In the summer months, Island cook Jan Buhrman starts her days early. After waking her two sons, feeding her two pigs, checking on her 12 ducks and saying goodbye to her one husband, Ms. Buhrman gets into her car. Rather than head straight to work, many mornings she seeks out the farmers who sell to her. More often than not, these farmers are women.
Ms. Buhrman savors her short commute along Middle Road to her kitchen office. “It’s the calm of the morning, probably the last calming breath I’ll have before the fast paced life of the kitchen. I just want to breathe that in,” she said. Some mornings, she finds she is not quite ready to give that moment up.
So she makes a hasty decision and pulls off the road and onto the bumpy driveway of Mermaid Farm, home to a dairy and an heirloom tomato stand. She parks and heads into the fields in search of her friend, farmer Caitlin Jones.
“I stop and I see Caitlin in the fields. And maybe that’s the last peaceful moment of her day, before her kids need breakfast and her cows need to get fed. We’re embracing that last moment before we have to jump into the world,” she said. The two chat and Ms. Buhrman inevitably will walk away with a crate of tomatoes to work into sauces, stews and salads for her Island clients.
Other mornings, Ms. Buhrman bypasses Middle Road altogether because there is a five-pound bag of mushrooms waiting for her at North Tabor Farm or an order of lamb she needs to pick up at the Allen Sheep Farm. Either way, her stops end with Ms. Buhrman, the cook, trading tips and stories with the women who tend the fields.
Martha’s Vineyard, a community which has long embraced both agriculture and independent women, seems to be in the midst of an agricultural revival. In recent years, the number of small farms on the Island has risen and a new generation of farmers have begun to till the land. In the past decade, a handful of organizations, including the Island Grown Initiative and Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard, have formed to promote locally grown food and advocate for the local farmer. Both on the farm and behind the scenes, women are among the key players.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not touched by one of these ladies of the land,” Ms. Buhrman said last Sunday. She sat on the stage of the Chilmark Community Center, surrounded by a sampling of the Island’s female farmers — nine, including 12-year-old Ruby Dix.
The bounty these women grow, harvest and raise could feed an army: goat’s milk cheese, shiitake mushrooms, pork. Eggs plucked from the chicken coop, potatoes of all colors, salad greens still warm from the summer sun, garlic. Had they been asked, they could have provided the lambswool to make the soldiers’ sweaters and the freshly cut flowers to decorate their table.
Indeed, these women provided the local ingredients — down to the corn for popping — which the Scottish Bakhouse’s Daniele Dominick used to feed a crowd of Island moviegoers this past weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. On Sunday, many turned out to watch Ladies of the Land, a documentary about women in agriculture, and hear the Island’s own ladies discuss their lives and work on the farm.
The film made clear that, in agriculture at least, the Vineyard is ahead of national trends. Twenty years ago, the film said, few women were recognized as farmers. Today they are the fastest growing group in agriculture and represent 27 per cent of farmers nationally.
Twenty years ago, the Vineyard counted among its ranks of experienced farmers a number of women. “Women have been involved in agriculture on the Vineyard for forever,” Clarissa Allen said following the film. Ms. Allen began farming in Chilmark with her husband, Mitchell Posin, 33 years ago. When they arrived, the couple relied on Ann Hopkins and Marjorie Rogers, as well as Everett Whiting and old Fred Fischer when installing fencing, birthing lambs and planting gardens.
“Historically, men went away to sea for a number of years and women have always run the farms,” agreed Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm.
The Island Grown Initiative, a nonprofit, distributes a map of local farms. The map lists 27 farms, including the farmers’ market in West Tisbury and the Community Solar Green House in Oak Bluffs, which sell to the public. The list does not include the many farms on Island which sell only to restaurants. Of the 27, 19 list women as either the principle or a principle farm operator.
Rebecca Miller is one of them. Nearly 20 years ago, she began growing flowers in Vineyard Haven with her husband Matthew Dix. They outgrew the space and bought North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, a seven-acre farm where they now grow greens, flowers and mushrooms and raise animals. Mr. Dix works an off-farm job during the week. Weekdays, Ms. Miller is boss. She could not do it, she said, without the community of female farmers on Island.
“With women, it’s like we help each other,” she said. When she began growing greens, it was Prudy Burt who helped her. When she birthed her first lamb, it was Caitlin Jones that she called. “Without them it would be lonely and I think I’d be more intimidated,” she said.
And so, as well as growing and selling food, Ms. Miller makes it a priority to educate and support future generations of farmers. Each season she hires volunteers and makes herself available to younger farmers, including Heidi Feldman, who got her start as a volunteer with Ms. Miller and now has her own farm in Tisbury, and Krishana Collins, who also grows greens and flowers.
Ms. Feldman organized the panel discussion Sunday. Just a few years ago, after giving up her 9 to 5 desk job in pursuit of farming, Ms. Feldman met the film festival’s director Thomas Bena when they were both volunteering on Ms. Miller’s farm. “[Agriculture] is one of the only markets where we can charge as much as a man for a product,” she said in a conversation following the discussion.
“We’re supportive of each other,” Ms. Miller said of this community of women growers. “Krishana grows exactly what I grow and I’m so happy that she’s doing it because she’s a woman who started this and is doing it on her own, and it is hard. I feel so proud of all these people.”
Ms. Collins, 33, leases close to three acres from Andrew Woodruff off of State road. Although she has been farming on and off for years, she started her own operation, Bluebird Farm, four years ago. “Some days I think of myself as a woman farmer and some days I think of myself as a farmer,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s the struggles that make me realize I’m a woman farmer.”
Ms. Collins was referring to the physical struggles of farming, struggles she cleverly works to overcome. “I work alone a lot, so I have to figure out how to maneuver my body,” said the farmer who stands at five feet, three inches. “Like to get the tiller in the truck, I rig up some kind of crazy ramp. I fill the wheelbarrow up three-quarters of the way instead of all the way.” And when she has a big project to do, such as raising the greenhouse she is building, she will reach out to her friends and fellow farmers. “It’s just so much better to not do it alone,” she said.
Before coming to the Island, Ms. Collins co-owned a farm in Florida. Her business partner was male. “When people would come and talk to us to buy things, they would not even look at me,” she said. “It was such an unusual thing to even be farming there. Here, it’s different,” she said. “They’re used to women farming here and being on the farm and being strong and interested in it. I feel so lucky to be here.”
It was a sentiment Ms. Miller echoed. “The Vineyard is a more nurturing place for female farmers,” she said. “It is a more nurturing place for farmers in general.”