This past summer a resident walked into Cronig’s to return a beautiful tomato her husband had bought. She was told that the market would happily take it back. When asked why she was returning this perfect looking tomato, she said it was because the tomato had been grown in Chile and not right on the Island.
The incident illustrates the shift in consumer focus from commercial food to Vineyard food. And that shift is creating new opportunities for farmers and fishermen here.
Different from the knuckles-in-the-soil work of many farmers are the challenges they face on the business and marketing end of things. On Tuesday night, the Vineyard food community converged at the Grange Hall for a panel discussion about Island food and how it travels from the farm to the market.
A boisterous crowd of about 40 farmers and foodies came for the event cohosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Women‘s Network and Island Grown Initiative. The panel featured five members of the food web: Dan Sauer and Wenonah Madison of 7a Farm, Rebecca Miller of North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, Sarah McKay, manager of Cronig’s supermarkets, and Mary Kenworth, owner of State Road Restaurant. The evening was moderated by Ali Berlow, publisher of Edible Vineyard and founder of Island Grown Initiative.
They shared success stories and brainstormed ways of expanding the market on the Island and beyond.
Rebecca Miller recalled impediments she faced when she started North Tabor Farm 16 years ago.
“I hired people that knew more than me,” Ms. Miller said. “I also asked a ton of questions. It was a little disappointing in the beginning because everybody was so secretive about their information and it was hard for me to tap into that. I vowed that when I got the information, I wasn’t going to keep it a secret.”
Luckily for Mr. Sauer and Ms. Madison of 7a Farm, the community was a lot more open and helpful when they recently entered the scene. Other Island farmers helped them get started, from building fences to selling them starter tomato plants from Bakehouse Farm.
“There’s just a sense of community, and I think that if you’re bringing [to the market] something that’s going to be considered local product, people are definitely willing to help you start. There is opportunity for bartering,” Mr. Sauer said.
Bartering can get you so far, but making a living off of it also requires a productive relationship between farmers and the market.
Small farms such as 7a and larger, more established farms alike grapple with the business decisions, from manpower and profit margin, to state and federal regulations for value-added products. Value-added is another way of saying the produce is processed in some way, for example, sun-dried tomatoes or pesto.
Ms. McKay said she tries to help producers steer their ideas into the aisles of Cronig’s. She meets individually with the growers and negotiates for each individual crop. Cronig’s has tremendous local buying power and Ms. McKay said she is always willing to discuss new ideas and opportunities for Island produce to be featured at the supermarket.
“It’s really amazing to see the variety of what people want to do,” Ms. McKay said.
State Road Restaurant showcases Vineyard produce and fish. Mrs. Kenworth said it makes the menu harder to read but more satisfying for the customers’ appetite for Island grown food. The restaurant recently obtained a license that allows them to sell local fish directly; previously the fish had to be processed and inspected in Boston or New Bedford.
This news, and other insights about value-added products and financing, spurred the audience into lively conversations and one-on-one exchanges at the conclusion of the presentation.
“Once you get people in the room, that’s where you get the synergy and the energy and the ideas,” Mrs. Berlow said. “Good things will come from that.”
One of the organizers of the event, Jan Pogue, looked out as the Grange Hall vibrated like an active beehive and said, “Sharing information is vital. Look at this, look at the buzz.”