The future of farming and land conservation on Martha’s Vineyard

Could farming protect conservation land?

The Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark, shown here, uses Trustees of Reservations land. —MVT file photo

Martha’s Vineyard is known for its open meadows, meandering stone walls, and picturesque farms. Conservation lands and farming are fundamental elements of that beauty, which is why on Monday night, residents packed the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury for a discussion on the future of both, and how the two can work more closely together to maintain open land while contributing to Island agriculture.

David Foster, an ecologist, author, and director of Harvard Forest — Harvard University’s 3,500-acre laboratory and classroom — led the discussion, along with five other speakers. Mr. Foster’s most recent book, “A Meeting of Land and Sea: Nature and the Future of Martha’s Vineyard,” is a comprehensive look at the natural history of the Island.

The point of the discussion, Mr. Foster said, was to talk about “the utility of bringing farm animals and farm activity onto conservation land in order to manage them both for the value the conservationists hold in those lands and for values and the prosperity of farmers.”

The Vineyard, though only 20 miles long and nine miles wide, is home to three dozen produce farms, many with meat and dairy offerings. From the 1900s to the 1950s, more than half of the land was used for farming, and a dozen farms supplied all of the milk, most of the eggs, and some of the meat consumed by Islanders and summer residents.

Currently, however, Island farms produce about 4 percent to 7 percent of the food demand of the year-round population, according to Mr. Foster.

That’s why Monday night’s speakers were interested in the question of whether there’s an opportunity to help maintain the landscape — kept open for conservation value — by introducing animals onto it for grazing, making more land available to farmers.

The major challenge to the relationship between conservation and farming is that conservation organizations rely on biodiversity, which thrives on unproductive land, where farmers, on the other hand, look to make the land as productive as it can be.

Brian Donahue, a professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis University, spoke to regional productivity issues that New England faces. He said there were 15 million people living in New England, and 2 million acres of farms. To grow half of the food required to feed New Englanders, 6 million acres would be needed. But there are immense challenges to a large-scale local food operation. Mr. Donahue said access to healthy, locally produced food was a major issue.

“If we grow food more sustainably, and with a decent return to the producers and the people working in these food systems, healthier food is going to cost more. Why wouldn’t it?” Mr. Donahue said. “That’s going to make it less accessible to everyone.”

Conrad Vispo, director of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program in Ghent, N.Y., talked about food production as a form of conservation. He said that food production and land conservation are important for their own reasons, but he was interested in finding the relationship between the two, and what each could provide for the other.

He used the productivity of native bees in Hawthorne Valley as an example of how habitat management could support strawberry farming — more bees meant more strawberries, and more strawberries meant more bees.

Matthew Dix, conservation lands foreman at the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, presented on habitat management at the Land Bank, which houses 3,100 acres of conservation land, 300 acres of which are open meadows.

This summer will be the third full year of a land-management program in which the conservation organization is using a herd of 200 goats to clear woody undergrowth in habitats that have historically benefited from grazing.

Mr. Dix said his biggest concern about the program was its daily impact on land that would otherwise not have that kind of footprint. Although he is looking at ways to lessen the footprint, the program has been successful — cutting back on the 450 hours a year required to mow 300 acres — and the organization is looking at experimenting with mixed-herd grazing.

Chris Neill, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, talked about grazing as a way of reducing shrub expansion and possibly promoting biodiversity.

He said that it was after land has been used for agriculture, “the period of relaxation,” when the most biodiversity is created, and that people must think carefully about how they use open land for agriculture, as different places respond varyingly — some periods take longer for the soil to again become fertile, while others have a fast tree regrowth.

“One of the things that I think conservation organizations value about these open lands is really the function of not the period of active agriculture, but what that active agriculture has left behind in terms of a landscape,” Mr. Neill said. “And what we value is that recovery period.”

Jon Previant, general manager of the FARM Institute in Edgartown, asked the audience if farming and open-land conservation were actually doomed to be opposites. Good farmers are conservationists, he said, conserving soil, water, wildlife, open space, and scenery.

“As we share the Island resources, the conservation land, the woods, the open meadows, Polly Hill, the Land Bank — how do we share the bounty, as farmers, of being allowed and entrusted to farm on them?” he asked.

Mr. Previant suggested one possibility — allowing farmers to have free or reduced rent on conservation land if they commit to contributing to nonprofits or schools.

“My optimism tells me that there will be some specifically Island way of figuring ourselves out of the mess that we kind of figured ourselves into,” Mr. Previant said.