Thimble Farm greenhouse plan grows rift with local farmers

IGI treasurer Steve Bernier (left),Thimble Farm manager Keith Wilda, and IGI board president Sarah McKay explained plans for the greenhouse at a luncheon Wednesday. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Island Grown Initiative (IGI), the local agricultural group that has taken over operation of Thimble Farm, outlined its preliminary plans to use the existing 33,000-square-foot greenhouse on the property to a group of Island farmers Wednesday.

Funded by approximately $3 million in donations, the group purchased Thimble Farm and plans to begin food production for local school lunch programs this year and eventually lease land to several local farmers for crop production.

“The potential for this greenhouse is huge for local food,” Sarah McKay, president of the IGI board of directors and store manager at Cronig’s Market, said. “We are deeply committed to doing this for the community. We are deeply committed to not competing with local farmers.”

But, competition is what concerned some local food growers, who directed blunt criticism of the project at IGI and Ms. McKay. They worried about the well-funded nonprofit venture, about organic certification of the food produced there, and about the viability of the venture itself.

While some in the crowd of about 30 expressed support for IGI and its plans, most were skeptical that the venture would help local farms. Some were withering in their criticism.

“This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen,” said Ken De Bettencourt, an Oak Bluffs businessman who grows flowers commercially. “All these donations, $3 million, that is going to be blown through pretty quick. What are you going to do then?”

Growing plans

Keith Wilda, hired by IGI to manage Thimble Farm, began work on the site last week. Though the plans are still evolving, he described how the group intends to begin growing food in the greenhouse this summer with sustainable, energy-efficient agricultural practices.

The plan is to begin slowly, growing leafy crops such as basil, herbs, lettuce, chard, and bok choy, to supply lunch programs at Island schools.

Later in the season, the farm will produce vine crops such as peppers and cucumbers.

Mr. Wilda said he also plans to begin raising fish, though he hasn’t decided on what kind yet.

“In the next two or three weeks we’ll begin some plants,” Mr. Wilda said. “About 12,000 square feet of the greenhouse will get utilized this year.”

Steve Bernier, IGI treasurer and owner of Cronig’s Markets, said he hopes Thimble Farm will help Island farmers produce much more than the estimated two percent of the food they now grow for Island consumers.

“To get from two percent to fifty percent is going to take all hands on deck, and hang on the for the ride,” Mr. Bernier said.

Growing pains

Molly Glasgow, co-owner with her husband of Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark, asked whether the greenhouse would be certified organic. Organic certification is the subject of much disagreement among farmers. It requires a long and complex certification process, strict regulations, and inspections.

Ms. McKay said IGI is still discussing whether to become certified as an organic food producer, but she said the group is committed to sustainable, natural food production. She said if the farm eventually leases space to several local farmers, they may not want to put too many limitations on them.

“So you’re going to reduce limitations so farmers can grow crap?” Ms. Glasgow said. “If you’re not feeding certified, organic food to kids, how is it any different? How can I as a parent be guaranteed that the food is any better?”

Andrew Woodruff, who previously leased and operated Thimble Farm, said certification is less important than knowing the farmers and understanding the agricultural practices they use.

“I do not believe you have to be certified to be legit and be good stewards of the land,” Mr. Woodruff said. “If you have three or four farmers out here, to ask each one of them to comply with a certification program is a little unrealistic.”

Plan perspective

Arnold “Arnie” Fischer, who has operated Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury for more than three decades, said a commitment to avoid competing with local farmers could threaten the viability of the project.

“I’m excited for this project, but I’m fearful,” Mr. Fischer said. “You’ve got to get beyond the competition thing and key in on profit.”

Krishana Collins, who operates Tea Lane Farm in Chilmark, questioned how the project will benefit the agricultural community.

“I want to know how what you’re doing is going to help Island farmers,” Ms. Collins said. “I haven’t seen it yet.”

Ms. McKay said IGI is still working out how to benefit local farmers. “We don’t have the answers for that specifically, other than we know there’s an opportunity here,” she said.

Ms. Collins suggested that if the farm is profitable, the group could form a cooperative and provide mechanical repair and rental equipment service for local farmers, two services that are desperately needed.

Mr. Woodruff also questioned whether the greenhouse can be profitable. “I do not think this greenhouse proposal as presented is helping local agriculture,” he said, adding that he was disappointed in the level of cooperation with local farms. “I think you have the cart before the horse.”

Planning ahead

IGI is now developing a plan to use the 41-acre Thimble Farm located off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs. The land will eventually be leased to local farmers who will apply with proposals for specific crops. Crop production from the land may not start until 2015. Ms. McKay said that repair of farm buildings and soil rejuvenation could take about two years.

Eric Grubman, a National Football League executive and Edgartown summer resident, is one of three benefactors who contributed to the Thimble Farm purchase by IGI. He bought the farm in 2007 for $2.45 million, with the stipulation that his ownership would be temporary and make 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.