Edgartown, Trustees work on Katama Farm use plan

Trustees vow to address issues and improve communication.

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The Trustees of Reservations and the Edgartown conservation commission are working on a new use plan after issues arose over the direction of Katama Farm. — Teresa Kruszewski

The Trustees of Reservations and the Edgartown conservation commission are working to establish a new use plan for Katama Farm after issues were raised over the farm’s use and direction.

The Trustees took control of the FARM Institute and its 182-acre Katama Farm lease in 2016, developing a use plan that town conservation commissioners feel has not been followed. The farm is one of six farms across Massachusetts that the Trustees operate.

In the original 2016 agreement, the FARM Institute boasted 65 cattle, more than 100 sheep, 300 chickens, two pigs, 70 turkeys, numerous rabbitts, and a special duck, but animal numbers have fallen. Currently, the farm has 26 chickens, six sheep, five goats, five ducks, and two bunnies. There are no cattle presently on the farm, but director of agricultural operations for the Trustees Kevin Channell told commissioners the herd had been sent off-Island for artificial insemination.

At a Feb. 19 meeting, Sam Hart, the Islands’ director for the Trustees, brought a draft use plan that commissioners said fell short of what the farm is intended to be.

Commissioners reiterated their frustration and disappointment with the current use of the property.

Commissioner Jeff Carlson said the draft use plan Hart presented to them was heavily focused on farm events and the teaching kitchen, and didn’t have enough specifics on the agricultural production. He felt both the community services aspect and the traditional farming should be equally important. “We think that it’s about the kitchen and about the camp, and, oh by the way, we’re going to do something about the agriculture,” Carlson said of the draft use plan. “That isn’t what’s intended.”

The commission asked Hart to go back and refine the new use plan and to provide a specific outline on the farm’s agricultural use.

The most recent issue arose in September when the Trustees reached out to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) to report a population of a rare grasshopper sparrow living on the expansive farm.

Wanting to balance conservation with agricultural production, the Trustees closed off a 60-acre interior portion of the farm, and had cattle graze on the edges during a two-month period in the spring so as not to disturb the grasshopper sparrow habitat. Hart said this was a reflex on the Trustees’ part, since they are a conservation organization.

DFW assistant director Everose Schlüter wrote to the Trustees that while agricultural land is exempt from state endangered species law, care should be taken to protect the grasshopper sparrow species from harm.

The conservation commission disagreed with the Trustees’ management and decision to contact DFW without notifying the town. Hart said the Trustees will make sure cattle will be grazing on the entire farm throughout the year. While they will no longer be managing the protective habitat of threatened species in the field, they will be “actively monitoring” the grasshopper sparrow.

The overarching issue, according to Hart, is a lack of communication between the Trustees and the town.

“It’s really an issue of communication. I think there was a breakdown in communication,” Hart said. Going forward, he plans to inform the town of the farm’s plans and any changes made to the farm.

Speaking to The Times by phone Tuesday, Hart said Channell made the recommendation to focus on raising a year-round beef herd for the farm’s agricultural use. The decision on an increased beef herd was an economic one — the farm sells its beef at Cronig’s supermarkets and farmers’ markets.

To increase its beef herd, Hart said, the farm needs to add fertility in the form of manure to the fields to grow hay.

“The fertility is not where it should be to support a large herd,” Hart said. “We can’t grow as much hay as we’d like to feed the herd. We are proposing to increase the fertility to support the herd.”

Hart added that once the beef herd is scaled up, the farm can focus on increasing other species as well.

“I think the perception here is we’re not in the spirit of the original use plan, so that has been clarified for us, and that’s no longer the approach we’re going to take,” Hart said.

The farm will continue to have barnyard animals such as ducks, chickens, and sheep, which Hart said are a mainstay of the farm’s programming.

Commissioners also brought up the issue of staffing and housing. Currently no housing is offered onsite, but the Trustees do offer staff housing in Vineyard Haven. Hart told The Times a presence on the farm would be optimal.

In 2016, the farm had seven to eight year-round staff; now it has four, which Hart said was due to personal decisions. The Trustees plan to hire a year-round livestock manager.

“I would love nothing more than workforce housing on or near the farm,” Hart said.

Hart expects to return to commissioners sometime in March with an updated use plan that everyone can agree on. “It’s what our goal is and what it’s always been,” Hart said. “We want to bring the greatest education programs on a working farm.”

At the February meeting, commissioners said they looked forward to an updated use plan with more details. “There’s three legs to this: the camp, the kitchen, and the farm,” commissioner Stuart Lollis said. “If you ask me which is the most important leg, it’s the farm.”