Though the national economy is tanking at a fevered clip, the pace of one industry remains unhurried: Vineyard agriculture.
But then much is timeless — or out of time — about these farm businesses, some fully commercial, others family-run, part-time and increasingly labors of love.
Jim Athearn counts heads of Polled Hereford cattle, Mitch Posen keeps burros to wrangle his ewes and Elizabeth Thompson runs teams of oxen, which help move the hefty stones that form the farm’s centuries-old ramparts.
Whatever it is, as the farming community looks to spring, it is surprisingly chipper.
Mr. Athearn of Morning Glory Farm runs one of the largest operations on the Island. As well as the titular Edgartown acreage, the Morning Glory company farms 20 acres of land in Chilmark known as Beth’s Haven.
Mr. Athearn is resoundingly positive about the prospects for the summer season.
“I recently went to my second convention since the summer and people were hugely optimistic and boosterish,” he said. “And we’re not cutting back, we’re charging forward. It’s not a real economic downturn, it’s psychological, though there are real consequences to it. The soil is just as fertile, the country’s just as powerful. It’s about getting our attitude back. People still eat every day, so I expect we’ll do just fine.”
The farm currently manages 600 laying hens and a further 200 pullets, which will be laying within a month and a half. There are 18 cows and though the Chilmark pig pen is currently empty, it will be filled next month and there are eight pigs in the Edgartown pen.
“They’ll be slaughtered in May and replaced. So it goes with them,” he said.
The farm will take on chickens for meat in the summer, and is currently maintaining several honeybee hives owned by Timothy Colon of Vineyard Haven. In the deal Mr. Colon reaps the honey and Morning Glory gets the pollination.
Matthew Goldfarb, executive director of the Farm Institute in Edgartown, a teaching farm which also sells its produce, said much of the business of the farmer at this time of year is in managing pregnant livestock. The farm currently has roughly 50 laying hens, 11 goats, a variety of birds, a number of calves, 12 cows and a bull. Lambing will begin within two weeks; goats are due in March and Mr. Goldfarb said he expects the first baby chicks by next week. “It’s a big maternity ward in the winter,” he said.
Mr. Goldfarb predicted Island farmers will be insulated from the economic crisis.
“For meat sellers here the economy is irrelevant,” he said. “There’s not nearly enough supply. It’s a tiny fraction of what’s in demand.”
The Thompson farm in Vineyard Haven will be lambing next week, when school is back, by design.
“It’s a family farm. We call it personal, subsidized farming,” said Mrs. Thompson. The husband looks after the farm’s five sows and one boar, while the son handles some 50 laying hens and the daughter tends roughly 30 sheep.
“The cycle is what I’m about. In the fall you do in everything you’re going to do in and by November it’s all in the freezer or the smokehouse. Spring is when everything gets born,” she said.
How will the economy affect a family business like the Thompsons?
“It’s complicated,” answered Mrs. Thompson. She argues that they help bypass any sag in the market by selling directly to a group of Brazilians on the Island who she said are used to farming in their home country and appreciate good food but lack the land to grow it here on the Vineyard.
“We sell a lot on the hoof,” quipped Mrs. Thompson. “And then with the economy, people are beginning to appreciate good local food.”
But by her own admission Mrs. Thompson, who also owns and operates the Vineyard Haven SBS grain store, doesn’t do it for the money. The lamb they sell is competitive with market rates, she said, partly because she finds it difficult to price the product.
“It takes a year to make a lamb, you can’t put a price tag on it,” she said. They give away a lot of the meat to friends and neighbors.
She said she also encourages anyone to try it themselves — the farm offers baby chicks and lambs for sale.
“It’s so nice to enable other people to do it,” she said.
At the Allen Farm in Chilmark Mitch Posen is planning to start selling compost tea as garden fertilizer, his own mixture which he has been perfecting in the back barn of the farm for the past three years.
For another revenue generator this summer Mr. Posen plans to offer a tick repellent made from rosemary oil, wintergreen, peppermint and vanilla.
“I need money. Jeez,” he said.
Mr. Posen said he is also repairing stone walls across the 100-acre farm. Lambing will not end until May, he said.
There are currently 60 ewes, three rams and 10 lambs. The farm has three Berkshire sows and 74 egg birds and a single guinea hen which can often be seen from State Road cohabitating with the farm’s two horses.
“We lost the others to the road,” said Mr. Posen.
The commitment to traditional farming methods with minimal interference appears to be alive and well on the Vineyard.
At Breezy Pines Farm in Vineyard Haven they ordered in this year’s 25 chickens from Murrary McMurray’s hatchery — an Iowa-based rare breed hatchery — for lack of their own rooster. Once they arrive though, farmer Heather Thurber essentially leaves them to it.
“We don’t put a light in the barn or anything,” she said. The hens lay at their own pace which keeps numbers relatively low, she added.
They give many of the eggs to friends and family and sell to the people who know to call.
Though it begins later for many farms where breeding schedules are controlled, at Christiantown Road Farm in West Tisbury, lambing season is already over, with the last lambs born earlier this week.
“It just kinda happens. They bred when they thought it was appropriate,” said Susan Hopkins of the sheep.
Neither she nor her husband Sam work full time on the farm. They are currently rearing six sheep, seven goats and 100 chickens.
Again, they sell some of the meat direct to the homemaker.
“Brazilians like to eat the goats as well as some Caribbeans,” said Mrs. Hopkins. “They also buy live lambs.”
Nip ’n Tuck Farm in Vineyard Haven run by Fred Fisher 3rd and Elizabeth Fisher, was a working dairy farm up until a few years ago when a health inspection robbed the operation of its grandfathered status.
“We couldn’t afford to build a milking parlor,” said Mrs. Fisher. “So the farm is becoming less and less commercial. It’s a sad story.”
There are several pigs and cows, 80 chickens, four horses and two ponies used for livery work. Plus two cats and a dog. The couple sells excess eggs to Cronig’s Market and runs a popular hay ride service at Christmas and on Halloween.
“The business makes a little bit more than the insurance costs,” she said.
Arnold M. Fischer runs Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury with the help of his sister Eleanor Neubert. Last week he was burning back Russian olive trees encroaching on his hay field with some old friends who had come to help out on vacation.
Haying season comes in June.
“It’s kind of daunting,” he said looking out at the 22-acre patch, which is bare for the moment.
The farm also has six cows, two calves and 20 ewes, 40 laying hens, 11 guinea hens and some Canada geese. Mr. Fischer’s daughter Emily and her husband Doug manage several goats on the farm.
“If it was lucrative everyone would be doing it,” he said. “But this is a family farm. I’m proud of it.”