Making working farms work on Martha’s Vineyard?

Molly Glasgow (left) catches up with Dan Sauer and Wenonah Madison. — Photo by Meg Higgins

“The panel shed light on some of the barriers, real or perceived, about the harvest, delivery, the business of farming,” Ali Berlow said about a forum at the Grange Hall on November 1. “Turning butternut squash into soup for sale at the grocery store or for a school cafeteria…making pork from pig, and then into chops, loins and sausages for the meat counter.”

Called “From Farm to Market, Meeting the Local Demand,” the forum was sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Women’s Network and moderated by Ms. Berlow, executive director of Island Grown Initiative (IGI). Panelists were Rebecca Miller of North Tabor Farm in Chilmark; Sarah McKay, manager of Cronig’s markets and president of IGI; Wenonah Madison and Dan Sauer of 7a Farm in Aquinnah; and Mary Kenworth, proprietor of State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury. They all spoke with The Times after the event.

And they all emphasized the importance of marketing — and buying power. “How can the price of local food compete in a highly subsidized, industrial food system that churns out such cheap food?” Ms. Berlow asked. “How do we make whole, healthy foods accessible to all pocketbooks?”

Mr. Sauer, an accomplished chef, talked about integrating products he knows into his recipes, implying that an intimate connection with his ingredients would make his cooking more interesting. “Eventually, I’d like to use products that I grow or that are all Island-grown,” he said. “My expertise is in cooking, but I want to learn as much as I can about growing.”

He also spoke about developing value-added products, such as tomatoes, dried or turned into sauce.

Ms. Miller said she concentrated on sharing both her love of farming and what she’s learned over the years.

“I looked at all the young people there, and I wanted to inspire them about farming,” she said. “I wanted to pass on knowledge of things that worked for me. People get into farming because they love working with the earth, but marketing is so key to success. I’ve tried everything, and I still do everything, which may not be the most effective way, but it seems to work for me.”

Ms. Kenworth was quick to credit the organizers of the discussion.

“Sometimes it seems like it’s still a conversation, but that’s how things get started,” she said. “I spoke about the new program with the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries that enables restaurants to obtain a retail fish license so that we can purchase fish right from the day-boat fishermen, instead of it traveling to Boston, being auctioned, butchered, resold, and driven back. The forum was more about farmers and their hurdles and challenges, and I was saying, here is a program that works that wasn’t around even 18 months ago, so keep the faith.”

Ms. McKay represented the retail end of the process. She described the progress and the frustrations that remain. “We’ve found that because we look like a corporate entity, it’s really difficult for some people, especially younger people, to walk into our store and start doing business with us. We need to keep telling people that we want their stuff, and we don’t mind if it’s just a little bit at the end of the season, or if it’s just a couple of times a year.

“To see this whole movement over the past five years, and as it continues to gather momentum, is really encouraging, and there are opportunities out there. There’s a huge opportunity coming with the four-legged slaughter-house, if we can get there.”

Ms. Berlow referred to another potential boost for the marketing process. “I keep hearing, Why don’t we build a multi-purpose, commercial community kitchen that can serve as a business incubator — a place to make value-added products, as well as a place to teach kitchen arts such as canning?”