When Slip Away Farm moved its small, shingled chicken house on to the hill behind the old Marshall farmhouse last September, it was the first sign that a real farm had come to Chappaquiddick.
We Chapaquiddickers like to think of our island as rural, despite the mega-summer houses going up along the shores and the increasing suburbanization of yards and roadsides, but we have few rural activities to back up our claim. Certainly full-scale farming hasn’t been done in many decades – not until Slip Away Farm arrived with a flock of chickens and enough enthusiasm to start a vegetable farm from scratch.
Many of us living on the island have watched the 47-acre property with interest since 2002, when the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank bought it in partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which renovated the farmhouse. The land is located midway along the main road, with open fields across from Brine’s Pond and the Chappaquiddick Community Center. The farmhouse was to provide affordable housing for someone to create a working farm. Two previous tenants had made first steps in that direction, but not a farm, nothing that offered to interact with the community. As soon as the four Slip Away farmers moved in – Lily Walter, farm owner, her brother Christian Walter, her boyfriend Jason Nichols, and her friend Collins Heavener – the farm became the center of our collective attention.
Because Chappaquiddick is such a small community, isolated by water, tethered to the Vineyard by a three-car ferry, we probably rely more on each other. It’s important we get along with our neighbors, and for the most part we do – but we also feel strongly about island issues. Animosities still linger related to an attempt to make Chappy a district of critical planning concern and, more recently, to build a bike path. But from the start, it seemed as if all of Chappy was excited to see the old farm come alive with the youthful energy of the Slip Away farmers, all in their 20s. It was as if Chappaquiddickers’ belief in the island’s rural nature had attracted an actual rural activity – a year-round commercial farm.
The farmers soon found themselves the recipients of Chappy’s neighborly generosity, in the form of a tractor loan, a dump truck to collect seaweed from the Chappy ferry slip after a storm, manure and other compostable contributions, loans of tools, help with putting up the greenhouse, flowers and herbs to plant near the house, as well as actual dollars to help buy some of all that is needed to start a farm where there was nothing more than an empty farmhouse and some long-overgrown fields.
This is not just any rural activity we support, but one full of vitality, with the look of domesticity and prosperity inherent in a working farm. It’s like a centrally located heart to the body of our island – one that offers to feed us. As one Chappaquiddicker said, “We love this island. Now we get to eat it, too!”
Slip Away Farm’s name came from a Bob Dylan song that was a favorite of Lily’s father, who died in 2008. Last summer, the farmers grew all their vegetables on the fertile plains of Katama as part of The FARM Institute’s Pilot Parcels program, and delivered their CSA shares to Chappy by bicycle. From the start, some of us who have gardened on Chappy wondered how the old Marshall farm’s sandy soil would grow enough vegetables for Slip Away’s 50-member CSA , as well as for sale at its farm stand, the West Tisbury Farmers Market, and to Island chefs. We suggested they might want to keep using the Katama land until they could build up the Chappy soil. As they prepared the fields this spring, Lily says, non-farmers would come by and wonder, “How are you ever going to grow anything in that soil?” But, she says, “The other farmers are so motivating for me. So many people have been farming for so long on the Island, and they believe in us. They would come and look at it, and say, ‘You’ll do it.’”
The Slip Aways worked with Derek Christianson of Brix Bounty Farm in Dartmouth, a resource for people interested in sustainable vegetable production. Derek tested the soil and prescribed amendments, which were specially made up at North County Organics in Vermont. A one-time application improved the soil quality, and a special order mix is fed periodically to the plants. It seems to be working and, like magic, rows and rows of orderly green plants are appearing on the rolling hills of an L-shape area between the road and the farm house. Their farm stand is on the porch of the old Chappy schoolhouse, formerly a summer home moved to the farm. It’s open three days a week with an early selection of their produce, eggs, and six-packs of seedlings, as well as Chilmark Coffee and Mermaid Farm yogurt. Their CSA shares began distribution last week.
Slip Away Farm is part of a larger resurgence of Vineyard young people interested in farming. Seven years ago, when Lily started working at Morning Glory Farm, she says many of the employees were people who were between things in their lives, now they’re more often college students who are choosing to farm. As Chappy resident Shelley Wilbur says, “They’re going to school for it. I find that so impressive. Slip Away is another example of these young people really digging in, figuratively and literally.” The local foods movement is supported by an increased interest in the life of our food before it arrives on our tables. Lily says, “People here get what we’re trying to do, and they see what it takes to do it.” It surprises her to be part of a trend. She says, “I’m doing something that’s cool – I’ve never been cool! I feel like I’m part of something with a lot of energy behind it.”
While we Chappaquiddickers indulge our fantasies of the idyllic pastoral lifestyle as we drive by the farmers at work in their fields, the reality of farming is that it’s a lot of hard work. The farmers are well aware of the lifestyle choices they’re making. Lily says, “This is all-consuming. You work these crazy long days, and get up and do it all again the next day. It’s hard on your body, and takes a lot of sacrifices.” There’s no time to have a social life, and the profit margins are slim. Lily worries about her body giving out, and wonders about being able to start a family, or ever retire. However, all the Slip Aways have a strong affinity for farming, and especially for this farm. Collins says, “We’re playing the hand we’ve been dealt the best we possibly can.”
Setting up a new farm involves ongoing planning and constant decision-making, from choosing where to spend money on infrastructure to deciding which seedlings are most desperate to get in the ground. Although Lily, as business owner, has final say, many decisions are made communally, because all the farmers have had extensive experience, together adding up to 25 years. Besides helping to plant, each has his area of responsibility: Christian is in charge of the farmers market and the bees. They acquired around 25,000 bees in two hives that should double to four hives by the end of summer. Christian, who went to bee school to prepare, says, “I’m so excited to get more pollinators on Chappy. I’ve been worried about the lack of bee activity.” He hopes they’ll eventually have their own selection of Chappy honey for sale.
Collins is wholesale manager, including sales to Island chefs and restaurants, and he’s in charge of infrastructure. Part of the year he works elsewhere as a carpenter; at the farm he has built the tractor shed, harvest and stand tables and boxes, as well as their dining room table.
Jason, “the everything man,” steps in where patience and thinking time is needed. He’s in charge of soil health, and figuring out how to make the six overhead sprinklers and the drip hoses work with the pressure of their new well, a donation from friends. The first attempt blew holes in all the connecting hoses.
Living and working together requires a certain amount of getting along just to hold up to the long days and survive the vagaries of farming. Lily says, “We’re all pretty easy going – and we all want to make the farm work.” In the middle of the day, the Slip Aways break for a shared lunch, each taking a turn cooking. One recent morning when Jason and Lily started applying fish fertilizer to young plants at 5:30 am, Collins came out a couple of hours later, and said, “I’ve got breakfast for you.”
Although it’s hard to focus on the future with all the work of the present, Lily has dreams for the farm. Next year she plans to landscape around the farm stand, and wants to build an oven, and have pizza nights. She’d like to make the farm stand a gathering place, with a lending library, a comfortable place to sit, and have coffee and tea evenings. She says, “I’d like to make it more of a draw, so people can come and feel like it’s theirs, too, not just come to buy, but linger.”
It’s seldom that change on the Vineyard feels like a positive phenomenon, a fit with how we’d like the Island to be. But the arrival of Slip Away Farm is a change that enhances our sense of place. It speaks of the affirmation that we can make our community more of what we want. The Island’s young farmers are leading the way, with Slip Away Farm as a prime example. Lily says, “I can’t wait to see it improve over time, to get more and more productive, and become really lush.”
For more information about the farm, visit slipawayfarm.com.
Margaret Knight lives on Chappaquiddick at Over the Hill Farm with her husband, son, two goats, and three chickens, where she has gardened for 40 years. Her daughter Lily Morris lives through the woods at Blueberry Cottage.