On Saturday morning, a group of parents, instructors and friends stood on the grounds of Crow Hollow Farm in West Tisbury and watched as 40 young riders, dressed in their very best, trotted horses and jumped them in the outdoor ring. The 20 rolling acres of surrounding farmland glowed in the August morning light.
By Sunday evening, farm owner Samantha Look was exhausted from the weekend activities, but she returned to the now-empty and quiet farm to put her horses in for the night. “When we began this farm [back in 2000], we wrote a business plan with mission statements. I had this fantasy of what this place could become and, thanks to the community we have here, it became that. Yesterday at the horse show, it really came alive. It was a great affirmation of that fantasy,” she said. “The kids just really shine. They take a lot from it that filters down elsewhere into the rest of their lives, which is really my whole thing. Make it work into your life in a bigger way than just, I like to ride horses.”
It is how Ms. Look has lived her life. She began riding at an early age and by dint of hard work, family and community support and her own impulsiveness, she opened her own barn only a few years out of college. It was a dream realized. Now, eight years later, that dream is in danger. Under financial strain, Ms. Look put the farm on the market at the beginning of this month. There have been no offers yet, and Ms. Look is hoping for a miracle which will allow her real-life fantasy to stay alive.
Ms. Look, 32, grew up on the Vineyard. When she was about six, her parents rented a house smack dab in the middle of a horse pasture in West Tisbury. “That pretty much sealed the deal and I’ve been riding ever since,” she said. A shy girl, she spent her days riding. “The horses proved great friends. Instead of a social group of friends, I had this wonderful other group,” Ms. Look said. “We would ride all over the Island. It was a great way to get to know the Vineyard. By the time I went to high school, all my friends were itching to leave and I had discovered this place that was so near and dear to me.” This was back in the days when the Vineyard had its own 4-H chapter; organizer Martha Tucker hosted competitions on-Island and took riders off the Island for state shows. The program has since disbanded.
When Ms. Look left home for college, she stopped riding and took up environmental studies. The summer before her senior year, she returned home to West Tisbury. Sarah Neubert of Flat Point Farm, the New Lane farm which neighbors Crow Hollow, had a horse in need of a rider. “He was a tall one, which was perfect,” said the lanky Ms. Look. “And he had a bit of a wild side.” At the end of the summer, the rising college senior made what she said was perhaps the most pivotal decision of her life. She bought the horse. She eventually brought him back to her college town and taught riding lessons at a local barn to keep him there.
After graduating, she took a year off before enrolling in graduate school. “I told my dad I just had to get this horse thing out of my system,” she said. She came home to work with a local trainer then shipped her horse off to North Carolina where she had plans to work with a member of the United States riding team. Two days before she was set to leave, she met the man who would become her husband, Kristian Strom. “I probably wouldn’t have gone, but I had already shipped my horse,” she said. When her North Carolina stint was up, Ms. Look moved back to the Vineyard and took a job teaching at Arrowhead Farm in West Tisbury.
Ms. Look’s family owned two parcels of land on New Lane: the roughly 20 acres from which Crow Follow Farm operates and the abutting parcel which is home to the 19th century farmhouse, built by her great-grandfather, where Ms. Look grew up. Shortly after she returned to the Vineyard, Ms. Look’s family put the farmland on the market and a buyer was interested. Mr. Strom suggested that Ms. Look, who had since sold her horse and was applying to graduate schools, match the offer. And so, with help from financial backers and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank which purchased an agricultural preservation restriction on all but two of the farm’s acres, she did.
The couple opened their Crow Hollow Farm riding facility in May of 2000. “In the beginning, we flew by the seat of our pants. That first summer was crazy,” Ms. Look said. The success was immediate. Both Ms. Look and riding instructor Alexia Jason brought with them a loyal following, and they made affordability a priority. “We really work hard to make sure as many children as possible have access to riding,” Ms. Look said. “We gift away leases on horses, anything we can do to make it work. I know how important and special it is to make it work for the kids.”
The importance of horseback riding is something to which parent Kate Feiffer can attest. Her daughter, Maddie, takes lessons and helps with barn chores at Crow Hollow. “She just wants to be around horses and that’s what they offer,” Ms. Feiffer said. “She’s become more confident. She’s become horse-crazy. Confidence is a huge part of why little girls ride and it’s that, but it’s primarily that she just has fun there.”
But the success has been bittersweet. Running the farm has been a continuous financial struggle. Almost every operational cost is higher now than when the farm opened eight years ago. Hay used to cost $4 a bale. Shavings were at most $2.95. Now, each is between $7 and $8 dollars, Ms. Look said. The price of fuel has skyrocketed, and it is hard to attract labor when landscaping and construction companies offer higher wages. Maintenance is continuous, the cost to insure the horses and children is great. And there are property taxes to pay, but those, Ms. Look said, are the least of her worries. “Property taxes are about $5,000 to $6,000 a year. One hay truck is $5,000 and we get one of those every three months,” she said.
The couple does what they can to make ends meet. Three years ago, they sold Mr. Strom’s Vineyard Haven house and moved in with Ms. Look’s mother. Mr. Strom does contracting work in the winter and Ms. Look works for her mother, a landscape designer. But at the end of the day, they barely make ends meet. “We were never able to make money,” Ms. Look said. Last winter, after the couple had a baby, they made the painful decision to stop boarding horses in the winter. “It was more than we could comfortably handle,” said Ms. Look. The decision has not impacted their finances. “We would break even at best,” said Ms. Look.
And then, two years ago, an uncle decided he wanted to sell his share of the family land, on which her family home sits. “Land is an incredibly valuable asset, which is great on the one hand because it’s worth millions of dollars,” Ms. Look said. “But, on the other hand, it’s a burden. It places a bizarre stress on a family, especially an extended family.” So the couple and Ms. Look’s mother assembled their savings. It was enough to comfortably afford and maintain just one of the two plots — the one with the house or the one with the farm. They decided on the land with the house. “It was a big emotional deal to think of selling it and it just seemed like, unfortunately, this is what we had to do,” said Ms. Look. “We knew there was no chance we could hang onto it all, but we thought we would hang on as a family and see what to do next.”
This August, the couple could not hang on any longer and they put the farm on the market. “It probably should have gone on two years ago, but it was so hard to think about doing it,” said Ms. Look. “The silver lining is that it got a group of parents talking about it. They started meeting to try to set up a foundation [to buy the farm] and there is great momentum,” she continued. “I can’t imagine a thing that would make me feel better.” But, she acknowledged, it is not a guaranteed solution. ”We are working against the clock,” she said.
Listing agent Julie Flanders also hopes the parents will pull through. It is something not many realtors would want, but as president of the Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council and an Island native who grew up riding, the prospect of losing yet another Vineyard farm is distressing. “We really need small farms that can stay enclaves for horse people,” Ms. Flanders said. “The further we get from our agrarian lifestyle, the more trouble we’re going to have.”
If the farm sold to private buyers, the couple would look to find homes for the horses and Ms. Look would hope to work at another Island stable. The land is protected by the agricultural restrictions and would remain in farm use. For details on preserving Crow Hollow Farm, please call Ms. Look at home at 508-693-6383.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at email@example.com.