. “It’s a way of celebrating our harvest and allowing people to take their time and just absorb the farm at their own pace,” she said. Among its attractions, Native Earth boasts a small representation of farm animals — pigs, sheep and goats — and some unusual fowl, including fluffy white Silkie Chickens from China.

The farm is open to the public year-round on Wednesdays and by appointment, and it is a popular stop for tourists. Ms. Gilbert notes that the festival is scheduled in the fall to give Vineyarders the chance to get together. “This is when we see our neighbors and friends who we haven’t had a chance to see all summer. A lot of people come out in the fall — including us. We work every day in the summer.”

Festival visitors did appear to be taking advantage of the slower pace of the off season. Many stayed for hours, soaking up the warm weather and the congenial atmosphere of the farm. Kids especially enjoyed the hands-on agricultural experience — feeding and petting animals and dunking local wool into the dye vats which were kept simmering over a fire pit by Liz Toomey of the fledgling MV Fiber Shed Project.

Also on hand was Monica Miller of MV Honey Company. She encouraged visitors to dip their hands into the sticky brown mass of dirt, nutrients, and seeds from which she was forming small balls to broadcast around the farm in the hopes of attracting bees. A sampling of her honeys — including herbal infused, rose petal, lavender, and a medicinal blend with nettles and echinacea were available for tasting.

The main attraction took place around 1 pm, when a crowd gathered outside the goat pen and chose their favorites for a ten-yard dash. The pygmy goats piled out from the starting gate with a hungry eye on the prize — a bucket of feed corn held by Ms. Gilbert.

“Goats are easily distracted,” she cautioned. True to form, the front-runner lost the lead when she got side-tracked by a delectable looking camera. Winner and losers alike got plenty of attention from the spectators but, apparently, not enough to eat. After the rain shut down the festival more or less right on schedule, the race contestants snuck into the farm stand and cleaned up all of the leftover popcorn scattered on the floor.

That’s sustainability in practice.

Next up for Native Earth is a saffron workshop scheduled for Sunday, October 14, from 10 am to 12 noon. For $35, attendees can observe the farm’s fall blooming saffron croci, take home bulbs and get instruction and recipes. Barter is available by calling 508-645-3304.