Vineyard Farm Project looks to grow public support for purchase

Members of CSA harvest the bounty of a growing season. — File photo by Susan Safford

Representatives of Island conservation, agricultural and housing groups, local farmers, and interested Island residents met Tuesday night at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury to plan how to raise $2.5 million to purchase 40 acres of farmland in Oak Bluffs, formerly known as Thimble Farm, by year’s end.

Officially known as the “Vineyard Farm Project,” organizers envision converting the property to nonprofit ownership as a working farm in perpetuity with land set aside for affordable housing for farm workers.

The land is subject to a conservation restriction the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank holds that limits its use to agricultural purposes. That includes its use as a private horse farm.

In 2007, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a private farming co-operative, was using the land when it went on the market.

In a last-minute deal, Eric Grubman, a National Football League executive and seasonal Edgartown resident, reached an agreement to purchase the land from owner Lawrence Benson in an effort to maintain the CSA foothold.

Mr. Grubman, then the NFL’s executive vice president for finance and strategic transactions, said at the time that he was committed to keeping the land in sustainable food production.

CSA officials said that Mr. Grubman’s purchase of the land would give CSA time to set up some form of nonprofit ownership structure.

Mr. Grubman said recently that he wants to liquidate his interest in the property, and that he was willing to make a sizable donation to support plans to convert the property to agricultural use in perpetuity. The majority of the acreage is located in Oak Bluffs and its edges touch Tisbury and West Tisbury as well.

The Vineyard Farm Project includes The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, which is acting as the fiscal agent for the fund-raising effort, Island Housing Trust, The Farm Institute, Vineyard Conservation Society, Island Grown Initiative, and Whippoorwill Farm CSA .

“Broadly speaking, our goal is food security and we want to gauge the community’s interest in a sustainable farm providing safe, nutritious food in the future, and to alert community leadership and donors of the opportunity to convert from public to private ownership,” Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, said.

“It will require $2.5 million, which will buy 40 acres of land on Martha’s Vineyard along with outbuildings and a functional irrigation system. The immediate risk is to lose both a sympathetic seller and the land,” Mr. O’Neill said.

Mr. O’Neill was one of three speakers who described the time-sensitive opportunity to retain 40 acres of land in conservation, providing locally grown food raised by local working farmers.

Their comments set the stage for a general question and answer session followed by two breakout sessions, one devoted to marketing and raising awareness for the project and the other to fundraising strategies.

Jim Oldham, executive director of Equity Trust in Turners Falls, who is consulting with the consortium through a grant from the Agricultural Society, said, “It can be done; takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. People who have done it are thrilled with what they have. You have a great group of local organizations already supporting this opportunity to raise funds that will serve the community from generation to generation.”

Equity Trust is a nonprofit that makes small loans ($5,000 to $150,000) and facilitates the conversion of U.S. farms from private ownership to long-term nonprofit ownership. Mr. Oldham said his firm would not be an investor in the project.

Jon Previant, executive director of The FARM Institute in Katama, set a frank tone to the discussion. “Here’s some context,” he said. “We have 1,756 acres of farmland on Martha’s Vineyard but only 935 acres of food-growing farmland.” He added that Thimble Farm represents four percent of the total. “If you want to eat it local, you’ve got to grow it local and you’re not going to get there if you give farmland away.”

“For two weeks in June, we had no lettuce available from off-Island. We relied completely on Island-grown lettuce,” Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Market, said.

Comments from several audience members and project members cited a need for a clearly defined business plan that would assure donors of the long-term viability of the farm leasing aspect of the project.

“I’m all for this and I’m willing to donate,” Ralph Fargnoli, a seasonal Edgartown resident from Rhode Island, said. “I’m a member of CSA but I don’t know anything about farming. You need a business model to bring to people who make donations. What are farmers doing to avoid competing with each other? Can you make money on a 37-acre farm?”

Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm and a member of The Agriculture Society, described the realities: “Our own survival has required cooperation,” he said. “It’s not always easy to put together, but there is a sense we’re all partners.”

Mr. Oldham said size is not a function of profitability. “You can make money on two or three acres and there are 100-acre farms that lose money,” he said, adding that his firm has guided many private to public farm conversions and the RFP model is an efficient method to sort out appropriate leaseholders.

Mr. Athearn said the nonprofit conservation route works. “We had an opportunity with some family acreage to do that and we made an agreement with the Land Bank,” he said. “We farm it and if we wish to sell, The Land Bank can buy it for $2,000 an acre.”

Noting that Thimble Farm is already protected from private development, Mr. Athearn said the next step is to designate the land for farming “so it doesn’t become a golf course.” He said that the Agricultural Society is working to exert more influence than its annual agricultural fair every August. The Society has funded Mr. Oldham’s involvement and will provide an information booth at the fair for the project, he said.

Island resident Roy Riley asked the group to consider setting a small part of the acreage aside for community gardening. “I think that would create a lot of interest in this project and in the locally grown effort,” he said.

After formal presentations were concluded, the fundraising group explored ways and means of raising $2.5 million. Island builder Pat Brown of Tisbury, Mr. Moore, Mr. Athearn, Mr. Bernier, Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, and Emily Klebanoff drove much of the discussion.

Early discussion about finding a single donor eventually ended with a consensus for a three-tiered approach: identifying and approaching “deep-pocket” or large donors; a second tier of mid-level donors; along with a grassroots campaign to involve Island residents, perhaps through $25 and $50 donations to buy a square foot of the acreage.

“It’s a long road to raise $2.5 million in small donation increments, but identifying 250 people who would invest $10,000 seems doable,” Mr. Brown said. “That’s something I would invest in, based on a good business plan.”

Mr. Athearn said that while many Island residents have the resources to be single donor, “much of those kinds of resources are in foundations with specific missions.”

Emily Klebanoff said there are foundations for which the project would be a fit. “They are out there, you just have to find them,” she said. “There are two problems we face. People assume Martha’s Vineyard has all the money it needs or that the scope (of the Farm Project) is too small, won’t help enough people.”

The group agreed to select a team leader for the project, working with Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation as the fiscal agent. Adam Moore said Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation would hold donations sent in the name of the Vineyard Farm Project. After the meeting, Mr. Moore said that additional costs in the five-figure range would be needed for legal, consulting, and other soft costs.

Across the room, Alice Early, a CSA board member, led discussion on raising public awareness.

In a telephone call following the meeting, Ms. Early said the group has begun to identify tasks and sign up volunteers. “Our charge from Eric [Grubman] is to get a feel for community support, that they care for this project,” she said. “He has been clear that he doesn’t want to set an artificial deadline.

“He’s committed to helping us do what he bought the farm to enable us to do. Our job is to make the community understand the urgency around this project and to understand why farmland should be important to them.”


In the print version of this story Emily Klebanoff was incorrectly identified as Emily Woodruff.