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Jamie and Dianne Norton of Bayes Norton Farm

An increase in the number of farms and farmers on Martha’s Vineyard has meant an increasing variety of produce available at farmstands and markets across the Island. In a series of profiles, The Times introduces the men and women who work the earth. This week we talked to Jamie Norton, owner of Norton Farm, on the east side of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven road, on the Oak Bluffs town line. Owners Jamie and Dianne Norton are both teachers at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. They spend their summers farming this lush 50-acre farm, which has been in Jamie’s family since 1837. Norton Farm produces a wide variety of vegetables all summer long, including peas, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, jilo, basil, cucumbers, salad greens, and an array of squashes.

How did you first get into farming?

The Norton Farm is on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.
The Norton Farm is on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

I first got into farming back when I was in second grade; that was when my father inherited the land from his father. My dad was a college professor at that time — he was chairman of the department of religion at the College of Wooster in Ohio. He taught a course on Gandhi that was a required course for all incoming freshmen. When he inherited the land, the property tax on the land was more than his salary as a professor. But, that was when Massachusetts started chapter 61A, which means that if you farm the land, it gets taxed at the farm value, not the potential value for development. By doing that we were able to keep the land — we farm it so we can keep it. My dad always used to say that what he was saving in taxes was what he considered his salary.

The farm never makes money; we do it for love and so that we can keep it and conserve the land. That’s why my wife Dianne and I are both teachers. Farming is our hobby. And we do it now for our kids, so that they can grow up on the farm and see it and appreciate it. That’s also why we do it with sustainable growing practices — we don’t say organic only because it’s too much paperwork. We follow all of the organic practices, but there’s no extra time — it’s hard enough to actually do all of the farming! We’re doing it for love — not for the label, so we tell our customers that sustainably grown means organic, without the ‘O-word.’

What are you growing this month?

At the beginning of this month we finished the pea season. The peas are a big crop for us — when I went to college, peas paid for my college. But now, peas are over, so we’re just getting into tomato season. The cherry tomatoes, people come in and eat like candy. It’s funny because customers say, “Oh no, I don’t like tomatoes,” and we say, “Oh, just try one,” and all of a sudden they buy a pint, and the next day they’re back for another, and they eat them all on the ride home — and these are people that think they don’t like tomatoes!

Today was our first jilo harvest. Jilo is Brazilian Eggplant, which we started growing back in 2004, so we’ve been growing it since before it became popular to grow ethnic foods. We harvest it every Friday, and our customers line up every Friday at 9 am, because after that we’re sold out for the week.

Are there certain recipes that make it so popular?

Well that’s the odd thing, I don’t like it — it’s very bitter. The Brazilians like it when its not ripe — so it’s not sweet yet. When it ripens it turns from green to orange, and people from Portugal like it when it’s orange and make a preserve out of it. Our customers tend to like it green, so that’s when we harvest it.

Tomatoes are coming in big, and in another week we’ll be harvesting beans. When people drive by they’ll see white netting — thats not deer fencing, that’s netting for the beans to trellis on — to grow on. We’re also growing squash and lettuce. One of our big products has always been our mixed greens, which we sell by the bag. And eggplant is starting to come in heavy now. We’re growing white and the traditional purple, and the Asian eggplants, which are longer — they almost resemble bananas in shape. Peppers aren’t here yet, but they’ll be coming in soon as well.

We’re also harvesting potatoes now. They’re coming in big. And pretty soon we’ll start picking zinnias.

We began the lettuce this year in the greenhouse, and transplanted it all — you can see that they’re all about a foot apart, whereas over in the other field the lettuce that we planted directly, are fighting the weeds in order to grow. So it’s a question of what is more efficient. It’s much faster to plant the lettuce directly in the field — we can plant a 250-foot long row in about three minutes, just pushing the planter — it takes longer to plant in the greenhouse, because you have to push each individual seed in by hand. So it takes longer to plant in the greenhouse and then transplant, but you eliminate a lot of the searching and weeding processes. This is the first year we’ve had the greenhouse, so we’re figuring out how much more we should be starting in the greenhouse and then transplanting.

Do you have a favorite part or phase of your farming?

I like taking care of the animals. Every morning I wake up at 5:30 and open the chickens’ door and feed the sheep. And then at night put the chickens back in. I collect the eggs every day. I like the animals, they’re fun. I’ve got ten sheep, and about 200 laying chickens — 100 are three years old — and still laying, and 100 were born February first, and they’re just starting to lay now, so we’ll have more eggs in the next few weeks.

The sheep have seven acres of waterfront property on the Lagoon. We use the sheep for wool — every Memorial Day Andy Rice comes down from Vermont, and he shears the Island, he does everyone. You have to have 60 pounds of fleece to be processed, so I wait and send it all in every four years, and they process it and send it back as yarn, which we also sell.

What do you do with the farm in the winter?

I don’t do a much farming in the winter because of the demands of teaching. I don’t put it to bed as well as I would like to be able to, but you know.

What do you think the biggest challenge of farming on the Vineyard is?

The biggest challenge of farming on Martha’s Vineyard is making enough money to pay taxes, and to pay the workers — that’s one of the hardest things for us. We built a bunkhouse in 1987 and they trade a week’s lodging for 16 hours of work, which is great for the farm, but this year we only have one person utilizing the bunk house. And it’s a shame because so much of a college student’s salary that would otherwise go towards paying rent, could be saved for tuition!

How do you choose seed?

I grow pretty much the same crops every year — except for some crops like broccoli which I don’t grow anymore because the bugs are too hard on it and the effort isn’t worth the yield. But we try to grow what people want. And what doesn’t attract too many bugs. We don’t grow corn for that reason. Morning Glory grows great corn — we like to get corn from them but don’t grow it.

When I was younger we used to spend two hours every morning weeding the corn, and then when it came time to harvest it, we’d get about 12 bushels of corn for the whole summer. And the corn would be half wormy. I remember having to make up excuses like, “Oh, they’re just protein,” for customers, and I decided I don’t want to do that, so we stopped growing corn.

What have you been working on today?

Today I’ve been changing all of the tines on the tractor. They start off about 3 inches, and after two seasons of our sandy soil, they’re about half an inch long and razor sharp!

So you’ve seen our “Eggs-it” Sign, right?


Yes, I love it.

Guess what’s going up on the other side? “Hentrance!” Carol Ramsey, who used to be an English teacher at the high school, came up with Eggs-it, and then a customer came in and said, “Well, if you’ve got eggs-it there, you’ve gotta have a hentrance!”

For more information, visit the farm, check out Norton Farm’s website, at marthasvineyardfarm.com, or call 508-696-5989.

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Rusty Gordon offers a glimpse into life on the farm.

An increase in the number of farms and farmers on Martha’s Vineyard has meant an increasing variety of produce available at farmstands and markets across the Island. In a series of profiles, The Times introduces the men and women who work the earth. This week we talked to Rusty Gordon of Ghost Island Farm, located on State Road in West Tisbury. Rusty started the farm in 2012, and since then has been producing bountiful crops of kale, tomatoes, salad greens, and much more. For more information, visit the farm, call 508-693-5161, or visit ghostislandfarm.com.

How did you get into farming?

When I moved down here, Andrew at Whippoorwill had an ad in the paper in 1989. I called up and went and started working for Andrew in the spring.

What are you growing this month?

Pretty much everything right across the board. Having the farm stand, you want to have the biggest variety you can.

Ghost Island grows a variety of produce using all organic soil and fertilizer.
Ghost Island grows a variety of produce using all organic soil and fertilizer.

Do you have a favorite crop?

Tomatoes have always been my specialty, so we’re growing 60 varieties.

How do you choose the seeds for all of those varieties?

I break it down into a bunch of different things: the number of days it takes them to mature, and also the type of tomatoes – determinate or indeterminate.

Determinate tomatoes will grow into a small bush and then they’ll stop growing and they’ll produce their tomatoes. The plant will start to die and the tomatoes will ripen in a short period of time.

Indeterminates will stay alive – in theory, forever – and they’ll just keep growing up and up and you just keep picking them. It’s better to trellis them. I’m starting to do a certain system where I’m using both in the greenhouses, with indeterminates in the center and determinates on the sides. But I’m also trying to get multiple crops into the greenhouses. So, just to do a quick, early tomato, and then use them for other things, like winter greens and late summer tomatoes.

Do you ever have days off?

No, I’m pretty much here everyday from morning until midnight. There’s so much going on between doing all of the picking until it gets dark, and there’s so much to do in the store. The store itself is an entirely different business than farming. There’s also, after the picking, all of the processing that we’ve got to do with the greens – washing and drying and spinning and bagging.

Is there a certain crop that is the most labor intensive?

Well, all the greens are, because of the way we do things. This field has a lot of clay in it, so we can’t direct seed anything. So we started seeding everything in flats in the greenhouses, and then transplanting them outside and covering them with the insect netting. And then we pull that off to pick, wash, spin, then air dry and bag. When it’s just a tomato, you can just go pick it and it’s ready.

What would you say your biggest challenge is farming on Martha’s Vineyard?

I think that starting out is hard; just being somebody coming here without any money or family land is hard, and just trying to make a business and make it work – especially a farm. And getting it set up and all of the infrastructure set up and done and paid for before you can start making a profit. But it’s all I’ve been doing and I don’t want to be doing anything else.

What part or phase of your farming excites you the most?

I guess looking at the whole picture and doing the planning – figuring out exactly what’s going to happen, where stuff is going to go, that kind of thing. Getting the seeds, figuring out all of the varieties and putting it all together.

I guess that is the way that it all worked out, because instead of doing the bulk of the labor, because we now have five employees, it’s more of just staying on top of everything business-wise. I mean, I love being in the dirt and working, but I’m not there as much as I want to be right now.

How does the community factor into your work?

Well, heavily. We have the co-op program, which is a community supported agriculture, which is doing great. And I think that starting this was really important – without the community, we wouldn’t have been able to start this project and have this farm.

What do you do in the winter?

We have seven greenhouses now so were working on experimenting with what can work and what can’t. And there are a lot of things we can do. We do pretty much anything we can that will help the farm for the coming season. These last couple of years we were open until Christmas time with late crops.

I don’t know what the future holds as far as opening and closing, but we will definitely close for a break at some point. In the winter it’s mostly about preparing for the season ahead; working on the shelves and the farmstand itself and buying the seeds, all of that good stuff.

Do you ever buy genetically modified seeds?

No. None of our seeds are treated or genetically modified. We don’t use any of that. I actually keep a bunch of signs up about our organic growing methods because we’re not allowed to say organic because we’re not certified, but we only use certified organic soil and certified organic fertilizer, and we don’t spray anything at all – except water.

What are you working on today?

Today I’m doing a lot of processing. A lot of stuff is getting picked right now. Usually stuff gets picked either at night or first thing in the morning, so today I’ve been washing kale and bagging, and helping the guys out in the field to get the pumpkins in the field, and then we’re going to plant some green, yellow, and purple soybeans.

Everyday there’s stuff getting picked and other things getting planted. Early in the year its mostly seeding, and then it’s mostly planting, and now it’s getting to the picking stage.

Is there anything we should be looking for in the next few weeks?

Yes. All of the tomatoes are starting to ripen now, so we’ve started picking already, and we’ve got so many different kinds – there are lots to try. We’ve also got 12 varieties of kale, and tons of different kinds of cucumbers of all different colors and sizes, like Middle Eastern ones, brown ones, yellows, whites. We’re trying to do a lot of colors this season so we’re doing the rainbow chard, rainbow bok choy, and red, yellow, and white beets as well.

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The Island Grown Initiative plans to restore the 32,000 square foot Thimble Farm greenhouse. — Photo by Randi Baird

The Island Grown Initiative (IGI), a Martha’s Vineyard nonprofit focused on sustainable agriculture, has unveiled an ambitious plan to transform its 41-acre property, the former Thimble Farm in Oak Bluffs, into an energy self-sufficient Island agricultural hub. The estimated price tag is between $10 and $12 million.

IGI leaders described their vision at a public meeting Saturday at the Oak Bluffs Library. It includes finishing the renovation of the existing 32,000-square-foot greenhouse to allow for year-round hydroponic vegetable and fish production and food processing; expanded farming, a fruit tree orchard, a slaughterhouse for processing Island-raised meat, an extensive composting plan and employee housing with three farmer family homes and congregate housing for up to 12 seasonal workers. The plan includes solar arrays and two 140-foot wind turbines that IGI said would make the farm energy self-sufficient.

Almost 30 people attended an Island Grown Initiative presentation on proposed changes to Thimble Farm at the Oak Bluffs library Saturday morning.
Almost 30 people attended an Island Grown Initiative presentation on proposed changes to Thimble Farm at the Oak Bluffs library Saturday morning.

Approximately 30 people heard the plan, including members of the Iron Hill Farm Association (IHFA), a nearby residential development’s road association. Several association members expressed concern about increased traffic associated with expanded farm production, in particular, a meat processing facility. Noise, odors, and vermin were also on the short list of concerns.

Neighbor and IHFA member Alton Hardaway said he thought that while he and other neighbors were concerned about the traffic, the slaughterhouse was his primary objection. “Without the slaughter house you might be surprised that some of us might even donate to the project,” he said.

Road association president Richard Jennings expressed the consensus of the association. “Listen to the neighbors, listen to the neighbors,” he said.

Integrated plan

In the Thimble Farm Concept Plan, a 29-page document, South Mountain Company, a West Tisbury building and design firm hired to plan, design, and build the project, lays out the specific details.

“The idea is to create an integrated “agricultural hub” that will service many aspects and needs of the Vineyard food system,” according to the plan introduction. “It is intended to provide services to farmers and the community that aid in the development of a robust and vibrant local food system.”

The introduction lists 13 inter-connected components of the plan and notes, “The concept plan is an early expression of that idea; both the plan and the farm will evolve over time.”

IGI president Sarah McKay, manager of Cronig’s Market, presented a brief description of IGI and opened a PowerPoint presentation of the concept plan.

Thimble Farm neighbor, Alton Hardaway, questioned farm manager Keith Wilda and new IGI board member Simon Athearn (left to right) about the Thimble Farm proposal after the presentation.
Thimble Farm neighbor, Alton Hardaway, questioned farm manager Keith Wilda and new IGI board member Simon Athearn (left to right) about the Thimble Farm proposal after the presentation.

Thimble Farm manager Keith Wilda described the agricultural components of the project. They include plans to increase the productive capacity of the greenhouse by building multiple levels of productive space. Trout would be grown hydroponically and a closed loop system would recycle all of the water and waste generated by the greenhouse.

Mr. Wilda said that an important part of the plan is the development of programs that will help local farmers improve their productive capacity using sustainable agricultural methods. He said the plans include the creation of programs to help farmers and students learn about sustainable farming methods. He expects the greenhouse to be used to grow seedlings for local farms.

South Mountain president John Abrams, the project coordinator, provided a detailed description of the physical aspects of the plan which he described as a preliminary proposal, subject to change. He said the project would develop over time as funds from farm revenues and donations made the improvements possible.

Mr. Abrams said he did not think the additional traffic would be much, or any greater than that generated by the previous community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Regarding the slaughterhouse, Mr. Abrams said, “We will build the best slaughterhouse in the world.” He said the plans include methods that would eliminate odor, prevent vermin, and allow for the recycling of much of the waste.

Doug Ruskin, who lives about a half mile from the farm off Stoney Hill Road in West Tisbury, asked about the need for the two windmills when there is ample space available for maintenance free solar arrays.

Mr. Abrams said that the all of the appropriate roofs would have solar panels but those would not provide enough power to meet the projected needs.

This Google map image shows the location of the two proposed wind turbines on Thimble Farm.
This Google map image shows the location of the two proposed wind turbines on Thimble Farm.

He said the turbines would allow the farm to generate the additional power without taking any land out of agricultural production by covering them with solar panels. He said the turbines would be similar in size to the turbines at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown and Allen Farm in Chilmark and would be at least 600 feet from abutting properties.

The plan calls for two, 140-foot-high,  E3120 Endurance turbines at a cost of $807,000. That figure is reduced by state incentives and state and federal tax credits to $363,900. A state agricultural exemption allows an applicant to bypass a town’s zoning bylaws as long as they use more than 50 percent of the energy produced by turbines for commercial agriculture.

Mr. Abrams said the project would be subject to review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. He said the project is financeable and could take on debt.

Green thumb

The notion of investing $10 to $12 million in 41 acres might seem a significant hurdle, but to date IGI has been highly successful in raising funds and finding donors.

Thimble Farm was designed by previous owner Bencion Moskow to raise tomatoes and berry fruits hydroponically. When it went on the market, Eric Grubman, a National Football League executive and Edgartown summer resident, bought the farm in 2007, for $2.45 million, to keep it in agricultural production, with the stipulation that his ownership would be temporary and provide time for those interested in preserving the farm to find a more permanent solution.

A community coalition of Island conservation, agriculture, and housing group representatives, local farmers, and interested residents, all determined to preserve the property for agricultural use, failed to raise the money. At the 11th hour, Mr. Grubman and Allan and Shelley Holt of Washington, D.C., and Chilmark, agreed to fund an IGI purchase.

Allan Holt is managing director of the Carlyle Group, one of the nation’s largest private-equity investment firms. The Carlyle Group buys and sells privately held companies. In the past, the firm has employed George H. W. Bush and former British prime minister John Major.

At the time, the purchase represented a major change for an organization that was lead by volunteers and owned no hard assets.

In July 2013, IGI announced that it had signed a purchase and sale agreement with the Dunkl family to purchase the family’s 23-acre homestead off Old Farm Road in Chilmark. Under the agreement, siblings Heidi, Peter, and Frank Dunkl will continue to live in the house they built on the property they have owned for more than 50 years for the rest of their lives. The Dunkls are the owners of the Chilmark Spring Water Company. The purchase price was $1,459,913, according to a deed on file at the Dukes County Registry of Deeds signed December 5, 2013.

Last July, IGI said its objective “is to preserve and protect the abundant water source that is important to the Island community, to protect the property as a natural resource and to protect the natural habitat that includes many endangered species and plants as well as a diversity of wildlife.”

In addition to Ms. McKay, IGI officers include treasurer Mary Kenworth, co-owner of State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury, and clerk Randi Baird also of West Tisbury.

Ms. McKay said two new board members were recently added to help with the additional responsibilities of the growing organization. Simon Athearn, chief of operations at his family’s Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown and Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Market, who previously served on the board. Ms. McKay said Mr. Grubman and the Holts remain strong supporters but have no decision-making role.

As it moves forward, IGI continues to attract financial support. According to one insider, a West Tisbury resident has contributed $500,000 since the farm purchase.

IGI will present the concept plan at its annual farmers’ dinner on March 10 at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury.