IGI unveils $10 to $12 million Thimble Farm development plan

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.

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 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.

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.