An increase in the number of farms and farmers on Martha’s Vineyard has meant an increasing variety of produce available at farmstands and markets across the Island. In a series of profiles, The Times introduces the men and women who work the earth. This week we talked to Rusty Gordon of Ghost Island Farm, located on State Road in West Tisbury. Rusty started the farm in 2012, and since then has been producing bountiful crops of kale, tomatoes, salad greens, and much more. For more information, visit the farm, call 508-693-5161, or visit ghostislandfarm.com.
How did you get into farming?
When I moved down here, Andrew at Whippoorwill had an ad in the paper in 1989. I called up and went and started working for Andrew in the spring.
What are you growing this month?
Pretty much everything right across the board. Having the farm stand, you want to have the biggest variety you can.
Do you have a favorite crop?
Tomatoes have always been my specialty, so we’re growing 60 varieties.
How do you choose the seeds for all of those varieties?
I break it down into a bunch of different things: the number of days it takes them to mature, and also the type of tomatoes – determinate or indeterminate.
Determinate tomatoes will grow into a small bush and then they’ll stop growing and they’ll produce their tomatoes. The plant will start to die and the tomatoes will ripen in a short period of time.
Indeterminates will stay alive – in theory, forever – and they’ll just keep growing up and up and you just keep picking them. It’s better to trellis them. I’m starting to do a certain system where I’m using both in the greenhouses, with indeterminates in the center and determinates on the sides. But I’m also trying to get multiple crops into the greenhouses. So, just to do a quick, early tomato, and then use them for other things, like winter greens and late summer tomatoes.
Do you ever have days off?
No, I’m pretty much here everyday from morning until midnight. There’s so much going on between doing all of the picking until it gets dark, and there’s so much to do in the store. The store itself is an entirely different business than farming. There’s also, after the picking, all of the processing that we’ve got to do with the greens – washing and drying and spinning and bagging.
Is there a certain crop that is the most labor intensive?
Well, all the greens are, because of the way we do things. This field has a lot of clay in it, so we can’t direct seed anything. So we started seeding everything in flats in the greenhouses, and then transplanting them outside and covering them with the insect netting. And then we pull that off to pick, wash, spin, then air dry and bag. When it’s just a tomato, you can just go pick it and it’s ready.
What would you say your biggest challenge is farming on Martha’s Vineyard?
I think that starting out is hard; just being somebody coming here without any money or family land is hard, and just trying to make a business and make it work – especially a farm. And getting it set up and all of the infrastructure set up and done and paid for before you can start making a profit. But it’s all I’ve been doing and I don’t want to be doing anything else.
What part or phase of your farming excites you the most?
I guess looking at the whole picture and doing the planning – figuring out exactly what’s going to happen, where stuff is going to go, that kind of thing. Getting the seeds, figuring out all of the varieties and putting it all together.
I guess that is the way that it all worked out, because instead of doing the bulk of the labor, because we now have five employees, it’s more of just staying on top of everything business-wise. I mean, I love being in the dirt and working, but I’m not there as much as I want to be right now.
How does the community factor into your work?
Well, heavily. We have the co-op program, which is a community supported agriculture, which is doing great. And I think that starting this was really important – without the community, we wouldn’t have been able to start this project and have this farm.
What do you do in the winter?
We have seven greenhouses now so were working on experimenting with what can work and what can’t. And there are a lot of things we can do. We do pretty much anything we can that will help the farm for the coming season. These last couple of years we were open until Christmas time with late crops.
I don’t know what the future holds as far as opening and closing, but we will definitely close for a break at some point. In the winter it’s mostly about preparing for the season ahead; working on the shelves and the farmstand itself and buying the seeds, all of that good stuff.
Do you ever buy genetically modified seeds?
No. None of our seeds are treated or genetically modified. We don’t use any of that. I actually keep a bunch of signs up about our organic growing methods because we’re not allowed to say organic because we’re not certified, but we only use certified organic soil and certified organic fertilizer, and we don’t spray anything at all – except water.
What are you working on today?
Today I’m doing a lot of processing. A lot of stuff is getting picked right now. Usually stuff gets picked either at night or first thing in the morning, so today I’ve been washing kale and bagging, and helping the guys out in the field to get the pumpkins in the field, and then we’re going to plant some green, yellow, and purple soybeans.
Everyday there’s stuff getting picked and other things getting planted. Early in the year its mostly seeding, and then it’s mostly planting, and now it’s getting to the picking stage.
Is there anything we should be looking for in the next few weeks?
Yes. All of the tomatoes are starting to ripen now, so we’ve started picking already, and we’ve got so many different kinds – there are lots to try. We’ve also got 12 varieties of kale, and tons of different kinds of cucumbers of all different colors and sizes, like Middle Eastern ones, brown ones, yellows, whites. We’re trying to do a lot of colors this season so we’re doing the rainbow chard, rainbow bok choy, and red, yellow, and white beets as well.