The Sept. 15 sun went down in one blazing ball and after the last bit of color was gone, the crowds gathered on Lambert’s Cove Beach brushed the sand from their bottoms and turned around to go home. And then a brilliant harvest moon rose to rival the sunset.
It was a romantic start to autumn, which had its official beginning yesterday at 11:45 a.m. With the moon now on the wane, Vineyard farmers have begun the work of supplying the Island with the bounties of fall: new winter squash, pumpkins and apples. “The good thing is you’ve been working up to that the entire season,” said Dianne Norton of Bayes Norton Farm in Oak Bluffs. “If you were to do it the first thing, people wouldn’t be farmers.”
Pumpkins, winter squash, carrots, eggplant, salad greens and some experimental Brazilian crops are out in the Norton farm fields; soon they will be ready to pick. The work is demanding and comes at a time when many farm workers have left the Island. “Unless we’re doing really big business, it’s hard to keep workers,” Mrs. Norton said. “Frankly, what we can pay isn’t going to attract anybody and most people are looking for longer term [work].” At the peak of summer, the farm employed 12 people to work the fields and in their Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road farm stand. Now, the count is down to four. “There’s still just as much work,” said Mrs. Norton. “The only difference is that it seems to slow down because there aren’t people who are there demanding the supply all the time.”
In the fall the Nortons shorten their farm stand hours to compensate for a dwindling workforce and customer base. This year, they are both teaching full-time, so hours are scaled back even further — Monday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. In the summer the stand is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.
This time of year, many farmers rely on family for extra hands. Carrots and potatoes stay in the ground until the first hard frost, but squash and pumpkins are ready for harvest and curing now. “We divide it up over a few days, but you could harvest all at once,” Mrs. Norton said. “When harvesting say, carrots, you only want to do what you can sell that day because they keep better in the ground. With squash, you have deer and other animals who want to eat it. Plus, it’s exposed. Once it’s ready, the longer you wait, the more chance it will rot.” Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm agreed. “Winter squash puts pressure on us,” he said. “It needs all the time it can get to ripen in the fall and then the frost threatens towards the end of September. If it frosted in the fields, it would be ruined. You need to time it just right.”
Mr. Athearn also has to make do this time of year with a smaller staff. He had a more difficult time finding help this fall than in the past. “This year was slow. Usually by mid-August, we have people coming around. This year we didn’t and we had to advertise,” he said. Although he is set for field labor, the farm stand staff is still about two workers short.
A shrinking pumpkin market is another autumn trend which troubles Mr. Athearn. “The last three or four years, we haven’t been selling as many pumpkins,” he said. Last fall, the farm ended up feeding a good third of its pumpkin crop to the cows. This year, Mr. Athearn scaled back operations and broke with long-standing Morning Glory tradition by putting the pumpkins out for sale before the official start of fall. “We hope that maybe an early start will help motivate people to buy pumpkins,” he said. Mrs. Norton has also noticed the pattern. “Now that Stop and Shop is on the Island, you can buy three pumpkins for $15,” she said. “You can’t get a pumpkin that’s Island grown — a nice, big Jack O’Lantern pumpkin — that’s under $10. That eats into the farmer economy.”
Fall harvest is not restricted to the fields. For Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm, the start of autumn heralds the beginning of slaughter season. “It is time to choose which animals to keep for breeding and which we are going to use for meat,” she said. “One of the most important decisions a farmer has to make is which animals to keep for their breeding stock.” This year, with the cost of feed so expensive, the couple will keep fewer animals and slaughter more. “We’re cutting back on almost everything,” Ms. Gilbert said. She and her husband Randy Ben David have begun taking stock of their purebred Berkshire suckling piglets, which could be ready for slaughter as early as next week. Those interested in purchasing the meat should contact the farmers at 508-645-3304.
Despite the hard work, Island farmers not only enjoy, but look forward to harvest season. “I like the fall because it is a chance to connect with the people and still sell your product. And you get the work done of putting your fields to bed. And you can see an end. That’s a big difference,” Mrs. Norton said. “October is a good time,” Mr. Athearn agreed. “It’s fun selling pumpkins and it’s much more pleasant to clean up the fields this time of year. And there’s that whole tucking in, cozy feeling which goes on. Much of that is associated with the gathering and eating of food.”
As German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Lord, it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine.”
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To get in touch with Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.