Island Grown Initiative, spreading its roots, hires a farmer

Sarah McKay, Island Grown Intitiative's board president, inside the Thimble Farm  greenhouse.
Photo by Susan Safford

Sarah McKay, Island Grown Intitiative's board president, inside the Thimble Farm greenhouse.

The Island Grown Initiative (IGI) has hired Keith Wilda, a 41-year-old western Massachusetts aquaculturalist and third generation dirt farmer, to head its new Thimble Farm operation. IGI, whose goals include supporting sustainable Island farming and food education, is a well-funded Island based nonprofit organization.

The group got a major boost last summer when three wealthy seasonal residents funded the group’s purchase of Thimble Farm, a 41-acre property between the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs and State Road in West Tisbury.

Mr. Wilda, his wife, Reagan, and their identical twin two-year-old daughters will move to the Island next month. He will begin work the first of May. He has spent the last 20 years as an educator and researcher at the University of Massachusetts, as general manager for two of the largest aquaculture and aquaponics facilities in the country, and as a private aquaculture and greenhouse consultant. One of his private customers has been the family of Jerome and Nancy Kohlberg, longtime seasonal Vineyard residents who bought the Vineyard Gazette in 2010, at their farm in Mt. Kisco, New York.

Mr. Wilda grew up on a farm in Hadley, Connecticut, in the Connecticut River valley. His parents and grandparents on both sides were farmers, who grew and raised “a little bit of everything,” he said with a laugh during a recent phone conversation with The Times. He earned an associate’s degree in farm management at the University of Massachusetts, Stockbridge, then transferred to the Amherst campus, finishing a four-year degree in resource management in 1993.

Two years before graduation, Mr. Wilda began working full-time for Bioshelters, Inc., the first commercial aquaponics facility in the country. Aquaponics combines aquaculture, raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks, with hydroponics, cultivating plants in water. Bioshelters produced tilapia and basil. The fish make the fertilizer for the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish.

The development of aquaponics in the 33,000-square-foot Thimble farm greenhouse is one of Mr. Wilda’s goals. He said his current plan is to use about 8,000 square feet for aquaponics, 8,000 for conventional hydroponics, and the rest for soil culture development and starting seedlings that could help local farmers by reducing the startup time required for their dirt crops.

He said he expects to use the greenhouse for teaching both Island farmers and eventually groups from off Island that might benefit from his experience. He mentioned the possible benefit of increasing the greenhouse space to allow local farmers to be more productive year-round. He also said that IGI is open to considering making greenhouse space available for local farmers to use.

Mr. Wilda plans to use the next two years to recharge the Thimble Farm farmland with cover crops before the land is opened to local farmers through a request for proposal (RFP) process. He will be in charge of overseeing the farmland and buildings on the farm.

Mr. Wilda said his experience with animals on his family farm will help him if and when a proposed $700,000 slaughterhouse and meat preparation facility, which would provide a more economical option for getting local farmers’ products to market, is built on the site. IGI plans are to apply for the slaughterhouse permits in the fall.

Island Grown Initiative

The purchase of Thimble Farm has caused a reassessment of some of IGI’s goals, adjusting the focus and adding a new dimension to the organization, according to IGI board president Sarah McKay, who is store manager for Cronig’s Market.

“IGI is a nonprofit that works to grow community through sustainable agriculture, local food advocacy and education,” according to their website. Their goals include increasing both the supply of and demand for locally grown food through seven core programs.

The group’s programs are Island Grown Schools, a farm-to-school program, Island Grown Meat, Island Grown Poultry, Island Grown Bees, Island Grown Gleaning, Apprentices and Thimble Farm. IGI and their individual programs have worked with Island farm and conservation groups and have received grant support from both state and local organizations.

The group relies on its strong volunteer base, according to Ms. McKay. “We expect each group to raise its own funding,” she said. “IGI has been able to pursue its goals due to the special relationships we have developed with private donors who are passionate about our goals.”

Some Island businesses have contributed as well, she said. Cronig’s Market rents a small office space above their Vineyard Haven market to the group for $25 a month. The market’s owner, Steve Bernier, is a staunch supporter of IGI and the head of the Thimble Farm project. In a conversation with The Times, Mr. Bernier said, “My involvement with IGI has taken me out of my comfort zone, but I have found it to be very rewarding.”

He said that his two stores will continue to buy from local sources and be a retail source for Island grown food. He also said that he hopes other Island markets will do the same.

Thimble Farm

IGI is in the process of developing a plan to use the 41-acre Thimble Farm to provide support for Island farmers and is soliciting ideas from the local community. The farm was used most recently as the base of a community supported agriculture (CSA) group headed up by local farmer Andrew Woodruff before the IGI purchase. It has a large greenhouse designed by a previous owner to raise tomatoes and berry fruits hydroponically.

The land will eventually be leased to local farmers who will apply through a RFP process. Ms. McKay said that they have a lot of clean-up work to do before the farm will be put back into production. They are planting cover crops but she said she does not expect the land to go out to bid by local farmers until next year at the earliest and doesn’t expect the next crop on the land to be growing before 2015.

Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman and head of the group that took RFPs for the leasing of the Chilmark owned Tea Lane Farm, has been advising IGI. He suggested that they not offer the Thimble Farm land for lease until they have worked out all of the details. He said he would expect perhaps 15 qualified applicants to apply.

There are plans to rebuild some of the farm structures and perhaps to build housing for resident farmers and housing for summer help.

One of the three who contributed to the farm’s purchase by IGI was Eric Grubman, a National Football League executive and Edgartown summer resident. He bought the farm in 2007 for $2.45 million 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. Allan and Shelley Holt of Washington, D.C., and Chilmark, joined with Mr. Grubman to fund the IGI purchase.

Since the farm’s purchase, Ms. McKay said, “Private donors stepped forward with $1.3 million for capital improvements to the property.” IGI has also raised $300,000 in the past year to help cover operating expenses, she said.

One IGI’s main goals is to support local farmers, not to compete with them, but how they will do that is still an evolving process, according to Ms. McKay. She pointed out that IGI as a nonprofit functions largely due to the efforts of volunteers. She said food education and helping develop markets for local growers are important parts of what they are trying to do. She said that they actively solicit advice from local farmers and anyone with an interest in good food.

IGI hosted a farmers’ dinner earlier this month and has scheduled a May 8 lunch and farmers meeting to encourage the sharing of ideas.

Island Grown Schools

One of the group’s most successful projects and its most costly prior to the farm purchase has been one that works with all seven of the Island schools and six pre-schools to promote increased food awareness both in the classroom and in the schools’ kitchens.

Called Island Grown Schools (IGS) the project has helped establish gardens in every Island school, according to Noli Taylor, the project’s coordinator. Eight part-time IGS coordinators work in the classrooms helping develop curricula that teach about food while maintaining focus on MCAS, the state mandated tests. They also assist the schools’ kitchens utilize locally grown food in their menus.

The program raises its own funding from local grants and donations from local businesses and private donors. IGS pays the salaries of the school program coordinators. Ms. Taylor said that the Edgartown School has been so impressed with the program that they pay part of their school’s coordinator so that she can be there full-time. The program has a budget of $175,000 for this year, an increase from last year’s $95,000.

Island Grown Gleaning

A four-year-old gleaning program coordinates the activities of volunteers who pick vegetables not suitable for the market left in the fields of local farms. Ms. Taylor said that 25,000 pounds of produce was distributed to the schools and to various community and senior center groups last year.

For more information, go to islandgrown.org.