Rebecca Gilbert and Randy Ben David have roots - both the human and botanical variety.
On their farm off North Road in Chilmark they grow root vegetables such as beets, carrots and onions, and they have wild root herbs including sweet grass and ginseng.
Rebecca and Randy also have family roots that run as deep as the rich, sweet soil they cultivate without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. For Rebecca those roots run back for three generations to her grandmother, who farmed the Gilbert property in Chilmark using organic methods in the 1920s. Randy's roots are in Oak Bluffs, where he grew up on a family homestead surrounded by flocks of chickens and all the other trappings of traditional Vineyard rural life.
Now thanks to an unusual partnership with the Vineyard Conservation Society, Randy and Rebecca hope to make their roots permanent on the Gilbert Native Earth Teaching Farm.
The partnership is based on a plan for the conservation society to buy development rights to the Gilbert farmstead, a 34-acre property off North Road abutting Tea Lane that has been organically farmed continuously for 200 years. VCS plans to pay $600,000 for the development rights and has already raised $400,000 of the money.
The Gilbert Farm is a richly diverse place including wetlands, woodlands and open farmland. Among other other things, the headwaters of both the Mill Brook and the Paint Mill Brook are found on the property. The Mill Brook runs south into the Tisbury Great Pond, while the Paint Mill Brook runs north into the Vineyard Sound near Cape Higon.
The Massachusetts Audubon Society is also a partner in the project.
The money from the sale of the development rights will allow the owners to repair their buildings and complete the construction of a small farm stand, where they plan to sell vegetables, flowers, herbs and eggs. The owners also recently received approval from the Chilmark board of health to build a composting toilet near the entrance to the farm.
The Native Earth Teaching Farm will include an organic farm education center and a teaching farm for children and adults. There will be community gardens and workshops on farming and gardening.
"This is as much about conserving people and traditions and culture as it is about securing the real estate against future development," said VCS executive director Brendan O'Neill.
"Our focus is on the relationship between people and the land. Certainly food and flowers are one thing that we get from our relationship with the land - but also people come here and they feel refreshed," said Rebecca Gilbert.
The Gilbert Farm is an old-style Vineyard farmstead, complete with an out-of-plumb 200-year-old shingled farmhouse with barn red trim. It is an organic place in the truest sense of the word, with squawking chickens and honking geese, an herb garden, a vegetable garden, a couple of pig pens over here, a small pasture for sheep over there. Everything is handmade, from the black locust fenceposts to the hand-milled native pitch pine that will be used to build the farm stand. Today the farm stand is still just a small foundation with a deck on it. Randy and Rebecca hope to finish it by mid-summer.
Like their farm project, the partnership between Rebecca and Randy has a kind of balance and harmony. She does most of the talking; he has the deep knowledge from working the land, the strong hands. He cuts the wood, builds the fences and the poultry pens; she grows the herbs and runs medicinal workshops. He runs the tractor, turns the compost and smokes the home-grown ham and bacon in his own smokehouse. She takes school children on tours of the farm, and she took a business class to learn about the business end of farming.
They both collect the eggs, which they sell from a refrigerator in the barn. It's an honest-John system, $3 a dozen, put your money in the coffee can inside the fridge and take your pick: washed or unwashed eggs (unwashed eggs stay fresh longer).
The poultry operation is something of a preservation project in itself. Randy and Rebecca are committed to the preservation of rare domestic breeds of ducks. On Wednesday morning this week, iridescent black ducks nested inside a pen, and a young flock of caramel-colored Khaki Campbells darted around the yard.
Because it has been farmed organically for so many years, there is a rich variety of wildlife and natural plant life throughout the property. Wild wood lilies co-exist comfortably with cultivated row crops of squash and cucumbers. A lush herb garden is bordered on one edge by native milkweed.
Rebecca left the milkweed to grow after a group of Chilmark school children did a project last year on monarch butterflies and wrote a letter to the newspaper asking people on the Vineyard to leave their milkweed for the butterflies.
"I did that for the Chilmark children," Rebecca said. "No, you did it for the butterflies," Randy gently corrected her.
"One of our biggest goals is to be responsive to the community," Rebecca said.
Rebecca and Randy met because of the pigs. "I wanted to raise pigs but I don't drive, so I didn't know how I would be able to get the sacks of feed. Randy drove, and he knew about raising pigs, so it was a beautiful combination," Rebecca said.
The farm will now be a dual operation: Randy and Rebecca will try to farm for a profit (or at least break even), but the nonprofit component will permit public access to the farm for education tours, classes and community gardens. "We want to try and make it economically sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable," Rebecca said.
The farm has been classified as a botanical sanctuary and Rebecca plans to create a medicinal herb trail.
Rebecca and Randy also recently launched a new concept that they call a foster garden. A Vineyard resident who needed to move from her home brought her family heirloom plants over to the Gilbert Farm, where they will remain in adoption until the woman can find a permanent home. The woman and her children come to the farm to tend their plants.
The Native Earth Teaching Farm is an organic farm, and Rebecca and Randy are members of the Northeast Organic Farmer's Association, but nevertheless they reject the term. "Organic is a term that belongs to the federal government," Rebecca said. "We're not fond of it, and we are especially not fond of the genetic altering of foods," Randy added.
Rebecca said all the Vineyard farms are important to each other.
"There is sort of a critical mass of farms that needs to happen before it feels like a vital farming community - we learn the most from other Island farms. We really need as a community to look at ways to preserve farms, and not just one or two. It needs to work as a system," she said, adding:
"There is not much connection between a large-scale farm and conservation, but here there is a real connection between farming and conservation."
She concluded: "The education is for everyone. This is a teaching farm, and it teaches us every day. We learn something from everyone."
The Native Earth Teaching Farm is now open for tours by appointment (508-645-3304). Because of the poultry project, visitors are asked to leave their dogs at home.