Two recent bits of welcome news on the agriculture front promise some support for Vineyard farmers, who could use the help. For farmers here, it's always been a struggle against long odds, what with the poor soil, the added costs for everything that has to come from the mainland - and almost everything does - and the small market for agricultural products, the wet winters, and the dry growing seasons. And that reflects the foundational challenges, the ones farmers here have bucked since the first Mayhews put down roots and immediately wondered where all these grapevines came from. Add to these hurdles the zooming real estate values of the last 40 years, the salivating tax man who cometh to claim the farms when the old folk die off, large lot zoning, and multiplying dwellings of the magnificent variety.
Of course, there are fewer and less varied commercial farming enterprises today than there were during the distant 20th Century, when dairy, beef, and sheep operations flourished (well, flourished may not be the right word) and there were truck farmers, cranberry growers, orchards, even a co-operative market, begun in the war years by some summer residents. Their aim was to improve the availability and distribution of groceries on the home front for their families that had left the city to spend the war where they would be safe and among friends. Indeed, in its first incarnation, The Times office was that market building, selling wholesome products, but naturally of a different sort from the wholesome ones we sell out of the same front door today.
So, it's heartening to learn of the generous intercession of Eric Grubman to buy Thimble Farm on behalf of Community Supported Agriculture, a private farming co-operative. Thimble Farm, the visionary creation of Bud Moskow and his wife, is a key Vineyard farming site, the centerpiece of this 21st Century Vineyard agricultural co-operative. And now, in an essay across the way, the Martha's Vineyard Commission director Mark London and West Tisbury conservationist Bob Woodruff, himself a farmer, report on efforts to form an Island-wide agricultural commission, whose purpose will be to mount a variety of organized interventions on behalf of Vineyard farmers. One of those, a crucial one, will be to lobby for carving out inviolable protections for agriculture in what has unarguably become a wealthy suburban Island, on the way to becoming a gated community, sniffingly wary of smelly, noisy threats to its peace, harmony, and property values. Farmers need all the help these initiatives promise.
Rummaging in a filing cabinet the other day, I came across the 1982 Soil and Water Conservation Plan, prepared for my West Tisbury farm by Bill Wilcox, now the water quality planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission. In those far off days, there was a University of Massachusetts Extension Office here, run by Mike Zoll, now of Farm Neck, plus a conservation district, whose chief was Elisha Smith, who raised pigs, beef, hay, and vegetables in his place next to what was briefly the driving range at the head of the Lagoon Pond. Elisha was never a complainer, but after the driving range got underway, he had to say something about the golf balls clattering on the steel roof of his barn. His complaints led the range's owners to erect a gigantic netting strung from phone poles, like a volley ball net strung for Brobdignagians on holiday. It loomed over the west end of the Lagoon and surprised you as you sailed up the pond between Hines Point and the Oak Bluffs shore.
Anyway, to get help from the soil conservation district, I had to sign an agreement attesting to my interest in conserving the natural resources on my farm and establishing conservation measures to do so. Then, I had to promise to "cooperate with the Dukes Conservation District in establishing recommended measures which will be based on the characteristics of the land itself and my particular needs." Which I did. The district promised the technical help I sorely needed.
Bill's examination of the property catalogued the soils and available water. He designed a lined waterway to drain some wet land without eroding good soil on the way to the horse pond. He detailed how many horses (3), adult beef (17), and young beef stock (13) the land could carry, if I planted what he specified and took care of the pasture the way he required. Bill and Elisha designed the farming plan I followed, though not always exactly on schedule and not without a few sidetracks and setbacks. It was the sort of excellent, basic help farmers need, along with non-farmers who have the wherewithal to protect agricultural land and the commitment of farmers and non-farming neighbors who don't mind sitting on agricultural commissions, meeting night after night for hours, to advance the interests of agriculturally minded Vineyarders, against whom all the dominant currents of modern American life are arrayed.