Growing our own


Fewer than 1,000 of this Island’s 60,000 acres are farmland producing food for human consumption — and yet, agriculture is cited again and again as essential to the character of Martha’s Vineyard. Farming, like fishing, is understood as fundamental to this place, even if its overall impact these days is more iconic than economic.

Recently, I was invited to moderate a panel discussion of Vineyarders involved with farms and food at the Oak Bluffs Library — one in a series of programs built around Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Tasty local-grown snacks were provided after the discussion by one of the panelists, Jan Buhrman of Kitchen Porch caterers. But first came an hour of food for thought.

For small farmers across America, Kingsolver sees the lack of robust local markets as the primary impediment to growth. She tells the heartbreaking story of an organic tomato-growing cooperative that struggled for a year to bring its crop to harvest, only to see the local supermarkets break their promises to buy the product when truckloads of cheap tomatoes from California became available. (As Sidney Morris of The FARM Institute pointed out, something very like this happened to the local milk industry half a century ago, when off-Island milk undercut prices and killed what had been a thriving Vineyard enterprise.)

Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm, which opened for another season last week, said that finding buyers for locally grown produce is not the issue for Vineyard farmers.

“The community support here is so outstanding,” he said. “We wouldn’t exist without it.”

His fellow panelists agreed that Island shoppers are plenty hungry for food grown nearby and willing to pay a reasonable premium for local produce. The limit on agricultural production here, not surprisingly, is the cost of land.

On Martha’s Vineyard, we’ve sharpened the vocabulary of the debate over development to a fine point, but between the polar choices of subdividing land and putting it under the conservationist’s bell jar lies a third option, and that’s cultivation.

A year ago, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission issued a report examining the issue of Island agriculture from the standpoint of self-sufficiency. This report estimates that the Vineyard’s year-round population spent some $43 million on food in 2005, but less than $1 million of that was for food grown on Island farms. The report further estimates that to meet the food needs of the current year-round population, we’d need to put more than 11,500 Island acres under the plow — a land mass the size of Chilmark.

The MVC report, in a wonderful piece of understatement, admits: “It is highly unlikely that there would ever be this much acreage devoted to agriculture on the Vineyard.”

In fact, Mr. Athearn said, the Island never has been self-sufficient for its food: “We’ll always be interdependent. Heck, in the American Revolution, people here were worried about getting cut off from their food supply by the British blockade, because they were getting their grain from other places.”

My panelists agreed that self-sufficiency, though unattainable, does point this community in the right direction in terms of the way we think about our food.

“There needs to be a distinction between commercial farming,” said Rebecca Gilbert of Teaching Earth Farm in Chilmark, “where you grow more than what you need for your own family and sell enough to support yourself, and home gardening. I think that if we all dug up our lawns and put in gardens on the Island, we would have an area the size of Chilmark pretty fast.”

Ali Berlow, the editor of Edible Vineyard Magazine and a founder of the Island-Grown Initiative (I-GI), said it’s important to understand that different food products have different issues. I-GI changed the face of local agriculture a few years back by creating the Mobile Processing Unit (MPU) for chickens — a slaughtering service that makes it possible for Island farms like Morning Glory to bring poultry to market.

The raising of poultry on the Island has exploded with the advent of the MPU, which last year processed four thousand birds. As a consequence, one of the Vineyard’s fastest growing imports is chicken feed. But Mr. Athearn said Morning Glory Farm is working on this, too.

“I actually planted six varieties of wheat last fall,” he said. “I got the seed from UMass, which is trying to rediscover what kinds of wheat grow in New England.”

Meanwhile, an effort to duplicate the success of the MPU program, but with four-legged farm animals, is underway as a joint project of I-GI and the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, and it’s possible the Island will have a licensed slaughterhouse in as little as a couple of years’ time.

Thalia Scanlon, president of Community Solar Greenhouse of Martha’s Vineyard (COMSOG) and the Island’s acknowledged maven of heritage tomatoes, noted that COMSOG is all about home gardening. “Our classes and workshops help folks grow more of their own food — on a nice, affordable scale,” she says. “What we’ve been trying to do at COMSOG, since the beginning in 1984, is help people understand that even if all you’ve got is a little backyard, there’s something you can do there that you can enjoy, whether it’s herbs or tomatoes — and people who know me, know I’m slightly insane on that subject.”

The message from the panelists seemed to be that we needn’t be disheartened by that 19-square-mile shortfall in agricultural land on Martha’s Vineyard. This community’s sensibilities are moving in the right direction. A new generation of farmers is connecting with the elemental satisfactions of cultivating food for local tables, and at Morning Glory Farm, the beets should be ready for eating sometime in the next two weeks.