Enthusiasm Builds for Farm Agency


Just over a decade ago, the Massachusetts state government cut funding for the Dukes County Cooperative Extension Service and forced closure of the popular Island program, which provided useful resources for Vineyard farmers.

Today, with a resurgence of small-scale agriculture spreading across the country and taking hold here on the Vineyard, the state is recommending the creation of another Island public agency to address farming interests.

At a quiet meeting in the Agricultural Hall of West Tisbury on Tuesday, about a dozen farmers and town, county and Martha's Vineyard Commission officials met with a consultant from the state to discuss the recommendation. They reached a consensus to pursue an Islandwide agricultural commission, which would require approval by town meeting votes.

The concept, which has already been adopted by more than a quarter of Massachusetts towns, is being pushed by the state department of agricultural resources as a way to ensure that farmers have an official voice in local governments. There are currently three Island organizations - including the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society – that are working to promote and support Vineyard agriculture, but no public agency dedicated to that cause.

Christiantown Farm owner Sam Hopkins on Tuesday said he has visited other regions where local governments are more supportive of small farmers, and noted that he has had difficulty with both the town and conservation groups over his West Tisbury operation, where he raises grass-fed lamb and free-range chickens.

"I don't really see any organization on the Vineyard that is specifically set up to help people from an agricultural point of view," Mr. Hopkins said.

As described by the state, the primary purpose of the agricultural commission is to provide a public advocate for farmers. It is not a regulatory body, and would serve in a purely advisory role to other town boards and agencies on agricultural issues. The commission would consist almost entirely of farmers, would be available to help resolve potential disputes with neighbors, and would allow for networking with similar agencies across the state that might lead to increased funding.

An agricultural commission on the Island could also assist conservation groups and planning agencies, such as the Martha's Vineyard Commission, in setting priorities and identifying agricultural land and uses to protect.

Peter Westover, a consultant who works with the state agricultural department, said the local commissions are becoming increasingly popular across the commonwealth. More than 90 towns have adopted the concept within the last few years - mostly in western Massachusetts, though some in the southeastern part of the state, including a few on the Cape. He said the Vineyard could form individual agricultural commissions in its towns, or could opt for an Islandwide agency instead.

"These commissions have had almost unanimous support across the state," Mr. Westover told the Vineyard group on Tuesday. "They have had virtually no opposition once they are explained to people."

West Tisbury conservation commission chairman Prudence Burt expressed some concerns about the commission concept this week. She warned that there are too many committees on the Vineyard already, and that it could overlap the three existing agricultural organizations on the Island. The nonprofit Agricultural Society was established almost 150 years ago to promote the pursuit of agriculture, the FARM Institute opened in Katama about five years ago with a mission of agricultural education, and the Island Grown Initiative sprang up this summer to raise awareness of Vineyard produce and meats.

"We all know there's active, exciting, interesting farming going on on this Island," said Ms. Burt, who described herself as a small farmer and noted that she spent 12 years selling goods at the popular West Tisbury Farmer's Market. "I don't see that our farms are not being advocated for right now."

Dukes County commission member Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark disagreed, and sparked a frank discussion about the current direction of the Agricultural Society.

"I've yet to see the Agricultural Society show up once at a Martha's Vineyard Commission hearing to argue in favor of saving agricultural land," said Mr. Jason, who served more than a decade on the commission, including a stint as chairman. "[The Agricultural Society] are all nice guys. I love them dearly. But it's just not getting done."

Three Agricultural Society board members attended the meeting this week - which was held in their hall - and those who spoke acknowledged that the primary focus of the current board is running the annual Agricultural Livestock Show and Fair, which attracts thousands of Island residents and visitors every summer.

Former Vineyard Conservation Society director Robert Woodruff, whose son Andrew is a farmer and member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, praised the work of the society and other farming groups but suggested there was still more to be done.

"The Agricultural Society was THE entity for 100 years on this Island," Mr. Woodruff said, referring to old educational and promotional journals that the society once published. "Back then the whole Island was fishing or farming, there was nothing else going on. But here we are now: is this a role that the Agricultural Society will take, or do they simply just want to run the fair?"

With public consciousness about global warming at an all-time high, desire for locally grown foods is expanding rapidly across the country and state, Mr. Woodruff noted. It is a trend that could greatly benefit the Vineyard - with its long history of agriculture and a captive summer market.

"If we could focus more on agriculture, the Island could become more self sufficient to a point," said Mr. Jason, who works as the building inspector in the towns of Chilmark and Edgartown. "If possible, I'd like to see the Vineyard get out of the second-home business, and get back into agriculture."

Despite the work of the private organizations, there would still be a role for the agricultural commission to play as a public agency, Mr. Westover said. He described a new funding policy from the state that would reward towns with agricultural commissions, and said it would also provide farmers with an official seat at the town government table.

Department of agricultural resources assistant commissioner Kent Lage said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he would recommend the agricultural commission to the Vineyard, regardless of its private groups.

"On the Vineyard you are blessed with having communities actively involved in agriculture," Mr. Lage said. "But many times municipal governments are making decisions without considering the impact they have on farmers."