Lush greens, ripening summer squash, and basil so fragrant you’ll follow your nose to it. These are just a few of the crops grown at North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, and you’ll find many more upon visiting. For 25 years, the six-acre farm has been owned and run by Rebecca Miller, Matthew Dix, and their three children. Even the family dogs pitch in, bringing a joyful energy to the farm, if not a bit of excited chaos.
As I arrived on the farm for a tour this past week, I was greeted by Miller and Ruby Dix, Miller’s middle child and head farmer. Dulce, the oldest of the three dogs, moseyed along not far behind. The wind picked up throughout the morning, dusting us with pollen, but an unobscured sun lent vibrance to the fields ahead.
Not one inch of North Tabor Farm is left without purpose. There are stretches of blueberry bushes, of which Miller estimates there are roughly 300 (or maybe a bit less, if you ask Dix). Beside them are acres of land specifically leased for salad production.
“It’s not what you think — it’s not lettuce,” said Dix. Instead, he and Miller named a variety of salad greens they plant on the land each week, including mustard greens, bok choy, and baby kale.
At the center of the farm is what Miller and family call “middle ground,” a home to crops with high turnover rates, such as garlic, lettuce, and kale. These quick-growing plants are kept in a common area, verifying that they get the frequent attention they need. “Everything is out of sight, out of mind, so we’re walking around a lot,” Dix said.
As is the case for the majority of Island businesses, this summer will be different from any other at North Tabor Farm. Miller was quick to voice how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their lives so far, both as farmers and as family.
“COVID kind of kicked us into action. When it hit, our self-serve stand exploded,” Miller said. The small shed, found just before the farm’s entrance, acts as a one-stop shop for fresh eggs, tomatoes, and greens. The stand was popular even before the pandemic hit, but now customers can’t seem to get enough. North Tabor Farm has been selling roughly 12 dozen eggs a day, rather than their usual 5 or 6 dozen. “We’ve had to start buying eggs from IGI, and we put those out too,” Miller said.
In response to the sudden demand, Miller and family have set out to revamp their services. A new stand, with sturdy wooden roofing and a much larger space for goods, is about a week away. The new structure will sit right outside the farm, making room for four or five new parking spots. According to Miller, the need for renovation is a good thing. “One benefit of COVID is that people are taking the time to appreciate food,” Miller said.
This spring has also given opportunity for North Tabor Farm to experiment with new farming practices. The farm is making the switch to low-till and no-till farming, an agricultural technique that involves disturbing the soil as little as possible during the farming process. “You use different methods to kill weeds that won’t degenerate the soil,” Miller said.
One way the farm is moving toward no-till farming is solarization, or the process of eliminating weeds by laying sheets of plastic over crop beds. This ‘solarizes’ the weeds, killing them without human intervention. The farm is testing the effectiveness of both black and clear plastics for solarization; black plastic starves the weeds of sunlight, while clear plastic lets excess heat and light in, effectively baking them.
Eco-friendly farming is a goal of North Tabor Farm, and according to Miller, now is the time for such experimentation. “All these changes have given us a greenlight to try something different,” Miller said. The farm has made a number of other recent developments, including a website, deerproof fencing, and solar panels, which Miller says were a longtime dream of husband and co-owner Matthew Dix.
It didn’t take much time with Miller to learn that the heart of North Tabor Farm is people, both those who run it and those who support it. “The question is always, ‘How do we meet the demand of our community?'” Miller said. The family recently distributed a survey to their customers, asking what they would like to see offered at the farm stand. Herbs and marinara sauce were among the most popular requests, leading Miller and family to begin growing perennial herbs.
The farm has also striven to meet the customer desire for local eggs and meat, especially in recent months. With about 260 laying hens and 100 baby chicks, egg production is a priority. Visitors can also purchase pastured pork and poultry, which the farm offers fresh every seven weeks.
Raising birds for meat is a somewhat new endeavor for North Tabor Farm. “We started out by growing things that we liked,” Miller said. As the family was vegetarian for many years, there was initially little reason to explore selling meat. Miller explains that it was her son, Joshua, who inspired the transition. At an early age, Miller’s youngest began expressing a desire to add meat to his diet. Miller, a strong believer in listening to the body, allowed Joshua to do so. Since then, he and two other family members have opted to introduce meat, while the others maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Much of what goes on at North Tabor Farm, Miller credits to her kids. “Having children here has been a big motivator. In a way, the farm raised them,” Miller said, pointing out that two of her children were actually born on the property. “Plus, I think of the farm as my fourth child who never grows up, because it constantly needs attention,” Miller said.
Due to the stay-home orders of COVID-19, the entire Miller-Dix family has come back to the farm, returning from school and other commitments. The eldest, Sadie, manages the farm’s social media, photography, and CSA, a produce subscription service for customers. Ruby handles the farming, and Joshua enjoys working with farm machinery. Co-owner Matthew Dix helps out in his time away from Island Grown Initiative, where he works as farm hub director, and Miller herself takes on the sales component of the farm. “It’s become a total family affair for the first time in a long time. I’m so grateful for that,” Miller said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for North Tabor Farm, encountering an obstacle or two was inevitable. “Usually, we hire new employees who might not have prior experience, but are eager to learn. We couldn’t do that this year,” Miller said. The farm was forced to cut down on employees, anticipating a difficult financial season. Only two new hires joined the team this spring, both already talented farmhands. Additionally, Island restaurants and businesses have been less likely to purchase goods from North Tabor Farm, as many are still in the process of reopening themselves.
Miller, a self-described people person, has also struggled with the pandemic’s many protocols. “My academic background is psychology, so I’m missing that connection to people,” Miller said. The farm owner tries to keep her spirits high, even putting a socially distant pizza party among friends into the works. “We’re all just figuring it out. There’s no playbook for this,” Miller said. She finds optimism in the details, surrounded by her farm and family: “We’re all separated in a way, but we’re focusing now on what’s most important.”