Slideshow: The Farmers

Cows, chickens, hazelnuts and anatomy lessons.


“On the Island, farming is tough … you have to take it on as a lifestyle.”

—Rusty Gordon of Ghost Island Farm, West Tisbury

Farmers on the Vineyard do a lot of things: Milk the cows, harvest 100 varieties of tomatoes, teach farm visitors how chickens care for their eggs (or how baby pigs forage for their food); they research the gene pool of hazelnuts, or perfect a potent new strain of garlic. Our farmers wear many hats — gardeners, shopkeepers, scientists, educators, inventors. Owners of four Vineyard farms recently shared what they grow and why they do what they do.

Mermaid Farm and Dairy, 9 Middle Road, Chilmark

Allen Healy (AH)

Caitlin Jones (CJ)

Education of a Farmer

AH: I guess I’m really a mechanic, and I like animals. I went to school for airplane mechanics, and then I worked at the Allen Farm and got into farming that way. I learned from Mitchell Posin and Clarissa Allen. Fred Fischer, Ronnie Silva, and Donnie Mills also shared their knowledge over the years. I sort of feel like you have to grow up doing it … there’s so much to know. You can spend a lifetime gathering that knowledge. To have someone pass any of what they’ve learned down to you is a gift.   

CJ: I have always liked plants and gardening. When I was 19, I worked for many of the Island farms. There were two of us “co-op” farm hands. We went around to each of the farms when they needed us: Morning Glory, Andrew Woodruff, Larry Hepler (who grew melons), and Donnie Mills.

It was great — really the experience you want. I realize now that I should also have gone “WWOOFing,” like the younger farmers do now to get more experience. [WWOOFing is a volunteer experience through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.]

At one point I also worked for Susie Silva, arranging flowers. If I get the time, I sell flowers here. I like having them growing all over to feed the bees and butterflies.

Permaculture and Hazelnuts

CJ: My biggest success this year is germinating hazelnuts that I bought from Badgersett Farm [famous hazelnut breeder,]. I got 10 out of 12 hazelnuts from Badgersett’s gene pool to sprout and grow. Because hazelnuts are perennial, we won’t have to till the soil after they are established. I plan to track down some promising Island hazelnuts this year and try to germinate them for next year.  

Maybe down the line we’ll get nuts and oil.

Vegetables and Creamery

AH: Mermaid Farm is really two entities. We have the dairy, which milks the cows, makes yogurt and cheese, and there are two or three people out there in the summer. Caitlin runs the plant kingdom part of the farm out front. 

CJ: We’ve really kept it separate. I don’t ever want to be inside, I’m an outside person. I like tending plants and listening to the birds and keeping track of monarch butterflies.

There’s kind of a line, just past the last greenhouse going out back; we try not to cross each other’s line.

The New Farm Stand

AH: The new stand is from Polly Hill Arboretum. It’s the old tool shed that was located next to an evergreen magnolia and the “gym.” Our friend Aaron Zender and his brother Brett “unleashed” its true beauty this winter. They used many board hoards and piles of “really good” debris from their scavenging forays.

CJ: We planted a new evergreen magnolia near the stand so that friendship could be rekindled.

Future: No Till and the Milk Parlor

CJ: I have been trying to learn how to grow vegetables “no till,” and also plan and plant polycultures.

AH: We want to build a portable “milk parlor” that’s been used in Europe to milk the cows out on pasture. The cows will be happier on grass without flies, and the natural fertilizer will be applied all around the hay fields by the cows, not by a tractor and spreader. All of the hay fields are too far away for milking cows to walk to twice a day.

The FARM Institute, 14 Aero Avenue, Edgartown

Jon Previant (JP), general manager; Alec Forbes (AF), farm manager; Jesse Gehrke (JG), assistant farm manager

A Teaching Farm

AF: We are year-round a production farm, raising beef, sheep, layer hens, and also to a smaller extent pigs, turkeys, and broilers. In the summer we are a teaching farm, with the teaching-farm agenda driving a lot of the other farming agendas. We accommodate campers, the farm-based educators, the volunteers, and the community at large.

We’ve just merged with The Trustees of Reservations, which has broadened the umbrella and hasn’t changed a whole lot yet of how we conduct our affairs.

Things probably won’t change a lot until our plans for an expanded teaching kitchen get underway. Then we’ll have more outreach with the community — offering cooking classes and food processing — all in a larger format than right now.

Nonprofit Activities

AF: Also, we are a nonprofit, which means we have different objectives than a for-profit operation. We need to be sensitive and not compete with our neighbors who are for profit.

We sell off the FARM, at the Farmers Market and at Cronig’s — primarily beef, lamb, and eggs.

We also do a lot of outreach as a nonprofit educational institution. That means a lot of what we do benefits other farmers as well as the community — bringing in speakers, putting on events.

So I believe we fit into the Island community in a unique way.

JP: Our commitment is to take 10 percent of last year’s sales and donate that equivalent in meat or produce or events to benefit other nonprofits. That’s our way of making sure that we stay part of the community that supports us.

The Future for the Farm Animals: Beef, Hogs, Chickens?

JG: They are all destined to be processed.

AF: This whole experience for kids and animals is [intended] to be illuminating the pathways from the farm to the kitchen. The kids know where these animals ultimately end up — that’s the whole point.

JG: Just last week, the camp kids learned the way a farm would evaluate their laying hens: the point when they aren’t laying at a profitable rate anymore [decides the time to] process them as stewing hens. It was all hands on, an anatomy lesson.

Vegetables and the Harvest: The Friendship Garden

JP: The whole point of the Friendship Garden is to make it a teaching garden — to teach children how to grow vegetables. It’s a very pure part of our teaching effort. The hierarchy for the vegetable production here is first and foremost to teach; second, to fund the camp and staff with fresh vegetables (the camp does a lot of cooking). Then, if we have something left over, we either sell or donate.

JG: Kids come in here for cooking classes; they’ll be chopping things up — it’s a very busy place. I made salsa yesterday with the campers.

JP: On Friday we have the Friday fiesta — skits and food that the kids have made. Often the parents and grandparents attend. We look at the Friendship Garden as a great educational resource.

Teaching Moments

JP: The shorthand we use a lot is: We are an educational process, and the farm is the curriculum. Alec and Jesse have an important role in making sure the farm works as a curriculum. The educational focus doesn’t ever shift, it’s just more intense. It’s always the point of what we do. We say, “If we can’t make a lesson out of this, then we shouldn’t do it.” Almost every moment on the farm is a teaching moment.

JG: Let’s herd some sheep. They are somewhere they don’t belong.

AF: The challenge is to make the unexpected teachable.

Ghost Island Farm, 27 Davis Look Road, West Tisbury

Rusty Gordon

A Community Co-Op

I’ve been here five years as Ghost Island Farm. I made up that name about 20 years ago, when I was working for Whippoorwill Farm. When I [sold produce] on the side, I’d call it Ghost Island. I starting calling it a co-op just to keep it separate from others…. We may be the only one now. It’s a CSA as well. The property is owned by Fred Fischer, my friend and landlord.

My members pay $250. That goes into their account. They shop at the stand from a selection of our fruits and vegetables; we have Grey Barn’s cheese, New Lane Sundries’ jam. Any shopping at the stand is all part of the same membership. We take a 10 percent discount off, and deduct the purchase amount from their account. They have the freedom to choose exactly what they want whenever they want it. And members get to pick their own flowers for free. We are up to about 300 members right now.

One Hundred Tomatoes

Everything in the store with our label is farmed here. I try to bring in things I don’t have, keeping all produce organic and local as I possibly can. We try to have everything across the board. Last year we only cultivated about four acres, so we decided to cut out corn and pumpkins, just because we didn’t have enough space. (We get corn from Western Massachusetts or Rhode Island.) This year we doubled in size: four acres here, four at Thimble Farm.

For sure, we are known for our tomatoes. We have 100 varieties this year. Last year we had 80, the year before that 60. I stick with a lot of varieties I really like, and I expand from there. Some I don’t grow anymore.

No matter how much garlic we grow, it will all sell here; some of the varieties will keep a long time.

Year-Round Program

I’m partnering with my girlfriend Sarah, so there are at least two of us here all the time. We take staff on as needed. Having a retail store is almost a different business than farming. My season used to be June through December, but now we are working toward a year-round program. With greenhouses, as soon as the tomatoes finish, we’ll plant kale and spinach. I’ll find a pocket of weather when the ground isn’t frozen, I’ll put in some carrots, pick from the greenhouses.

Expanding and Learning

Every year it’s getting better and better with more business, and more members. We are still learning things, making things better for the farm. That’s key — expanding. Like having our tomatoes for sale at other places.

The first priority for selling is here at the stand; if I have excess, it goes to the Farmers Market, then Cronig’s is my No. 1 place.

On the Island, farming is tough … you have to take it on as a lifestyle.

This is it — there’s nothing else that I want to do at this point in my life. Everything gets better … I’m going to make it work.

Fiddlehead Farm, State Road, West Tisbury

Bob Skydell

Editor’s note: Mr. Skydell announced in August that Fiddlehead Farm will be closing by the end of October. He hopes to reestablish the farmstand not far away in West Tisbury as an up-Island “food hub” between Aquinnah and Vineyard Haven.

A Gardener and Shopkeeper

I’ve always been a gardener, from the time I was a little boy. I’ve been fascinated by growing things. I prefer to think of myself as a gardener rather than a farmer. Even though we grow a lot of food, it’s in a very small area. If it was any bigger, I’d lose contact with the plants themselves. I don’t think I’d want to be sitting on a tractor. I like the fact that we do everything by hand here: We water by hand, plant by hand, harvest by hand.

This is our 10th season at Fiddlehead — 10 years — it’s a milestone. I owned Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs, built and ran that for 10 years. This has been quite a switch.

My grandfather had a general store in Somerville, N.J. Shopkeeping is not a word you hear a lot these days, but it really is a wonderful thing. A delightful experience for both the shop owner and the customers. I’ve grown to define myself more and more as a shopkeeper. And relish that.

Organic Succession Planting

A portion of what we sell here is grown here. We are limited by the space of a third of an acre that we actually cultivate. But we grow very intensely: As soon as we harvest the plant, we plant something in its place. We do succession planting, maximizing the small area we have.

Everything I’ve ever grown is organic. And the vegetables I buy from other Island farmers are also organic. I don’t like the idea of spraying anything on the plants. We do sometimes have problems: Right now we are suffering the beginnings of a blight on the basil. It’s a fairly new problem on the Island that started about five years ago. It’s highly problematic since you lose a good portion of your crop. And basil is a big income producer for me.

Herbs, Salad Greens, Meat and Cheese

I like growing herbs a lot, because they don’t require a lot of maintenance; a lot of them are perennial — the deer don’t eat them.

We are known for our salad greens mix that we produce here. There was a time when I was really interested in growing melons — a tough proposition here on the Vineyard. I’m now planting less tomatoes and more greens.

The store is more than just produce. Meat is a big part of my business; cheese is a big part.

I have grocery items from all over the world. We do sell local cheese (Grey Barn products). This year we have hot dogs from Grey Barn.

I have a reputation for having high prices, and I do have a lot of expensive products. But I also try to find a great inexpensive specialty (olive oil, for example). So there are a lot of good deals. In reality, my pricing is not that aggressive.

A Chef’s Approach

I approach this business as a cook, as a chef, as someone who is interested in food and preparing meals. So when a customer comes in, I wear the chef hat rather than the farmer. I ask them what they are making that night, suggest things to go with it, recommend an ingredient, a way to facilitate the whole meal.

Many of my customers I see every day: I know them, they know me. They’ll ask my advice, offer suggestions on products I might want to sell, tell me about a meal they recently made. We share information back and forth. It’s more interesting that way. Sometimes I feel I am at a dinner party but there is no eating going on. We are always talking about food.

I harvested my garlic and I want to share it with people — ”You’ve got to try my fresh garlic …”

The stand is really a meeting place for people who enjoy eating, and cooking, and trying new things.