Andrew Woodruff kicked at the dirt at Whippoorwill Farm on a recent afternoon. The soil felt familiar, but he stomped on it a few times to make sure it was good and grounded, twisting himself into place.
“Today is a beautiful day and spring is around the corner,” Mr. Woodruff, 50, said squinting into the sun. “It’s definitely a fresh start to a new beginning for Whippoorwill Farm.”
“We’re back home again for what will be the final time.”
It’s been eight years since Mr. Woodruff farmed at his Old County Road location in West Tisbury. Since then he’s operated his community-supported agriculture (CSA) program from Thimble Farm in Oak Bluffs, leasing the property on a year-to-year basis. Over the past few weeks Mr. Woodruff has finalized the move back to Old County, the farm’s original location which he owns, and the coming growing season marks a homecoming of sorts.
And now comes the news this week that the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank has agreed to buy an agricultural preservation restriction on four and a half acres of his eight-acre farm. The terms of the deal include taking down greenhouses and moving buildings to create a broad vista of cropland.
From the 40-acre plot at Thimble Farm to the much smaller eight-acre land on Old County, the CSA will be downsizing in what Mr. Woodruff hopes will be a more manageable operation. Founded in 1992, Whippoorwill Farm was the first CSA on the Vineyard and once boasted a membership of 650. This year the CSA is targeting 200 members.
“The goal is to serve our members and do a better job serving fewer people,” he said, including redeveloping the soil and upgrading the farm stand for retail space. “My goal is to work harder on growing organically and improving the health of the soil that we are farming. It was very hard on the large acreage we were farming before to do it organically and do it well.”
Mr. Woodruff has seen his share of change in his 35 years of farming Vineyard land, most recently at Thimble Farm. Last year Mr. Woodruff moved operations back to Old County after the Island Grown Initiative took ownership of the property. The CSA split its growing and pick-up locations between Thimble Farm and Old County last summer.
“I left this farm eight years ago to move on to what we thought was bigger and better things at Thimble; to be back home is not without its challenges,” Mr. Woodruff said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of work, but I feel pretty good about it actually.”
“It’s a great relief not to have the burden of a 40-acre property, but it’s also a big relief to know it’s going to be farmed and in safe hands,” he added.
A new addition to this year’s CSA options includes farm-raised chicken. The idea came from assistant farm manager Gideon Spkyman, Mr. Woodruff said.
“He was interested in growing birds and wanted to give it a try so we’re doing it together,” he said. “It’s an experiment.”
The meat production combined with the vegetable operation should help improve the soil with some rotational grazing, Mr. Woodruff said. The farm will process 100 birds a week for the months of July and August.
The farm is hoping to buy a couple hundred laying hens and offer eggs to members as well. Island-grown and Island-made products also will be available at the farm stand.
This week work had already begun to move greenhouses and outbuildings, a condition of Mr. Woodruff’s deal with the land bank. Four greenhouses will be planted with Mr. Woodruff’s famous tomatoes, fall crops and salad greens, among other things.
An acre of wooded land in the back will be cleared for the farm’s well known pick-your-own section, including a one-acre flower bed. A half acre of strawberries will be ready to pick in another year.
The farm is also home to a one-acre solar array, tucked behind the existing greenhouses. Mr. Woodruff intends to try companion planting among the solar panels.
“Our hope is to graze chickens under [the panels] and experiment with salad greens and other shade crops,” he said. “See what we might be able to grow underneath. It has limitations, but we feel like there’s something there.”
From its start as the only CSA to a home for solar arrays, Whippoorwill Farm has carved out its place in the modern farming movement on the Island. Mr. Woodruff said he is pleased to see the growing interest in farming along with the growing demand for locally-grown food
“When I started back in the early eighties there were only a handful of us that were interested in growing food — that’s changed full circle,” he said.
He credited the work of Island Grown Initiative.
“I think people are thinking more and more about where their food is coming from and how they want to eat, how they want to live,” he said. “It just made it so much easier for us to sell our products and push local.” He continued:
“I hope it’s sustainable. My concern is that the harsh reality is that farming is still really hard to make a living at. It involves a lot of capital and a lot of support from the community. I’m hoping that all those pieces can work together to create a stable agriculture community.” He said he hopes to use his farm for teaching as well.
“I want to try to make the farm a place for young farmers to come and learn how to farm. Working with the next generation of farmers is something I really enjoy. There’s so much excitement and so many young people that want to farm now; it’s really a new environment as an employer,” Mr. Woodruff said.
“It’s heartwarming,” he concluded. “It gives me hope that the future of agriculture on the Vineyard is bright.”