CSA looks for funding to buy farm
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) supporters are scrambling to match a $2.3 million offer for Thimble Farm, the property off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road that has become the heart of the community based agriculture organization.
Andrew Woodruff, whose three-year lease on part of the 43-acre farm expires this year, first learned of the offer in July. Mr. Woodruff says his lease agreement with property owner Lawrence Benson grants him the right to match the offer within 30 days.
Mr. Benson would not confirm the offer price. The farm was recently listed with a local real estate firm for $3.5 million. The number was supposed to be confidential. "A deal is not a deal until the money is in your pocket," he said.
Mr. Benson said he supports Mr. Woodruff and CSA, but has decided to accept the offer from a private buyer. "I brought Andrew there," he said. "He needed a home, and I wanted to do something for the betterment of my community. Part of me says I hope they can muster up the funds. He's had three years to muster support, and it hasn't happened."
The property is protected from residential development by agreements negotiated between previous owners Bencion and Patricia Moskow and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank in 2001. The Land Bank purchased easements that restrict the property to agricultural use, with incentives to use the land for growing crops, as it has been used for many years.
The agreements do not prohibit agricultural uses other than crop cultivation. In recent years, several Massachusetts properties protected by agricultural easements have been converted to luxury estates with horses or other livestock housed on the property.
Mr. Benson would not disclose the prospective buyer, but said the farm will remain productive cropland. "There is no horse component, it's going to remain for production, organic, sustainable agriculture," said Mr. Benson, who currently runs a large hydroponics tomato growing operation on the farm.
Mr. Woodruff and others want Thimble Farm to remain cropland dedicated to Community Supported Agriculture. "When I came here I had two goals in mind," said Mr. Woodruff. "One was to expand and improve CSA. Thimble Farm was an ideal location. The other goal was to find a way to protect the farm in perpetuity."
Mr. Woodruff says it has been a struggle to meet those goals within the constraints of a short-term lease.
If supporters cannot match the $2.3 million offer by August 27, the sale process will move forward with the private buyer.
"It's a big number, but to some people it's not a big number," said Alice Early, a CSA advisory board member who is helping to coordinate the fund-raising effort. "At this moment, we're concentrating on the people who have the capacity to commit large amounts of money. I think we have a decent chunk of it committed."
"The real opportunity here is to get it in the hands of a non-profit," said Mr. Woodruff. "It's a lot of pressure, but we've been working hard to try to pull the pieces together. I'm pretty hopeful that in the next week, something will happen. The timeline is so short, it's hard. But there is a lot of interest."
Mr. Woodruff says if he is unable to secure long-term stability for Community Supported Agriculture at Thimble Farm, he will look to find other farmland, but will likely have to scale the program back significantly.
On Tuesday, a steady stream of CSA members filled the farm's parking lot and driveway as they arrived to pick up their share of the week's produce.
A marker board let shareholders know what produce, and how much, they could pick up this week. Baskets full of tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, bok choy, lettuce, and Sugar Baby watermelons filled the farm stand, framed by sunflowers, and scented by the pungent aroma of basil, fennel, dill, and cilantro.
Each CSA shareholder pays in advance for the produce, $630 for a full season. Approximately 400 people signed up for full or partial seasons, about the same number as last year.
Some of them learned about the farm's quandary in an urgent alert from the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS), as part of a call for benefactors who might help.
"We are part of an intense and concerted effort of several Island conservation organizations, other non-profits and private individuals working together to gather the necessary funds," states a message on the VCS web site. "Because the need is so urgent and the numbers so large, we do not have time to mount a proper general fund-raising effort."
Many visitors Tuesday asked the farm staff questions about the efforts to preserve the cropland. "If I could, I would write a check, I would write a check right away," said Marta Camarga, a West Tisbury resident who has been buying produce from the farm for three years. "It's very important, being able to buy food, that you know who grows it."
Carol Klein, a summer resident of West Tisbury, was concerned about the possibility that the cropland may be lost. Near her winter home in Naples, Fla., she once walked to nearby farms. Now she drives 40 minutes to pick her own flowers and vegetables, she said.
"Most of the U-pick's in Florida have become golf courses. It's a sin," said Ms. Klein as she emerged from the long rows with a bouquet of fresh flowers. "I like the picking part. This is the best part of my week."
How best to maintain land for raising crops, as opposed to other agricultural uses, is an increasing topic of discussion among Island conservation groups. Recently, the Land Bank negotiated an additional conservation restriction on Uncle Leonard's Farm in West Tisbury, which restricts sale of the property to its legitimately appraised agricultural value. Many conservation restrictions negotiated in the past failed to foresee the astronomical increase in Island land values. Even with the restrictive easements, the value of many local farms may be far out of economic reach for anyone who wants to use the land for crops or livestock farming.
"It's important to the elected representatives of the Land Bank to see that lands that have been, historically, productively used, continue to be productively used," said James Lengyel, executive director of the Land Bank.
Because any discussions take place in executive session, Mr. Lengyel would not comment on whether the Land Bank is considering, or has been asked to consider, an additional conservation easement which would restrict the sale of Thimble Farm to its agricultural value.