After 20 years, Rusty Gordon is on his own in the farming business

Rusty gordon, surrounded by fresh produce. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

He didn’t grow up on a farm, come from a rural area, or attend agricultural school, but after more than 20 years working the Vineyard earth, Rusty Gordon knows plenty about growing good vegetables. Last year, after working with Andrew Woodruff at Whippoorwill Farm since first arriving on the Island from Lowell in 1989, Mr. Gordon decided to try going it on his own. With plenty of on-the-job learning and varied responsibilities from working in the fields and greenhouses to, more recently, managing Mr. Woodruff’s large CSA operation and supervising workers, Mr. Gordon believed he had the skills to start his own farming business.

Like many new Island farmers, he had plenty of energy and determination but no land of his own. But last fall he was offered use of a small plot owned by generous West Tisbury neighbors. Mr. Gordon planted some late-season crops, and Ghost Island Farm was born. He was encouraged after selling his home grown produce at the winter West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. Early last summer, he took a major step and opened his own farm stand at the former dairy at Nip ‘n’ Tuck Farm in West Tisbury.

The small store set back from State Road on the dirt lane leading to the barn had been busy for years when the dairy was in full swing. Customers would come by for half-gallon glass jugs of raw milk, thick cream, and eggs, and often a conversation with the late Fred Fisher Jr.

But after the elder Mr. Fisher died, the dairy became a quieter place. A few years later milk production at the farm ceased, and although several ambitious individuals including Fisher family members sought to run a farm stand and related retail business at the site none succeeded for long.

Mr. Gordon said that thanks to fortuitous timing, the farm stand became available as he was seeking land and a place to sell his produce. Along with renting him the shop with walk-in cooler, refrigerator case, and freezer, Fred Fisher III who now owns and operates Nip ‘n’ Tuck Farm offered two acres of farmland for growing crops. Coincidentally, Mr. Gordon knew Mr. Fisher and was familiar with the property since he and Mr. Woodruff had grown Whippoorwill crops here years ago.

“Freddy has helped me out so much, ” said Mr. Gordon appreciatively, adding that Mr. Fisher has been very supportive of the business, and even let him use farm machinery and pitched in with the field work.

Now Mr. Gordon faced with the challenges of starting a farming operation on his own and launching a new retail business too. There was the expense purchasing tools, seeds, fencing, and many other materials and supplies. He had to buy signs, advertise, make sandwich boards for the road, and struggle to get the word out that the farm stand was open. He was racing back and forth between the farm, greenhouses at his West Tisbury neighbors’ home, and a half-acre garden in Vineyard Haven. He soon realized it was nearly impossible to tend the crops and run the shop at the same time. His longtime girlfriend, Sarah Crittenden, joined in when she could, overseeing the store so Mr. Gordon could get back to farming chores. Later he hired part-time help, but was mostly on his own.

His work days were longer than ever, weather and customer demand unpredictable. Adding to his work, Mr. Gordon is co-manager of the West Tisbury Farmers Market with Linda Alley and sells his produce there and at Cronig’s Up-Island Market.

Now three months later the farm stand is thriving. It is peak harvest time and bins are filled with produce – leafy lettuce, carrots, beets, colorful peppers, red and yellow onions, potatoes, beans. There are shelves of winter squash, a tub of aromatic basil, baskets of tomatoes. Most of the bins are marked with the Ghost Island logo, indicating that Mr. Gordon grew them here. In some cases, when his crops are finished he brings produce from off-Island, but always from nearby Massachusetts or Rhode Island farms.

Once again the former dairy is a busy and welcoming place. Out front a pick- your-own flower garden is bright with zinnias, cosmos, and sunflowers, and there are chairs on the lawn for relaxing. Cows and calves graze across the way. Customers are greeted with the scratchy sounds of classic jazz played on an old turntable. and small flower bouquets brighten the room. Both Mr. Gordon and Ms. Crittenden are friendly, helpful, and ready to chat.

Along with local vegetables Mr. Gordon offers a small selection of organic fruits from off-Island, and displays other Island-made products such as jellies, honey, syrup, and granola, as well as cold drinks and ice-cream novelties. Especially popular are the frozen Nip ‘n’ Tuck meats including hamburger, sausage, and bacon.

Although it has been hard work to let people know about the stand and build a clientele, Mr. Gordon said response has been overwhelmingly positive. Many customers are glad to see the old dairy thriving again.

“People come in and love the place!” he said. “They see the flowers, hear the music, then they see the produce room and their faces light up!”

Mr. Gordon is pleased with the progress but knows there is much more needed. He is optimistic and already making plans for next year. He hopes to work with Mr. Fisher to expand farming here so he can consolidate his crops and greenhouses in one place. He wants to augment the selection of Island-grown meats to go along with Nip ‘n’ Tuck’s.

He plans to launch a cooperative in which members can buy a share, paying in advance for a season’s worth of produce and other products. He will start on a small scale, enrolling only 50 members the first year. Unlike traditional CSA plans, the cooperative will allow members to shop any day and select whatever they wish.

“It’s what I’m going to have to do to make it work,” said Mr. Gordon, explaining that the predictable advance income will better allow him to plan and pay expenses as needed.

But for this year, Mr. Gordon has plenty of produce and more growing in the fields. He plans to stay open into the fall as long as possible.

“If I can get enough locals to shop here, I’ll stay open,” he promised.