Martha's Vineyard Commission study envisions future of agriculture here
When it comes to growing and producing food, just how self-sufficient is Martha's Vineyard? Would Islanders be willing to eat less beef, more fish, no oranges, and raise their own produce?
Jo-Ann Taylor, a coastal planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC), thinks they might, based on an agricultural self-sufficiency study she recently conducted in conjunction with the Island Plan. The study, available at mvtimes.com, was funded through a $10,000 grant awarded in March 2009 from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Ms. Taylor was assigned as the MVC staff planner to work with a work group of the Island Plan, the commission's ambitious blueprint for Island development and change over the next 50 years.
As the group explored various open space planning issues, Ms. Taylor said she met with farmers several times to discuss their thoughts on keeping agriculture viable here.
"The farmers and natural environmental work group folks repeatedly brought up questions about how self-sufficient the Vineyard is or could be, regarding food production," Ms. Taylor said. "Some are concerned about promoting farming in order to keep our existing farms going, and others are concerned about depending on imports that might not always be so reliable, considering the financial meltdown, flu and etcetera."
Getting a grip on greens
To estimate the Vineyard's food needs required an accurate survey of available farmland and food produced. MVC executive director Mark London said the study included updating and refining the commission's maps of existing farmland, including acreage currently under legal protections.
In 2009 the MVC staff and other Island resources identified a total of 1,687 acres of active farms, of which 935 acres are used to produce food for human consumption. To make projections about future farming on Martha's Vineyard, the MVC came up with different scenarios based on estimates of possible population growth and land area requirements to feed each person in the year-round population.
Strategies for achieving greater food self-sufficiency include maintaining and increasing the amount of land in food production, upping productivity, and consuming a "Vineyard food basket" made up of locally grown foods.
In starting her research, Ms. Taylor found there was nothing available from the academic community, so she developed her own methodology.
Using reputable resources she found online, she learned that the average American eats 1,713 pounds of food a year. She calculated that if the Vineyard had to import all of the food the year-round population eats, it would require 1,327 10-ton truckloads per year.
Ms. Taylor also reviewed each food item on a "Standard Demand" list in terms of whether it could be grown on the Island, and if so, how much acreage would be required.
From the sum of those averages, she determined it would require 11,583 acres in production to meet 84 percent of the Island's demand, based on using three-quarters of an acre per person to grow foods to meet standard demand.
"For scale, picture land twice the size of the State Forest, recalling that nearly half (about 5,100 acres) would be devoted to producing beef," Ms. Taylor wrote in the study. "Feeding the Standard Demand would also require 214 truckloads of imports for items which cannot grow here, such as oranges. Imports would continue to fill 16 percent of the year-round demand."
No Velveeta for you
Ms. Taylor modified the standard demand list into a "Vineyard food basket" in order to estimate acreage needed for what could be grown and produced on the Island.
"We know we're not going to grow oranges, so we would replace oranges in the fruits and vegetables category with things that we could grow here, like apples," she explained. "What we can grow, we would just eat more of that. So that's the basis of the Vineyard food basket."
Some of the choices required her to make value judgments. "I took some things like fats and sugars, and I didn't replace them in the Vineyard basket, figuring that we don't need what the average American consumes," Ms. Taylor said.
She also reduced the standard demand for meat by 75 percent for Islanders, because it requires more land to produce. To compensate, she increased the amount of fish, which she figured Islanders consume more than the average, anyway.
Ms. Taylor eliminated rice and cranberries, because of the need for wetland acreage to produce them. She also eliminated miscellaneous dairy products, such as cheese spread, evaporated and powdered milk, and processed cheese.
For those already mourning the potential loss of Velveeta and Cheese-Whiz, Ms. Taylor did say that, "In reality, we know that we're going to import some things."
The biggest challenge in preserving agriculture on the Vineyard will be securing permanently affordable land for farming, the study notes. Increased farm production may result in problems in finding and housing workers, as well as negative impacts on water quality with increased fertilizer use.
The study does not address socioeconomic factors that might influence whether Islanders embrace its strategies. For example, it suggests that food production could be increased if more Vineyarders grew produce in backyard gardens.
Would Islanders who juggle two and three jobs in the summer want to come home after a long day and work in a garden? "One thing about gardening is that it's a great stress-reliever," Ms. Taylor said in response to that question. "If you're in a nurturing mood, you can water and pamper the soil, and if you're not, then pulling weeds is great."
Both she and Mr. London agreed that discussion of cost is a missing element in the study, but said that its results should be viewed as a first step intended to present data and observations, along with possible options.
"Is the Island community going to want to be self-sufficient enough to give up things that we have to import?" Ms. Taylor said. "One of the pieces is the cost of everything. That's going to be a next step in the debate about self-sufficiency. How much is this going to cost me if I go in to buy a tomato?"
"The study has generated considerable interest, and it is likely that the Vineyard community will take this discussion to the next level of choosing a direction for self-sufficiency," Mr. London added. "As that unfolds, it should be possible to further explore the economic and social impacts of that direction."
Ms. Taylor completed the draft study last October, and presented it to Island conservation commissions and the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Alliance last December.
The study caught the interest of the Massachusetts Association of Agricultural Commissioners, which invited her to be a guest speaker at a conference in Worcester on March 20.
As a next step, Ms. Taylor said, "What I hope to get is feedback on how people think that this could really fit into the Vineyard culture, lifestyle, and economy, and see how interested people are, especially consumers."