Updated Nov. 2
I first connected with Lydia Fischer when I heard a clip of her singing. Her voice is smooth, and keys into a range of emotions that reminded me of the pre–World War II 78s I had grown up listening to. I was hooked. After graduating from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Lydia went to Berklee College of Music in Boston before heading to NYC for four years to focus on singing. Life in NYC was not an ideal fit. Lydia fell into casting reality TV shows remotely during her final six months in the city, and continues this work in the wintertime. Lydia returned to the Island, and realized she had a lot to be thankful for at home. At 26, she began to work at Morning Glory Farm for the month of August, getting to stay on-Island longer than she’d been since she was 19.
Beetlebung Farm holds its own history in Chilmark. The Fischer family purchased it in 1962. Lydia grew up in a large Island family that gathered for meals regularly, whether outside in nicer weather, or indoors through colder seasons.
When I met Lydia Fischer at Beetlebung Farm for our interview, she was busy twining up tomato plants, pulling the twine from a box attached to her belt so both hands were available.
In the opposite field, her aunt Marie Scott was working alongside her daughter, Malia, Lydia’s cousin. Both volunteer a couple of days a week, and emerged barefoot from the fields. “Malia, her sister Andrea, and my aunt Marie all influenced my upbringing,” Lydia said. “I went to camp across the street [at the Chilmark Community Center (CCC)].”
Marie and Malia reflected on their morning of planting. Malia is a teacher who lives in Boston, but spends her summers on the Vineyard with her three kids, who work at the CCC.
Marie started farming this land when her son Josh was 2 years old. They lived off-Island, but commuted home each summer to run the farm. Each year Marie added a little bit more land that her father, Ozzie Fischer, encouraged her to farm, culminating in 36 years of running Beetlebung.
The physical farm started where Ozzie grew flowers to sell to his wife’s hair salon clients. The farmed area was about an acre and a half, including a lower plot. Marie decided it was too large an area. Each summer, she’d switch back and forth between planting on one-half of the farm and letting the other half lie fallow.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time farming here as a kid,” Lydia said. “I went to camp across the street, and was a counselor growing up. This corner was a community hub.”
“There was a picnic table under the trees, and a pool,” Marie remembered.
“I worked at the bank, and would come over for lunch,” Malia added.
Lydia continued, “I remember being 10 or 11, and my cousin Andrea showed me herbs. Dad always had us help plant his little garden too.”
“It’s in the genes,” Marie said. “So many people in our extended family farm or landscape.” They counted at least 11 family members. “The rest of us garden,” Malia added, before she left to pick up her kids.
Lydia walked through her plants. Some seeds started in the green house. She shuttled over 240 tomato plants — four or five large flats — back and forth from the hoop house at Beetlebung to her aunt’s home, where she lived in the off-season. “I’ve got around 20 varieties growing,” Lydia said. “I admired what my brother [Chris Fischer] did, cooking with the food he grew, and the cookbook he wrote. I think this farm is so important to our family. Everyone’s hands have touched this soil. All our family gatherings — I have 15 first cousins, and I’m the youngest. Most of them have family and children, so it’s a pretty big gathering.”
When Lydia came home to work at Morning Glory Farm, she was left to harvest a tomato field by herself on her second day. She was out in Reynold’s field picking Sungolds. She found herself tearing up — she knew this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
As Lydia expressed thanks to her family for allowing her to take on the farm, her eyes welled with tears. “7a[Foods] has been a huge asset,” she said, referring to her part-time hours that accommodate her farm and other work hours. She continued her list: “Matthew Dix, Kevin Carr, Andrew Woodruff, all the Athearns, Noni and Dan of 7a … just so many people contributing.”
Last summer, Lydia’s brother Chris offered her living space on the family property. She immediately moved home while continuing to work with tomatoes at Morning Glory Farm. This was where she learned to trellis the plants.
“I like plants with a lot of maintenance, because I need a lot of maintenance too,” Fischer said. “I learned a lot from Chris while working here part-time last summer. It’s a different process on a small family farm when you don’t have a lot of big equipment. We make all our beds by hand, not tractor. There’s a lot of time that goes into tilling.”
Lydia, who did not know Matthew Dix of North Tabor Farm at the time, called him to see if she could barter an exchange. It worked out for the two of them. She and assistant Kat Monterosso spent a day working at North Tabor Farm in exchange for his tilling hours at Beetlebung.
The best asparagus I had this season came from Beetlebung Farm. Summer crops included asparagus, English heirloom ‘Maxigolt’ green peas, squash, beets, three varieties of kale, radishes including an Easter Egg variety, and broccoli rabe.
“I’ve got blue, red, fingerling and russet potatoes,” Lydia said. “Snap peas, shelling peas, scallions, lettuce, basil ‘Piccolino’, Walla Walla white and red onions, romanesca, and in the greenhouse, I’ve got fennel and lettuce transplants.”
Half of the tomato varieties at Beetlebung are orange. That’s because Monterosso worked in a New Zealand permaculture program over the winter, where they like their tomatoes orange. Orange tomatoes are higher in lycopene, a heart-healthy antioxidant that scientists say may also help reduce the risk of stroke and cancer, according to Mother Earth News. Lydia told me the history of tomatoes. They were originally orange, and were bred to red by the British.
She turned to the dahlias. “These were my Poppy’s,” she said of her grandfather Ozzie. “We’ve got about 12 rows of dahlias that have been previously unmarked, so I’m not sure the colors, except for the short front row where my dad bought me new colorful ones. My friend Dalila Bennet, who grows flowers at Morning Glory Farm, explained to me that over time, color bulbs lose their color, and that’s why we have so many white ones.”
She continued, “I try to plant things I know about, or things I think people would really like to see.”
Lydia is a perpetual student, always learning, whether about crop rotation or a guide to growing dahlias from her good friend Dalila. Lydia’s produce is available at the West Tisbury Farmers Market, IGI Mobile Market, the Larder, and Alley’s Farm Stand. Her produce has been purchased by Beach Plum Inn, Chilmark Tavern, Chef Spring Sheldon, and other Island chefs. She has lots of salad greens, spinach, arugula, radishes, turnips, mustard greens, fennel, kale, and romanesca.
Since my original visit in August, the matriarch of Lydia’s family, Rena Fischer, 103, died, and the family put the property on the market. I stopped by during lunch at Morning Glory Farm to see how Lydia is feeling about everything — the bittersweet experience of getting to run the farm a single season, and the future of this iconic corner of Chilmark.
Lydia said her family wants to protect the land and make sure farming continues. She said, “You can’t put a price on the soil. My grandfather, my aunt, and my brother spent a lot of conscious time building up that soil. I didn’t realize all soil didn’t feel like that until you touch something else. It’s really special, and shouldn’t be paved over. It’s priceless, what’s gone into it, and what’s come out of that soil. We want to see some portion protected as a farm.”
Lydia moved into her grandmother’s home shortly after she died. She knows in her heart she wants to run a farm, whether it’s on her family’s land or somewhere else.
*Updated to include Dalila Bennet of Morning Glory Farm.