Family Portrait: The Athearns

Forty years at Morning Glory Farm.

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The Athearn Family in 2014 as photographed by Alison Shaw for the Vineyard Stories book "Morning Glory's Farm Food." Left to right: Jim and Debbie Athearn, Josh Levy and Prudence Athearn-Levy with Kyle and Judah; Dan and Penelope Athearn with Meghan, Clara and Zeb; Robyn and Simon Athearn with Rose and Ignatious. — Photo by Alison Shaw, Courtesy V

If Jim and Debbie Athearn had a theme song about running Morning Glory Farm for 40 years, it would be one recorded by Maria Muldaur in 1973 called “Long Hard Climb”:

Hasn’t it been a long hard climb?Everything taking its own sweet timeAnd hasn’t there been some long, lonely nightsWhen you didn’t think that anything would turn out right?

In the old days, the couple would collapse at the end of Saturday of Labor Day weekend, make a couple of gin and tonics, and put the song on, toasting themselves for having made it another year, paid off another bank loan, withstood another season of worries about how much they should plant, whether it would grow, whether people would buy it, and if their fields would survive the hail, the cold, the heat, the dry, the deer, the raccoons, the worms …

Another drink, another toast, another end to this year’s long hard climb.

Today, as they celebrate the success of the farm they started in 1975, the couple no longer notes the end of the season at Labor Day. Now, the season comes closer to slowing down at Thanksgiving, when they sit down with their sons and daughter, their wives and husband, and seven grandchildren in a celebratory Thanksgiving meal that reminds them that, like the song says, everything takes its own sweet time.

The story of Morning Glory Farm is well documented in a book published in 2009 called Morning Glory Farm and the Family that Feeds an Island. In it, author Tom Dunlop writes how Jim Athearn’s future father-in-law, Kenneth T. Galley, purchased an overgrown tract of near-worthless land along the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road at a tax sale on June 8, 1943: “Nobody was in the auction room [in Edgartown], so the auctioneer said, ‘Ken, come in here and bid on this land. Get it off the books.’” Galley paid $7 for the 17½ acres.

Not per acre.

Total.

Thirty-two years later, when an Athearn boy from West Tisbury had successfully courted a Galley girl from Edgartown — a mixed marriage, if there ever was one — that land was where they first put up an umbrella to sell a few vegetables on the side of the road. It is today the heart of the farm that encompasses 120 acres spread over the Island, much of it leased from conservation groups that want the land returned to agricultural use.

Debbie runs the incredibly successful farm stand — moving from the umbrella setup in 1975 to a tiny farm stand to the current barn-shaped building that is an anchor for one of the largest employers on the Vineyard.

The land is farmed by Jim and his two sons, Simon and Dan, who first pursued other careers and then returned home to be farmers, just as their father had done decades earlier when he felt the call of the soil and convinced Debbie to return to Martha’s Vineyard from the mainland where they were living after college.

In addition, daughter Prudence and her husband, Josh Levy, both nutritionists, have moved from Maine to the Island, and sometimes provide nutritional information to the kitchen that puts out hundreds of products a week, from its signature zucchini bread to full meals.

It’s been a good life, says Jim, though often filled with uncertainty. Yet, “when you’re driving out early in the morning and see the mist on the corn, or during haying when you see the curving walls of hay all around you, you just feel so lucky,” he says. And reassured: “People tell us they build their vacations around coming to the farm stand.”

The Athearns’ strong influence is also clear in the current farming scene on the Vineyard. Lily Walter, owner and founder of Slip Away Farm on Chappaquiddick, started farming at Morning Glory. So did her brother, Christian Walter, and Collins Heavener, both Slip Away founding farmers. Lily makes their influence clear: “It’s a really good place to be introduced to farming, and they are both my mentors and always my go-to people when I need help. I am always amazed by how much food they grow that stays right here on the Island, and how many people they feed.”