Capital Boost Needed at Katama Farm


After a superior court judge denied initial efforts by a group of neighbors to evict FARM Institute from Katama Farm, questions remain about the condition of buildings at the town-owned farm.

Katama Farm - nearly 200 acres of sweeping grassland cradled in the middle of the town's densely settled south shore community - has seen better days. Wear and tear brought on by a string of failed operations over the last 24 years have left this facility's barns and silos in a state of disrepair.

"Probably a bulldozer would be the best solution," said John Curelli, executive director of FARM Institute, an educational nonprofit organization granted permission to take over the farm in March.

Edgartown leaders hold out hope that a string of largely unsuccessful efforts at the site will be broken under the care of these ambitious new farmers.

"There were times we questioned whether it should be a farm because we thought it was cursed. But people think it should be a farm. It's practical when you have a group like the FARM Institute. It seemed like a match made in heaven to me," said Edward W. Vincent, Jr., chairman of the Edgartown conservation commission and a member of the commission since 1977, two years before the town preserved the farm for cows, for hunting, for haying, for kite-flying - and became, effectively, the landlord of it.

But righting the course of Katama Farm will demand a substantial amount of capital.

"There's no doubt the majority of the buildings, as they are now, need to be replaced," Mr. Curelli said. "We'll have to start from scratch."

Which group - landlord or tenant - will bear the financial burden to clean house is a question likely to surface during use plan discussions scheduled to start at the conservation commission in September.

"At some point, the town may need to put money into it. You can't own anything and never expect to put money into it," said Mr. Vincent, noting that the town's insurance adjuster recently inspected the milking barn. "The dairy barn is useless, and we wanted to see if we could get some money out of it."

Mildew now completely overpowers the dairy processing facility - built by the farm's first tenant, Stephen Potter of Seaside Dairy. A dozen mattresses from an apparently illegal rental operation said to date back to 1999 are scattered against a maze of thin paneled walls surrounding refrigeration equipment. The floors are greasy from condensation. Outside, two trailers full of scrap metal rust next to the milking barn. A foul-smelling, brown liquid drips from the one of the silos - a leachate version of some grain or hay left in the holding tank by a former tenant. The silo can't be emptied because its internal mechanics were repossessed several years ago when dairy farmer Jim McCarthy defaulted on payments.

Edgartown's health agent Matthew Poole, after a visit to the property this month, suggested to the board of health that a 21E study should be conducted on the property. Under state law, licensed professionals conduct these environmental studies to determine the presence of any hazardous materials.

"We need to ask ‘Is it a good point in time to draw a line in the sand, figure out where we are and move ahead?'" Mr. Poole said.

Exactly how much money will it take to get the farm back on track? How, exactly, did the town-owned farm's barns and silos get beyond repair? Does this three-year-old non-profit - created in a high school classroom one winter by four Islanders who each wanted to educate the Vineyard's children in the struggling tradition of farming - have the financial backing to start from scratch? These are the most pressing questions hanging over Katama Farm at the start of another farmer's tenure.

Mr. Vincent admits when the town took on the role of landlord, they never anticipated they would be supervising a string of failed operations.

"The conservation commission was the right group to take over the care and management of the farm, but landlording is difficult," Mr. Vincent said. The commission assumed control of the farm shortly after Edgartown - through a unique conservation purchase driven by residents, the Vineyard Conservation Society, the town and the state - took control of the farm in 1979.

The first dairy farmer, Stephen Potter, couldn't make a go of it - folding just six years after he built the 13,000 square-foot milking and dairy facility still standing on the property. Financial losses inevitably undermined both Mr. Potter's operation and that of the next tenant, James McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy, through the late 1980s and early 1990s, ran a bustling dairy, filling Vineyard grocery stores with locally-produced milk. In 1994, Mr. McCarthy filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind a handful of demoralized farmhands caring for a herd of sickly Holsteins. Only trailers of household trash, with a colony of rats feeding on them, and a few junk cars remained. The town eventually paid over $5,000 for the cleanup, hiring Dukes County House of Corrections inmates for the job.

"Our first farmers plainly didn't have two nickels to rub together. Fortunately, the only thing that died out there were a few cows," Mr. Vincent said.

Plainly, the conservation commission learned from past tenants, guarding against a repeat of those mistakes. The most recent lease for the property states plainly that "lessee shall dispose of all trash and other refuse and dead animals in compliance with all applicable laws."

When Mervin Hardwick, a businessman from Sandwich entered the scene in 1996 after more than two years of Katama Farms' fields lying fallow, town leaders embraced him.

"With Merv, our highest priority was not to annoy neighbors. He passed that with flying colors," Mr. Vincent said.

Neighborhood complaints fell to mere murmurs. The Katama neighbors who recently filed the lawsuit trying to block FARM Institute's plans say they liked Mr. Hardwick's tenure.

But over the last several years, Mr. Hardwick's herd of cattle dwindled. As early as 1999, Mr. Hardwick apparently began renting living space in the dairy barn.

"Hardwick was definitely renting rooms out there. We basically knew it when he left," said Mr. Vincent.

As many as 18 workers were said to have piled into the place every summer over the last four years - some shelling out $125 a week for a spot on the mattress. Fewer than 10 stayed through the winter months, installing temporary heating units in several of the partitioned rooms.

Town officials, the police department and some neighbors said they did not know Mr. Hardwick rented housing in the dairy facility in the height of the operation. The tenant left quietly this March on his own accord, saying he grew weary of the farming and the Island's logistical challenges to his operation.

What's left behind may end up on the shoulders of FARM Institute. Historically, new tenants take on the farm as is.

"Structurally and safety-wise, the buildings don't do justice to the facility. We knew this when we first took interest in Katama Farm," Mr. Curelli said. "It's like buying a used car. That's how it is."

FARM Institute got its start two years ago with the purchase of Herring Creek Farm. The non-profit, dedicated to teaching youth about sustainable agriculture, runs a farm on seven acres and leases 40 acres of land in the private association of Herring Creek. Just last year, the institute invested $380,000 in operational expenses at this demonstration farm. The non-profit is also carrying a $1 million mortgage - assumed in the joint purchase of Herring Creek. The mortgage expires next year.

The institute is banking on substantial fundraising to make a go at Katama Farm.

"We'll have to fundraise as we go along. It's our hope that the FARM Institute would be close to self-sustaining, and we could invest all of our fund raising in educational programs," said Sam Feldman, a member of the institute's board and one of the four founding members of the group.

Mr. Feldman explained that the board committed to expanding the Institute's operation to Katama Farm, a commitment that came with financial assurances.

"We'll be seeking community support, but we have a commitment from the board as we expanded our reach," Mr. Feldman said, also noting that several other benefactors in the community have also lent their support so far.

But the institute will be seeking the financial collaboration of the town as they clean up Katama Farm.

"We also hope that at some point, the town would help with capital expenditures. We would hope that the town would help because of the condition of some of the buildings and because we'd merit their help," Mr. Feldman said.

The possible sale of their interest in Herring Creek could fuel the institute's new projects at Katama Farm. Limits on public access at Herring Creek, Mr. Curelli said, make giving up their interest in that farm logical, given the institute's public education mission.

"[As] a fallback to properly fund our mission for the real long term, we would certainly consider the sale of our interest of Herring Creek Farm. It's on the table," Mr. Curelli said. "But it's something that we would do with a certain degree of reluctance."

In the meantime, the conservation commission and the institute leaders will be discussing the institute's immediate and short-term operation plans later this month. Mr. Poole will also be passing on a list of health and safety concerns for the property to the conservation commission.

But no one argues that caring for Katama Farm, for landlord and tenant alike, is a tough job. Financial mishaps and bad blood between tenants and neighbors, Mr. Vincent admits, may be an unavoidable facet of running a farm in the middle of a developed neighborhood.

"Unless it's just a nature preserve and the buildings are torn down, it will be a problem for some. Then people would complain there's no farm. We try and keep things balanced, but it's nearly impossible," Mr. Vincent said.