Garden Notes

Lisa and Hanna Murphy
Lisa and Hanna Murphy weigh carrots at the Community Supported Agriculture pick-up earlier this week. Photos by Susan Safford

Home grown and delicious

By Abigail Higgins - November 22, 2006

Friday night's satisfying, well-attended program at Agricultural Hall featuring grass farmer Joel Salatin of Swoope, Virginia, was the work of a consortium of Island groups and individuals. Thank you to the Agricultural Society, Farm Institute, Island Grown Initiative, and Slow Food MV (and members wearing multiple hats) for working together to bring Mr. Salatin and his ideas for local agriculture and local economies to the Vineyard.

Among a set of "Small Is Beautiful" concepts beginning to enjoy renewed currency nationwide, the idea of local agrarian economies is particularly fitting for Martha's Vineyard. Islands by definition enjoy a unique degree of separation, differing from that of most rural communities. It makes a lot of sense that an island at the wrong end of an overly long supply chain should encourage self-sufficiency in the food we produce and consume. It is fitting at the start of the holidays, with their many celebratory meals, to think about our food, where it comes from, and the way we eat.

Judie Flanders
Judie Flanders chooses some butternut squash. This is the last week to pick up vegetables for the season.

Concerning food quality, Joel Salatin is fond of saying that integrity cannot be legislated. In other words, your best guarantee of quality is "putting the farmer's face" (local reputation, credibility) on what you eat. In episodes most of us would rather not dwell upon, contamination of our national food supply occurs with growing frequency, often with lethal results. This is actually good news, according to Mr. Salatin, as it amplifies in a timely way the idea of growing locally, buying locally, and eating locally.

But let's not focus on negatives here, when instead there are so many positives. Down on Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Mr. Salatin's livestock and poultry are pastured on grass in rotations, which are designed to dovetail with the natures and habits of the animals in question. (Cattle, by the way, being ruminants, are designed to eat grass, not grain.) These methods have helped Polyface to present to its customers the best-tasting, most wholesome, fairly priced meat and eggs available. People become passionate customers when they have the chance to buy food of this quality. (I can vouch for the eggs and poultry: excellent.)

Back in the 19th century, the Shenandoah Valley was known as the Breadbasket of the Confederacy, after the early settlers had busted the sod of the former tall-grass prairie and begun cropping grains on the deep topsoil. But by the time the senior Mr. Salatin bought Polyface Farm, the land had become relatively degraded, soils depleted and eroded, due to over-dependence on agronomic cropping. When Joel Salatin and his wife in due course took over, those grass-based rotations, along with additional sustainable practices such as re-mineralization and composting, enabled the repair and build-up of the soils of the home farm and lease-holdings.

Practicing grass-fed livestock management has made Polyface Farm profitable, and preaching its virtues has made Joel Salatin one of the nation's best-known small farmers. What can Island producers and consumers learn from him? In one of his five self-published books, "Holy Cows & Hog Heaven" (Polyface Inc., Swoope, VA 2004, 134 ppg.), Mr. Salatin's food buyer's guide to farm-friendly food, he writes the template. His first four chapter titles include the adjectives: trustworthy, committed, neighbor-friendly, and open. These are keynote qualities. It is a vivid and amusingly written rant, which then proceeds - as a real short course in contemporary alternative agriculture, community anthropology, and food history - to cover farm-friendly product, the farm-friendly patron, and farm-friendly policy.

So here is Joel Salatin telling us that we can farm! To the silently dissenting thoughts - where do I get Martha's Vineyard acreage to do that? - undoubtedly rippling through the minds of the audience, he announced the results of his calculations. How many of you live here - 15,000? One hundred square miles equals 64,000 acres. You can grow everything you need on half an acre. That means 7,500 acres, or about 11 percent of the island, are needed for food self-sufficiency. A frisky member of the audience asked about those summer "house guests," the other 90,000? Okay - let's add a couple thousand acres to the formula to take care of them too; so you need maybe 9,500 acres.

Driving along Island roads with Melinda DeFeo, Mr. Salatin was struck by how much woodland was covering the topography. On the Salatin farm, the woodland supports not only habitat and water conservation, but also an on-going sustainable logging operation plus a portable sawmill. He let his audience know that in his opinion there is an under-utilized timber resource here in these woods, whose main crop is currently houses.

We know that Island food self-sufficiency is a goal, not a reality. Yet, we already have a well-subscribed Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at Whippoorwill Farm; one of the busiest farmers' markets in the commonwealth in West Tisbury; the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) mapping farm stands and providing a retail outlet at Cronig's Market; several teaching farms, among them the Farm Institute and Native Earth Teaching Farm, that supply know-how and encouragement to the next generation; and operations like Morning Glory Farm and the Allen Farm that are up and running.

As we turn to planning for the next growing season, let's keep working together. Let's keep our eyes and ears open for innovations and traditions. (I heard Paul Newman opened a farmers' market to enhance his Greenwich, Conn., restaurant, which he opened to enhance his wife's repertory theatre....) Maintaining/increasing soil fertility; growing varieties well-suited to specific seasons, purposes, and garden size; trialing new introductions and heritage breeds/varieties; and exploring ways to preserve the harvest are just a few areas that can maximize next season's yields and satisfactions.

When we give thanks for our blessings and join with family and friends at the holiday table, let's remember to honor our own special island locale too. Beautiful islands like ours face great pressures. Either we observe the saying "eat your view," or the view becomes houses and subdivisions.