Island Celebrates Rebirth of Agriculture

Farm Day Educates Public on Vineyard Agrarian Tradition


At noon on Saturday, the Jacobs family gathered around the cider press at Nip 'n' Tuck Farm. Wendy Jacobs watched as her daughter, Dana, tried to turn the fussy crank that sent the apple halves through the masher. "It takes a lot of muscle," Mrs. Jacobs said. "Keep it going, use two hands."

The grating noise of the grinder slowed as Dana tired, and Mrs. Jacobs stepped up to take her place. But the family abandoned the effort when the announcement came that the pony rides were about to begin. Dana and her sister, Olivia, scrambled to start the line.

Nip 'n' Tuck was their second stop of the day. They had already been to Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, and they still had three others to visit. It was the second annual Farm Day, sponsored by the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) in celebration of the Vineyard's agricultural tradition and the continuing effort to preserve Island farms. Five farms were open to the public, offering tours, activities and demonstrations, and the Jacobses wanted to see all of them.

VCS executive director Brendan O'Neill watched from his spot by the check-in table. "This is a celebration of working agriculture and, in many respects, the rebirth of agriculture," he said. "Conservation is not just about land, but about conserving a culture and a people which define this special place. Each farm is their own little story, which illustrates the variety of mechanisms available to conserve land."

He said, for example, that VCS helped secure an agricultural preservation restriction (APR) for the 62 acres of Nip 'n' Tuck Farm with the help of funding from the state APR program, the town of West Tisbury and the public. Consequently, the state now owns the development rights and, in perpetuity, the land will only be used for farming.

"It's wonderful to be able not only to preserve open space for the community, but also the institution of farm families and farm buildings. And today is a great opportunity to show the public what we've saved over the years," he said.

Bob Woodruff, former VCS executive director, was also on hand at Nip 'n' Tuck. He had donated the cider press, and was preparing to bring oxen from his neighboring farm. "It's critical for people to understand that agriculture keeps us alive," he said.

"We need to keep people focused on teaching kids something about where their food comes from. Like the cider from the press," he said, watching it collect in an oversized pot. "Like milk doesn't come from a plastic bottle in the supermarket - and there are kids who think that."

That sentiment was echoed throughout the day. "It's amazing how many people have no idea what a chicken is, and they're not necessarily from the city," said Jeff Thompson of the Thompson Farm. "Everyone thinks eggs and milk all come from the grocery store," he added. "Here, we sustain ourselves. We still do a lot of shopping, but I'd say we knocked off 80 per cent of it. Beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, cheese. Everything we feed our kids comes from here. You read labels at the store - what does any of it mean? Here we know what goes in and what goes out."

The Thompsons have been farming their wooded property off Lambert's Cove Road for eight years. Approaching from the dirt drive, visitors dodged roaming ducks, geese and hens. More milled around inside their coops. "Some people think it's kind of creepy," Mr. Thompson said of his meat chickens. "Me, I think the grocery store is a lot creepier."

In front of the barn, kids clambered over bales of hay piled high; inside, Mrs. Thompson talked about the angora goats, whose wool she uses to make hats and scarves. In outdoor pens were goats, pigs and oxen. "It's the variety that keeps us going," she said. "We don't need a lot of any one thing. I hope people see us and realize that it is doable on a small scale. You can be a small, family outfit with a little bit of everything rather than a big farm focusing on one thing.

"But we all have a common goal," she added. "There's this wonderful individualism; all the farms are so different, but we all want to keep the tradition of farming alive."

At Native Earth Teaching Farm, kids were busy with feather crafts and scattering seed for the ducks. One scarecrow had been built and another was near completion in the grass in front of the community gardens. In the back, after navigating a path thick with loose chickens, visitors found the farm's two, near 400-pound pigs. Farm hand Helen Thornton looked on as several kids tossed them food. "We've been talking our throats out today, which is exactly what we want to be doing," she said. "The highlight is always watching the kids with the animals. For some, this is the first time they've seen a pig that's not a cartoon.

"Plus, we love to show the place off," she said. "These places are getting lost, and what's left is getting posted" with no trespassing signs, she added. "We want to help people get back in touch with the land that feeds them; to understand the processes that produce food; the necessities you have to deal with as a farmer.

"We think a sacred connection has been lost with all the urbanization and mobility of people today. Getting that back is critical. Who's going to raise food if these kids don't want to become farmers?"

In the same spirit as Farm Day, Native Earth Teaching Farm is planning to begin a series of Friday chore days, to teach kids the practicalities of farming ("what it means to raise a potato," as Ms. Thornton put it).

At Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, kids picked out pumpkins and made potato prints with ink and paper; across the road, a tractor towed groups for a hay ride in a long, slow loop around the property.

Louie and Brenda Kerr, with daughters Hadley and Sarah, were visiting the Island for the week from Bourne. Hadley approached a VCS volunteer with her passport - a souvenir from the day, decorated with a stamp at each farm on the tour. Morning Glory's was the last she needed for the complete set. She smiled her thank you and then ran to the crafts table. Her parents said they appreciated the unique opportunities that Farm Day offered. "It's not like this where we live," Mrs. Kerr said. "We only live a ferry ride away, but it's so different out here."

"It's amazing that all this is still happening on the Vineyard," Mr. Kerr said.

John Curelli, executive director of the F.A.R.M. Institute, estimated that by day's end 200 people visited the farm. The institute's student farmers, all between the ages of 10 and 12, conducted tours, informing visitors about their rare breeds of sheep, cattle and chickens. They helped people find fresh-laid eggs to take home, and brought them directly into the mix with flocks of sheep.

"This is not just education about sustainable farming and agriculture," Mr. Curelli said. "It's essential that people are able to identify and connect with their sources of food; that they are engaged in the consumption of good, healthy food and that they know where it comes from.

"Having a day like this helps people understand what goes on here," he said. "It gives more viability and importance to the local farmer, who may be struggling to keep farming going with their family. And why ship food from thousands of miles away? Particularly on an Island, buying locally grown, fresh food just makes sense."