Editor’s note: The following is a talk James Athearn gave on Sunday at the West Tisbury Congregational Church as part of the church’s farm-to-faith initiative. Mr. Athearn is the owner of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. The Hebrew Center is partnering with the church on this program and will be holding a farm-to-faith shabbat service tonight, April 26, and a panel discussion afterwards entitled The Art and Faith of Farming.
Good morning. I am honored to have been asked to speak here today. I’m certainly humbled when I think of all the inspirational and scholarly words that have been delivered from this pulpit by Reverend Baker and many other great speakers over the years.
When I was a child living four houses up Music street from this church, Sunday mornings revolved around Sunday school and then the church service as I got older. My father sang in the choir for many years. I could usually pick out his voice, teamed up with Gale Huntington and Onslow Robinson. Doctor Mills impressed me with his booming voice and worldly references and always left me with a lesson of how to be a better person. After church we would look forward to Sunday dinner and after dinner my father would take me and my three siblings out to explore the land around us.
West Tisbury in the 1950s had several active farms within walking distance and quite a lot of farmland from former farms that was growing over. These inactive fields were covered in brown wood grass, cedar trees and chokecherries. After my father would take us on a journey of discovery to some new place — through the fields, along a brook, over stone walls and into the woods — we would then go back later in the week with our friends to spend long afternoons in this embracing environment of oak leaves, fresh water and soft grasses.
In those days West Tisbury still had the classic English colonial pattern of the concentric village — the center with the church, store and school, the residences clustered within an easy walk to these centerpieces, then the farms: Whitings, Vineyard Downs, which is now Grey Barn, Brookside Farm, Tea Lane Farm, Crow Hollow Farm and Clara Duy’s little farm at the end of Music street. I remember in the calm air of early evening hearing her from my house a quarter mile away calling her sheep in her German accent. If the drift of the air was from another direction there were roosters crowing, sheep baa-ing, and the occasional bellow of a cow from the Whiting farm. My friends all lived in this village center, and the fields, ponds and woods around us were our living room.
Next to our Music street house on half of our two acre lot was a decent hayfield. Beanie Alley, who had a family cow or two where Lucy Mitchell and Rez live now, would mow and rake our field and have Harold Rogers come to bale it. This was an event which was for me almost as big as Christmas and the Agricultural Fair. The heat from the engine of his doodlebug tractor felt good in the cool June evenings as I sat on the concrete weight in back, watching the smooth drop of the hay as the sicklebar invisibly sliced through the field. My love for haying started here and has always been associated with cool June evenings, fireflies and Whip-poor-wills.
People ask me if I always wanted to be a farmer. I say yes and no. Only in hindsight was I able to look back and see the signs that this was my calling. All through high school, college, and work after college I inwardly yearned to be a farmer while I actively applied myself to be something else that our society approved of as a valid occupation. When Debbie and I took an extended vacation on the Island to have our daughter born as a Vineyard native, I finally was able to hear and listen to those voices that had been talking to me for so long. In 1973 we made the decision to come home to Martha’s Vineyard and take up farming. It took a few years but one day it came to me with full certainty that working the land as a farmer was what I was born to do. I advise young people today that the answers to life’s big questions are there, but you have to learn how to listen to them.
There had actually been one other certainty in my life, in 1969 when I proposed marriage to Debbie. I was 21 and she was 20 but I knew that I could answer my friends’ questions, “Are you sure?” with 100 per cent conviction. For some reason this level of commitment felt natural. I mention this in relationship to my talk about the land because commitment is vital to the success of agriculture. People have long spoken of their relationship with the land as husbandry — soil husbandry, animal husbandry — and this reflects the value that it is necessary to give all one has and more to the relationship, similar to a marriage. There are economic considerations to investing in the land in hopes of a profit but I would say this is a cognitive veneer to the real matter at hand. We are working with land and nature for our very existence and this goes much deeper than any current economic models. Standing in this pulpit I can safely say the success of agriculture depends on faith, hope and love.
Although I have never really settled on any particular religious program, I realized that I do have faith. I characterize this as an inner conviction that ultimately things will work out well. We may experience crop failures but in the end other crops will carry us through. We may get sick but we will be well. People will hurt each other but the response in kindness and caring only affirms that there is a moral gravity toward good to which we all, eventually, will respond. It is an act of faith and hope that our seeds will come up each year, the rain will fall and the sun will shine. When one of these things does not come to pass and the crop fails, the farmer says, “Maybe next year.”
Love for the land is probably not that different from the love non-farmers have for their vocations and avocations. I just know from my experience that the farmer has to stroke the land in so many ways to keep it healthy and productive. For one crop, each square foot of the field will be passed over by the tractor and various implements 10 times, at least. Large quantities of compost, lime and fertilizers are added. A crew of workers will crawl on hands and knees up and down the field hundreds of times to remove weeds and then go back again to pick the crop. At the end of the season the land must be protected with a crop of winter rye which involves three more trips over the field. Through all this, there is no place the farmer would rather be because being on the land is where he can feel he is in the right place. Each pass through the field is done with care and he feels the land has been added to or improved. The beauty of the growing crops and the lay of the land affirm his love.
We are fortunate to live in a place where the farmer knows who he is feeding and the people know him or her. The moral support we farmers receive from the community compensates us for the struggles we encounter in our work. People deliberately and warmly thank us for doing what we are doing and they make an effort to buy from local farmers as much as they can. The newspapers write about us to encourage us and now the people of this church have reached out to share their appreciation of the land and the men and women who work it. Some of you probably remember there was a Coca Cola advertisement in the 1970s that became a popular song. It said, “I’d like to teach the earth to sing, in perfect harmony, grow apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtle doves.” As sweet and starry-eyed as that is, I think that here in our community we are getting close to such an ideal, and as we do we have the opportunity to spread our values to our many visitors to take home with them.
There is a lot of discussion these days of sustainable farming. There are many elements to that discussion but the first and most important is that you must protect the land. Love of the land itself and the love of family and community will allow generations of farmers to continue to feed their community. A family that values land as their responsibility to nurture, keep from harm and pass on to their descendants will assure that this place, or any place, will be one where children can run freely through the fields and woods and grow up on nutritious local food. Our culture uses the word “property” to be synonymous with “land” and many see its value as how much cash it can bring. Fortunately for me, my parents, uncles, aunts and siblings have chosen conservation over money so that what land we have can be passed along to future generations for agriculture and open space. Debbie and I are doing the same with the land we have acquired. People of my generation are realizing how short our ownership of land is — as soon as our parents have passed the land to us, we are making plans to give it to our children. It is our responsibility during our given span of years to protect the gifts we have received and pass them safely to the next generation.
In 38 years of farming I have learned that my happy place is in the fields. I’ve also learned that working the land takes full commitment, that where there is a will, there is a way, that strong, loving families make the struggle possible, and that a supportive community can make it successful. I have learned that we farm in partnership with nature and although we partners often argue over who will have his way, I couldn’t think of a nicer or more satisfying partner to work with. I also now have a profound appreciation of Thanksgiving. I call our Thanksgiving holiday in November the Farmer’s holiday because this is the time when all the stress of raising crops is over, the hay is in the barn, the woodshed is full, the bins of squash, carrots, turnips and potatoes are safely stored, and we can look forward to a peaceful winter, snug at home by the fire.
There is also the everyday thanksgiving when the corn ripens perfectly or a load of hay dries quickly and is safe in the barn when the rain comes. There is nothing like a good rain after six weeks of drought to make one feel thankful. I am thankful for my wife and children who work alongside me and how they each do what they can to help one another. I have the blessing that every day is Father’s Day for me. Our employees impress me with their dedication, spirit and energy. It gives me great satisfaction when they tell me their time spent on our farm has been meaningful to them. Some of our former employees now have farms of their own, some have children of their own, and Debbie and I are blessed with six grandchildren who are growing up with farming and freedom as their everyday experience. It all starts with the land. It is my hope that we will continue to cherish and protect it.