Soundings: Cultivating farmland

Soundings: Cultivating farmland

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One of the Island’s great seasonal traditions, the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, opens for its 39th year this Saturday morning, June 8. The market, launched in 1974 with just a dozen stands around the Grange Hall, has grown steadily, now filling the property with more vendors than the market has had birthdays.

This growth is remarkable when you consider that agriculture on Martha’s Vineyard has been facing death by development for decades. With even the tiniest buildable lots now starting at close to $300,000, where’s the profit in trying to cultivate chickens or chard when a subdivision could make you instantly rich?

We have two historic developments to thank for the resurgence of farming on Martha’s Vineyard. One is cultural — the emergence of a new generation of farmers who find real satisfaction in the hard work of bringing good, nourishing food to market. Just when you thought hedge funds and the Internet were going to steal away the best and the brightest, along come smart, energetic young people like Lily Walter of Slip Away Farm on Chappaquiddick, putting their college degrees to unexpected use in agriculture.

The second force is the public agency that was created in 1986 to arrest the hemorrhaging of open land on Martha’s Vineyard and the shift of every acre into residential development. That agency, arguably now the largest public investor in agriculture across the Island, is the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.

When we think of the Land Bank, most of us think first of walking trails at wonderful places like Waskosim’s Rock and Great Rock Bight. But in fact, preserving land for agriculture has been a priority for the Land Bank ever since its enabling legislation in 1985 placed it near the top of the list — second only to protecting our Island drinking water supply.

Although the Land Bank has always placed a high emphasis on agriculture, not all its agricultural land has found uses until recently. All the agency could do for many years was to put farming-friendly policies in place, and wait.

One such policy is the Land Bank’s standing offer to lease its farmland not to the highest bidder, but to the applicant with the best proposal for use of the land. Land Bank rental rates for farmland are jaw-droppingly low at $10 per acre, per annum, and no bidding wars are allowed.

“We’ve had people say to us, you don’t have any money sense at all — you could get so much more for that farmland,” says James Lengyel, executive director of the Land Bank. “We say, don’t you realize that’s the whole goal? We don’t want competition from people who will outbid a real farmer so that they can play on the land. We have this flat rate, and what we look at is not how much money is coming in, but whether we think the farmer can realize the proposal he’s putting together.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank wants to support real agriculture, not decorative gardens. That’s why the agency rewrote its policy on pasturing horses so it allows for working farm animals, but discourages leases to owners whose horses are simply pets.

The inventory of Island land owned outright by the Land Bank now includes more than 3,000 acres, only about 100 of which are farmland — but this measure vastly understates the agency’s stake in agriculture. From Morning Glory Farm to Thimble Farm, Flat Point Farm and Whippoorwill Farm, the Land Bank has purchased Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (APRs) which cover vast tracts, paying farmland owners the difference between the land’s developed value and its agricultural value in return for a permanent deed restriction which preserves it as farmland forever.

Looking ahead, says Mr. Lengyel, there will still be opportunities for the Land Bank to support the renaissance of agriculture on Martha’s Vineyard even after every acre of pastureland it owns is under lease to farmers:

“The Land Bank is sitting on a lot of prime agricultural soil that is not being used for farming. And we have said to farmers and to farmers’ groups, if you have a need for farmland that we can help fulfill, even if that land is currently woodland — that can be converted to fields. Come to the Land Bank with your ideas. The presence of a land plan that calls for woodlands to be maintained as woodlands doesn’t mean that the Land Bank is closed to the idea of converting it to farmland.”

Enjoy your trips to the Farmers’ Market on Saturdays this June (and, starting on June 19, on Wednesdays as well). As you chow down on greens and vegetables from Island fields, perhaps you’ll find yourself agreeing that agriculture actually is the land’s highest possible use.