Sometime in the summer of 1970, a young Jim Athearn stood on Main street in Edgartown and faced one of the most important decisions of his life. The 22-year-old aspiring farmer had just received a few stern words from a market owner who had told him that his corn — the first crop he had ever grown and sold to market — was no good. His ears were full of worms, the owner told him. The words stung like a swarm of angry hornets.
“It shook me up,” Mr. Athearn said many years later. “I was literally shaking, because I was very sensitive to criticism.”
Questioning his future, Mr. Athearn faced a deeply personal decision: should he persevere and go back into the fields or scrap the whole farming thing?
Almost 40 years later the scenario is at once laughable and ironic. Today Morning Glory Farm corn (now worm-free) has ascended to almost mythical status among year-rounders and summer residents alike who flock to the farm stand in Edgartown from late July through October for handfuls, armfuls and bagfuls of the pale green ears, stacked high and still warm from the field.
That fervor and the story of its origins lie at the heart of a new book, Morning Glory Farm and the Family that Feeds an Island, published by Vineyard Stories and written by Tom Dunlop and photographed by Alison Shaw. Through vivid storytelling and stunning imagery, the book explores the people, history and myriad challenges of a farm for which so many Islanders and visitors share a deep devotion. Part cookbook, it also comes with 70 recipes from the farm’s kitchen and bakery, as well as a few from the Island’s best chefs who have created dishes around Morning Glory Farm produce.
And there is a message that runs throughout the pages: that while it is important to feed ourselves with fresh and healthy food — and to know where that food comes from and how it gets to our plate — it is just as important to nourish our community spirit.
“It’s . . . a story that calls out to people all across the country who have come, after generations of buying packaged foods grown on distant factory farms, to value what’s raised and harvested carefully and close to home,” Mr. Dunlop writes, “and to value the farmers who work all day, every day, to bring that food to them.”
The book also taps into a timely subject. The buzz surrounding the locally-grown movement and the resurgence of small-scale agriculture is reaching a fever pitch not only on the Vineyard but also in communities across the country. As we strive to become greener, the appeal of buying food close to the source is evident. On the Vineyard, Morning Glory Farm has been at the epicenter of that movement for more than 35 years.
And at the epicenter of the farm itself are the owners, Mr. Athearn and his wife Debbie, their three children, Prudence, Simon and Daniel, and their extended family of farmhands and bakers who make up the largest agricultural enterprise on the Vineyard (Morning Glory employs more people than almost any private business on the Island). Cast against the cycles of seasons, planting and harvesting and the emergence of new generations, the book paints an endearing portrait of the Athearns and their farm workers.
Indeed, the role of family is an important theme in the book as Mr. Dunlop focuses on how farming the land has been a quiet calling over 11 generations of Island Athearns. One chapter titled A Family at Work details Jim and Debbie’s initial reluctance to become full-time farmers and their eventual reconciliation with the idea. The two sons, Simon and Daniel, have since returned from college and previous pursuits to take various management roles in the operation, while daughter Prudence, who now lives in Colorado and is a dietician, spent most of her young adult life working the fields and in the farm stand. The book is dotted with photos of the newest Athearn generation (Dan and Prudence both are married with young children), the future farmers of Morning Glory.
Following his own natural bent as a writer, Mr. Dunlop pays careful attention to history. A reader learns not only how Mr. Athearn and his sons decide which crops to plant, when to plant them, how to plan for more planting — and of course when and how to harvest them — but also of the family’s deep connection to the land over the centuries. Mr. Athearn had several false starts in various professions before finally succumbing to the lure of farming in the 1970s; his father in law Kenneth T. Galley bought the 17.5 acres that form the heart of the farm for seven dollars.
“Not per acre. Total,” Mr. Dunlop writes, adding: “It gives new meaning to the word ‘dirt cheap.’”
But back to that Morning Glory corn. The farm, with its rustic saltbox stand off Meshacket Road, has amassed a long list of devotees over the years. Corn is frequently the starting and ending place in adoring conversations about Morning Glory, and Mr. Dunlop treats the Athearns’ prized crop with proper reverence; the uninitiated reader might wonder if this is really some form of gold bullion.
To highlight the frenzy, he takes the reader to the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market on the third Saturday in August, when the Athearns sell out of their Delectable corn — one of the most coveted varieties — as if the ears themselves were Beatles reunion tickets:
“[At 9 a.m.] the bell sounds. The crowds surge. The first bushel of 60 ears is cleared out in four minutes flat, the following five bushels by 9:28, leaving only leaves and stray tassel hairs lying limp in the wetness at the bottom of the bin. The farmers market will sell 27 bushels — 1,620 ears — by the closing bell at noon.”
Not bad for a farmer whose first crop of corn — worms and all — sold 40 summers ago for a nickel an ear.
The author devotes a sidebar to the subject titled Secrets of the Corn, where we learn why each ear is so often exceptionally delicious. Among other things the Athearns have got their planting down to a science: a day’s supply in August ripens every 24 to 70 hours. When the burlap sacks hit the stands every morning, you know the ears have been picked just hours earlier.
But farming is not easy work, and Mr. Dunlop describes the obstacles and real threats to the farm’s viability the Athearns face each season, from the battle of wills with the ever-encroaching wildlife that ravenously consume the crops to the challenges of managing a mostly college-aged field workforce that leaves the Island just as the harvest peaks. The farm stand is a hive of activity that is home to, among other things, a nearly around-the-clock baking operation, a highly successful enterprise that often moves the Athearns to examine their hope for, as well as limits to, expansion.
In the afterword, Mr. Athearn addresses these challenges in his own words while envisioning a future of greater dependence on locally grown food. Well regarded as an insightful person who has served many years on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Mr. Athearn sees a bright future for Island farmers. “We see so many opportunities for farming here on the Island that we have to be strict with ourselves not to try to do them all,” he writes.
And then there are the photographs. Ms. Shaw, who needs no introduction, has brought her gifted eye for color, light and composition to a book that demanded it. A golden sunflower is cast against a deep blue sky, a field of flowers bathes in the orange glow of an Indian summer sun — the photographs are subjects themselves. Particularly stunning is a two-page spread of the Athearns’ main field at dawn in the dead of winter, brushed with snow that seems to hover over the field like mist, and washed in deep, cold blues.
And her portraits of the ever-smiling faces of those who live and work on the farm convey a refreshing innocence. If the Athearns and their farmhands come across as one large, happy-as-a-clam group with a common mission of providing food to the hungry masses, you can’t help but think that there is an underlying truth to it all. This is a place where people enjoy their work, where the term family farming is taken seriously, and the joy beams through Ms. Shaw’s lens.
And the images of food in the recipe section do not disappoint. Many of the farm’s most popular dishes are presented here in vibrant color: Creamy pumpkin soup with apples and dried cherries, roasted beet salad, baked stuffed winter squash, curried asparagus soup, pumpkin pie and the world-famous (or should be, if it is not already) zucchini bread are all shot with clarity and precision.
The recipes (divided into seasons) will be a draw for many — from Morning Glory cobbler to salad bar favorite pickled beets to something enticingly called mouthwatering stew.
And don’t forget the fresh corn and pepper soup, Chesca’s roasted corn chowder or the corn pudding soufflé. After all, at Morning Glory Farm, it all begins and ends with that delectable corn.