Following a summer of uncertainty and dashed hopes, the future of the Island Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program was secured last week when a farming-friendly New Jersey resident announced that he will buy Thimble Farm — and keep it in active agriculture.
Eric Grubman, an executive vice president with the National Football League, will buy the 43-acre farm from Lawrence Benson for $2.45 million. The closing is expected before the end of the year.
Mr. Grubman said this week that he intends to renew the lease with Andrew Woodruff, the West Tisbury owner of Whippoorwill Farm and founder of CSA, an organic farm cooperative with 400 members.
“It was important to me to keep this land productive,” said Mr. Grubman, a seasonal resident of Edgartown who makes his permanent home on a farm in Summit, N.J. “There are a lot of causes out there and a lot of worthwhile causes, but here’s the farm and the CSA and it was about to get sold.”
Mr. Woodruff heaved a sigh of relief.
“It was coming down to the wire and the lease was running out,” he said. “I’m really excited about this opportunity.”
For the past three years, Mr. Woodruff has leased about 20 acres of Thimble Farm, which spans the towns of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury. The lease expires at the end of December.
Mr. Woodruff, whose Whippoorwill Farm was originally based off Old County Road in West Tisbury, started the community supported agriculture program on the Vineyard in the early 1990s. In exchange for a flat fee paid in the beginning of the year, members of the program come to the farm to pick up a weekly share of produce during the growing season. The organic vegetable enterprise started slowly, but has expanded in recent years, especially with the popular trend of buying locally grown produce.
Thimble Farm began in 1982 when retired lawyers Bencion and Patricia Moskow began growing hydroponic tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries on the property. In November of 2000, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank bought the development rights to the farm. The land bank restriction requires that the land be in agricultural use, but does not limit that use to food production. Under the restriction, a horse farm, for example, would be allowed.
Less than six months after selling the development rights, the Moskows closed the farm. Mr. Benson purchased the property two years later for $980,000. He revived the tomato operation and began leasing part of the property to Mr. Woodruff. One year into the lease, Mr. Benson put Thimble Farm on the market with an asking price of $4.5 million.
As part of his lease agreement, Mr. Woodruff has a right of first refusal to buy the farm. After the property went on the market, he and CSA board members began to work on finding a way to match any potential offer. Late this summer the search suddenly escalated when Mr. Benson accepted an offer from an unnamed buyer who wanted to turn the farm into a private estate with horses. The offer was $2.3 million.
CSA organizers scrambled to find another buyer and appealed to the Island community for help. In the end the deal fell through, but the press coverage caught the attention of the public — including Mr. Grubman.
“I read the article in the Gazette and called Andrew,” Mr. Grubman said. “I said, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but is it too late?’ ”
In early October, Mr. Grubman made an offer to Mr. Benson of $2.1 million. Mr. Benson rejected it, saying he had higher offers.
Last week, the CSA board learned Mr. Benson was in negotiations with another buyer. “We were sitting with an offer that had been declined, we were not in negotiations with Benson and we had begun working on a plan B, which was to move distribution for the CSA back to Whippoorwill Farm and prepare and plow other land,” board member Alice Early said. “We were looking into this with heavy hearts.”
According to Ms. Early, the new interested buyer planned to turn the farm into a private residence with horses and tear down the greenhouses.
When he learned about the offer, Mr. Grubman contacted Mr. Benson again.
Last Thursday, Mr. Grubman and Mr. Benson met at the farm. They spent an hour and a half touring the property. The deal took only 15 minutes to negotiate, Mr. Grubman said.
“For that I am eternally grateful, for both of them coming to a deal,” Mr. Woodruff said. “I am really appreciative of Mr. Grubman and happy that people were able to meet this goal and that this farm can stay in agriculture.”
“Let’s keep on farming, get the deal closed and keep on going in the long run,” Mr. Grubman said.
Mr. Grubman plans to lease the property to Mr. Woodruff for continued use as part of the CSA program. Meanwhile, CSA organizers will get to work on completing a master plan for the property, which may include increased agricultural restrictions. “We will work with [Mr. Grubman] while we create a master plan and find ways to reduce his investment over time,” Ms. Early said.
And CSA members can look forward to returning to the farm in the spring for berries, greens and flowers.
“The Moskows took the initial steps in getting this land into production and putting restrictions on it,” Mr. Woodruff said. “Hopefully, we will take the next steps, which will continue on into the future.”