Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a private farming co-operative, has completed an agricultural version of football's "Hail Mary" pass - a long, last-minute completion to save the game.
CSA has apparently found a wealthy benefactor willing to preserve the group's operation on Thimble Farm property off Stoney Hill Road in Tisbury.
Eric Grubman, a National Football League (NFL) executive and seasonal Edgartown resident, told The Times Monday that he had reached an agreement to purchase Thimble Farm from owner Lawrence Benson.
Mr. Grubman, the NFL's executive vice president for finance and strategic transactions, said he is committed to keeping the land in sustainable food production. He expects to complete the purchase before the end of 2007.
Mr. Grubman joined the NFL executive staff in 2004. Before that, he served in executive positions with Baltimore based Constellation Energy Group, and with Goldman Sachs, an international investment banking firm. Prior to joining the NFL staff, he consulted to the league on several projects, including the sale of the New England Patriots.
Mr. Grubman confirmed details of the agreement, though he was somewhat reluctant to speak extensively about his own background, or his part in preserving the farmland for food production. "I would prefer the focus to be on CSA and the farm," he said. "I've been curious about the property for a couple of years. This summer, I finally went to see it. I called Andrew Woodruff over the summer, talked to him, and decided I would try to buy the farm and keep it as a farm. I like rural places, I like spending my time at rural places like that."
Mr. Woodruff, a West Tisbury farmer, leased the property from Mr. Benson for the past three years. In August, it appeared that the CSA operation would end when he was unable to match $2.3 million offer from a private buyer. Mr. Woodruff's lease includes a clause giving him the right to match any sale offer. CSA supporters launched a fundraising effort, securing pledges from non-profit groups and private individuals, but fell short of the amount needed to match the offer. Subsequently, the deal with the private buyer fell through, and the farm returned to the market.
More recently, another unidentified buyer intended to purchase the land, to use as a horse farm. The buyer's representatives met last week with the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC), to explore the regulatory process necessary to make changes to the farm buildings. The farm is designated as a development of regional impact, and would need MVC approval for new structures, or the razing of any structures currently there.
"As of last Wednesday, I really thought it was over," said Alice Early, a member of the CSA board of advisors. "The farm was going to be a private estate, it would go out of food production, and the infrastructure was going to be leveled. It would have been, to me, heartbreaking."
Ms. Early said Mr. Grubman's purchase of the land would give CSA time to set up some form of non-profit ownership structure. "We're very excited," she said. "We're still a little numb, because it has been such a long haul. For the first time we can make long-term plans. It could be a training place for young farmers, it could be an incubator farm, it could be a lot of things."
Over the winter, Mr. Woodruff, Mr. Grubman, and CSA supporters will begin drafting a master plan for the property. The document is intended to outline a long-term strategy to preserve the land for food production.
CSA is a marketing structure where consumers buy farm shares in advance. Each week throughout the growing season, share owners pick up vegetables, herbs, and flowers from a farm stand on the property. The advance sale of shares pays for seeds, fertilizer, farm maintenance, and labor. Thimble Farm's central location, parking, and ample infrastructure proved popular with local consumers. About 400 people participated in the program this year, according to Mr. Woodruff. Next season, the cost of a full share will be $700, up from $630 this year. Mr. Woodruff said the increase is a result of higher fuel costs and other expenses not related to the sale of the property. The cost of partial season shares will remain the same. A 10-week share will cost $430, a five-week share, $210.
Mr. Benson's property, which includes strawberry fields and a large-scale hydroponic tomato growing facility, is protected from development by an agricultural preservation restriction held by the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank. Mr. Woodruff and others have sought additional restrictions for the property that would limit the appraised value to its use as cropland. The current restrictions would not prevent a buyer from creating an estate-style property, if a horse or other livestock were housed on the land.
This fall, publicity surrounding the possible loss of the farmland attracted other potential purchasers, including Mr. Grubman. His efforts to reach a deal with Mr. Benson were unsuccessful, until a last ditch effort on Nov. 9. Mr. Grubman and Mr. Benson emerged from a meeting that day with a signed offer agreement, complete with a deposit on the sale.
"The last couple of weeks have been really hard, very stressful," said Mr. Woodruff. "A tremendous amount of volunteer effort was put into this project, and I felt like we were losing all that good will. We were working on our plan 'B,' getting ready to leave in December."
Now Mr. Woodruff is making new plans for the next growing season.
"The number one priority is to get CSA up and running for 2008," said Mr. Woodruff. "We have some infrastructure to take care of, the property really needs a lot of work. This opens up a new door for us, we'll have access to the hydroponic greenhouse, over 30,000 square feet. In February we'll start growing tomatoes in the greenhouse."