Greening Martha: The argument for more working farmland and woodland

When we oversee the source of our food and other products, it is likely that we will apply greater care — environmentally, ethically, and socially — in their production than will others in distant places. — David R. Foster

Widespread management for agriculture or wood production on the Vineyard’s limited land area may seem counterintuitive or trivial when stacked up against the Island’s economic reality and high levels of consumption. Shouldn’t the Vineyard’s landscape simply be set aside for all to enjoy, and as backdrop to the tourism that dominates the economy? Shouldn’t the Island’s food and fiber come from mainland sources where it can be produced at grander scales and lower cost? After all, the Vineyard has never really been self-supporting; it has been importing spruce timber from Maine and much more from elsewhere for centuries. Yet local production can actually make a meaningful dent in the Island’s food and wood needs. And there is a strong environmental argument for the Vineyard to increase its sustainable production of resources. This argument is called the “illusion of preservation.”

The illusion of preservation advances a simple assertion: The global environment would be measurably improved if people from relatively wealthy and resource-rich areas, like much of New England, obtained more of their natural resources (e.g., wood and food) from their own backyard. The argument appeared in a senior thesis by Harvard undergraduate Mary Berlik. It is well-illustrated, and its lessons could be productively applied on Martha’s Vineyard.

There is a strong inclination on the Island to stand back and simply let our forests age, and many fields go brushy and wild. Part of the rationale for this is a belief that leaving nature alone is good; cutting trees and putting more grazing animals on the land is environmentally damaging. But the reality is that the Island consumes immense quantities of resources. Some 96 percent of Island food is produced elsewhere. For timber, it is pretty much 100 percent. Yet producing these and other resources locally would have many benefits: they would be obtained under the highest environmental oversight, and in ways that are compatible with local interests and healthy for local populations; they would support local people and enterprises; and they would yield important lessons for consumers and onlookers of all ages. One lesson is a simple message of environmental responsibility: All of us depend upon the earth’s limited and environmentally precious resources for life. Land is finite. What we consume here on the Vineyard translates somewhere (we often have no idea where) into impacts on other lands and waters. Our consuming habits have real consequences that we should consciously embrace and emphatically participate in.

This is where the illusion comes into play. When we lock up our own conservation lands and backyards to “protect nature” solely for passive enjoyment, and then get our resources elsewhere, the environmental impacts and social consequences of sustaining our lives and lifestyles are removed from our minds and oversight. Awareness of this reality behind the illusion of preservation provides three arguments for generating more of our chickens, beef, vegetables, fruit, gravel, wood, mulch, and other products in our own backyards. First, it involves us more fully in understanding our own lives. Wood comes from trees that must be cut, gravel (and many resources) comes from immense pits in the earth, and meat comes from killing animals. These are fundamental truths that we should embrace. Recognition of how we obtain the stuff of our lives can make our lives more complete.

Secondly, when we oversee the source of our food and other products, it is likely that we will apply greater care — environmentally, ethically, and socially — in their production than will others in distant places. We likely have true concerns seeing the Island mined for gravel, chickens and cattle slaughtered, trees felled on the state or town forests and other conservation lands, or manure applied to neighboring fields. But as these activities take place, we and local regulators will pay close attention and ensure that they are undertaken in as sound fashion as possible. Local production can therefore translate into better stewardship for the earth as a whole. Conversely, when resources are extracted on a larger, “more efficient” scale distant from consumers’ eyes, there may be overwhelming pressure to cut corners and accept externalities — for instance, the crowding of animals, or excessive chemical applications. Intensification at great scale lacks sufficient cultural means to inspire and enforce good stewardship. Much better that we “own” and are responsible for the environmental impacts of what we consume.

Finally, and this is more aspiration than proven assertion, it is possible that as we, our neighbors, and seasonal visitors witness and appreciate how our resources are produced, we may reduce our patterns of consumption. We may reduce our consumption, increase the re-use and recycling of materials, compost unused products from farm and table, and lessen the streams of waste that leave the Island in dumpsters (nearly invisibly to all of us) to unseen places. And we may come to appreciate local products for their healthy qualities, their association with land that is well-cared-for, and for the people who provide them. The consequences of local production can be a powerful positive-feedback loop, in which sustainable local production tapping expansive conserved lands yields multiple local benefits, an improved quality of life for consumers and producers, and lessened global environmental impacts.

Remarkably, local production of food and resources could play a meaningful role on the Vineyard and across New England. As part of the Island Planning process, Jo-Ann Taylor and Mark London explored this issue in a revealing though unheralded study — Agricultural Self-Sufficiency on Martha’s Vineyard. Following extensive analyses, they advanced three specific strategies for the Island to produce more of its own food: increasing the land area in food production; improving the productivity of those lands; and relying more on foods that can be grown locally. The most ambitious but realistic estimate showed the Vineyard increasing production from the current 4 percent to 50 percent of local residential demand. A separate effort headed by Brian Donahue at Brandeis University reached a similar conclusion for the six-state region in A New England Food Vision.

Ms. Taylor and Mr. London confirmed that the single most important step toward increasing Island food production would be the protection and doubling of farmland, which was about 935 acres in 2005. The additional land would come from unused old fields, forests on prime agricultural soils, and backyard gardens. They identified many inefficiencies in the current agricultural system. Today, cattle, sheep, and hogs are slaughtered and processed off-Island, which involves sizable transportation, energy, and personnel costs, and unnecessary stress on the animals. By developing an Island-based meat-processing capacity, meat production could increase substantially. A model exists in the mobile chicken processor developed by the Island Grown Initiative, which increased Island chicken production from 300 to 8,000 annually.

Similar arguments can be made for wood products, especially landscaping material, firewood, and custom timber. Though some Vineyarders harvest local firewood, much is imported at great expense in transportation, fuel, and climate impacts. Imported wood also brings the potential for another insect pest or fungal pathogen.

Spreading farming and forestry onto conservation lands would return conservation to its roots. In the days of Henry Thoreau, Gifford Pinchot, Nathaniel Shaler (a founder of The Trustees of Reservations and Seven Gates Farm), and Aldo Leopold, conservation balanced strict preservation and the sustainable use of resources. Fortuitously, new approaches in farming and timber harvesting could play an active and positive role in conservation. New England agriculture is becoming more diversified, organic, and focused on the health of land and people. Animals — cows, sheep, pigs, goats, alpacas, poultry, and more — are moving out of barns to be grass-fed on pastures and native hay, supplemented by imported grain. Organic nutrients are prized, and being cycled back onto the land through composting, manuring, and the rotation of animals, grass, and vegetables.

In Vineyard locales like Mermaid, Slip Away, and Allen Farms, and the geographically spread Athearn family operation that stretches from Morning Glory to Uncle Leonard’s and Bethaven Farms, farm landscapes are again forming diverse mosaics of crops, pasture, hay, and orchards, complemented by glasshouses, farm-based dairies, compost-tea breweries, and wind turbines. Such varied operations harken back to the 19th century in their local scale and diversity. As these farmers advance varied practices on the land, they also generate diverse habitats for insect pollinators and an array of birds, insects, and other animals. Meanwhile, wood harvesting offers great flexibility in scale, treatments, products, and landscape conditions. While entire swaths of forest can be felled to create early successional landscapes, nimble equipment can produce savannas or thinned woods.

Looking across the Island, the state, towns, conservation organizations, and private landowners have many options to conserve and manage more of the landscape to benefit society in a sustainable fashion.


David R. Foster is the director of the Harvard Forest. He lives much of the time in West Tisbury. His book, “A Meeting of Land and Sea,” was published in January by Yale University Press. He will be sharing excerpts over the next few months in “Greening Martha.”