Rebecca Brown grew up on a Vineyard farm, and if she had her way, everyone who had land would use it for what she believes it’s meant for: production of food.
To this end, she is bringing her skills in farming, soil management, and animal husbandry to a new venture called Your Backyard Farm, helping people who want to start gardens if they don’t have one and raise their own animals for food, such as chickens, goats, ducks, or pigs.
“However I can help people get more animals on their property and get more food on their property, that’s what this business is about,” the 35-year-old explained.
On the Vineyard, Ms. Brown has found there are other needs as well, such as supplying goats on a temporary basis to rid a property of poison ivy or renting livestock to graze in a homeowner’s field during their summer stay. People often have invasive weeds and plants that they want controlled that vary from poison ivy to Russian olives to bittersweet. Luckily, she says, “Those plants are like candy to goats.”
Ms. Brown grew up on Great Pond Farm off Meetinghouse Road in Edgartown with a large garden, sheep, pigs, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and cows. Her father, Dickie Brown, a local farmer known for wearing red suspenders, sold raw milk in the ‘80s and ‘90s and taught his interested daughter how to slaughter sheep, among other things. Later, she says, when she worked at The Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark, her father would often come up and help her milk the cows. “He was always at the farm when I was there; we would kill chickens together. It was cool having that longstanding history of he and I farming on the Vineyard.”
Her first job after attending Union College in New York, where she majored in environmental studies and natural resources management, was as the initial farm and staff educator at The FARM Institute in Edgartown when it got off the ground in 2001.
She has since worked with livestock on a 250-acre, grass-based family farm in Virginia; an organic family dairy and cheese making operation in Wisconsin; and nearly 30 diverse farms in New Zealand where she first learned about “biological” farming. Biological farming puts emphasis on natural principles, starting with the importance of healthy, mineralized soil for both livestock and plants. It has led to Ms. Brown’s passion for educating others about the importance of soil.
“Health starts in the soil — you have these mineralized, nutrient-dense vegetables, medicinal quality food, as opposed to a tomato, which hardly has nutrients in it at all. It looks good, but there’s really no nutrition in it — that’s the way our industrial food has gone. When you have healthy soil, back to what it was, then you also have animals that are healthy.”
She says plants in soil require up to 90 different elements in order to reach full potential. Beyond the familiar nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, calcium, and magnesium, there is sulphur, zinc, manganese, zinc, boron, and dozens of other trace elements that need to be present and balanced to insure healthy, mineralized food as well as healthy livestock. Biological farming promotes sampling soils and correcting them with the use of natural-based fertilizers and materials that are non-toxic and life-promoting, rather than chemical inputs or genetic modifications.
“Biological farming is like baking a cake,” she explained, “requiring an essential set of ingredients and instructions for the foundation of the cake. On the other hand, biodynamic farming is like the icing on the cake — it is nice, but not essential.
“I knew it was essential to help consumers and producers understand the connection between the soil and human health through education about biological farming practices,” she continued. “That’s why soil is my real passion: health starts with a well-balanced soil, whether it’s people or animals.”
Ms. Brown has continued her training in biological farming, and she now travels the country as a farm and soil consultant. For two years before coming back to the Island, she worked as the regional director of Midwestern Bio-Ag, based in Pennsylvania, where she was a dairy farming consultant for the region.
“Farmers are really busy farming. I realized how little farmers actually knew about soil. If you can share one keystone idea that really can help someone look at their farm differently, that’s huge,” she explained. Her favorite quote comes from John Kempf, a farmer and lecturer: “Farmers can do more to promote the health of the country than all of the doctors combined.” In our current food system, she said, “Bayer, Pfizer, and Monsanto make the chemicals for you to put on the land to make you sick, and they make the chemicals to put in your body to suppress the systems of the imbalance.”
For gardeners at home, Ms. Brown has several suggestions about soil health. Number one, she said, is to get a soil test. From that test you can work on building or correcting your soil. If you have plants being attacked by insects, there is a good chance there’s some imbalance somewhere.
Step number two, she explained, is to understand that compost does not provide everything that soil needs: “That’s a huge, dangerous misconception.”
The second part of Ms. Brown’s new Vineyard business is land and habitat restoration in conservation areas, using livestock. She has been hired by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank as well as Sheriff’s Meadow to continue their work of restoring historical grasslands in several spots. Using her animals (goats and sheep) to eat encroaching scrub, small saplings, and brush is a more natural approach to using machinery and chainsaws, she explained. “Grazing is a soil management tool. It’s not using machinery, fossil fuels, and herbicides and we’re nurturing the soil by depositing manure. Out west, people have been doing this for a while. It’s a well-regarded practice outside the Vineyard and relatively new to the Vineyard.”
She said the idea for backyard farming has been percolating for several years, and this year it just coalesced. She hopes it gives her a chance to stay on the Island; she chose it over an offer to manage a 67,000-acre ranch in New Zealand. “I’d like to stay on the Vineyard and still feel like I’m contributing to bettering society.”