From sweet and tart strawberries to rich purple and green basil plants, the 31,000-square-foot glass greenhouse at Island Grown Initiative’s (IGI) Farm Hub at Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven is filled from floor to ceiling with vibrant produce. Rows of vertical and horizontal pipes akin to home plumbing systems snake throughout the multiple rooms of the greenhouse. Each pipe features a multitude of holes on the top side, into which basil, chives, lettuce, arugula, and many other plants have been placed. These plants are being cultivated through hydroponic methods. Their roots dangle through the holes in the pipe, below which a steady stream of nutrient-rich water flows. This may seem like a more resource-intensive method than traditional farming, but the nutrients are organically sourced. Just across the room, five or six large tanks support about 1,100 rainbow trout. Instead of cleaning their tanks and watering the plants separately, the farm filters the water and diverts it out into all of the complex pipe systems throughout the greenhouse. The plants mature at a much faster pace than traditionally farmed plants, and there is far more space available when you can grow plants vertically, horizontally, diagonally, and suspended, as the tomatoes and peppers within the greenhouse are trained to grow.
On Monday, Island Grown Initiative hosted an open farm of sorts, to share the initiative’s four main programs with curious Islanders and visitors. Attendees were escorted throughout the greenhouse by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff, and then led outside to learn about the Island Grown Schools program in the gardens. The tour culminated with a lesson on the inner workings of the Island Grown Poultry program by leader Matthew Dix.
The poultry program has contributed to the rise in local poultry available on the Island, thanks to the introduction of the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit. This saves local farmers time and money that would otherwise be spent off-Island on travel, and ensures the use of safe and humane methods.
The Island Grown Initiative was founded in 2007, and has since proven its commitment to creating accessible local food systems through four main programs including: Island Grown Schools, Island Grown Poultry, Island Grown Gleaning, and Island Grown Farm Hub. As the organization states, “Each program works collaboratively to provide food and agricultural education, develop infrastructure that supports food production, and increases the supply and demand of locally grown food.” These programs target specific areas within the Vineyard community that would otherwise lack access to fresh food or food education, and provides these services in order to improve the local food system overall.
Island Grown Schools is a farm-to-school program that works with students from ages 2 through 18 at nine local preschools, all seven elementary schools, and the regional high school. This program is divided into four sections; cafeterias, classrooms, gardens, and farm connections. Combined, these touchpoints provide students with hands-on gardening experience at each involved school; enable local food to be served in school cafeterias, including farm-fresh vegetables, meat and fish; and facilitate food-based classroom discussions that culminate in field trips throughout the year. Beyond introducing children to the essentials and importance of local food systems, the program invites children to partake in the creation of their own food, from seed collecting to watering to harvesting. This program has also helped children to give back to the community through the Island Grown Gleaning program. Gleaning refers to the process of harvesting produce that would otherwise be left in the field after the main growing and selling season ends. As IGI framed it, “We work with farmers to reduce crop waste and give their ‘seconds’ a second chance!” Last season alone, 26,000 pounds of excess or unwanted produce was gleaned from Island farms, including but not limited to Morning Glory Farm, Slip Away Farm, Whippoorwill Farm, and North Tabor Farm, then distributed to school cafeterias, seniors, and Islanders in need.
The Island Grown Initiative has made quite an impact on the community since its creation eight years ago, and it plans to continue to grow and work toward an even better Island food system. As Emily Armstrong, the preschool coordinator for Island Grown Schools, put it, “our hope is really to develop this space for the community. Through all of our programs, we’re trying to work together to accomplish this mission.”