A crowd hovered at the entrance gate to the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning, as workers from Morning Glory Farm unloaded 32 bushels of corn intended for sale at the farm’s market booth. The market didn’t open for another 10 minutes, but this crowd was armed and ready, with tote bags and baskets as their weapons of choice.
West Tisbury is not the only farmers’ market that has been seeing crowds this year. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a 9.6 per cent increase in its national directory of farmers’ markets. The USDA identified 7,864 farmers’ markets throughout the country, with the top three being California (827 markets), New York (647 markets) and Massachusetts (313 markets).
Market manager and New Lane Sundries purveyor Linda Alley confirmed the trend and said this year the market is busier than ever
“Saturday was unbelievable, it was really crazy being the first Saturday in August — it was big,” she said. “I thought it was packed, there were wall-to-wall people . . . I can’t imagine being a customer. I look out from my booth and you can hardly walk through.”
And this summer Vineyard farmers who raise chicken, beef and pork say they have been hard-pressed to keep up with the growing demand for locally-grown meat. On Saturday ice-packed coolers filled with Island-raised meat lined the booths; two hours later the coolers were mostly empty.
“Do you have any ground beef left? I would love a pound,” a customer asked Farm Institute director Jon Previant. Mr. Previant rummaged around the four coolers the farm had brought that morning that by then only contained a few odd cuts and some hot dogs. A few minutes later he found the last package of ground beef, which sold at $7.25 for a little less than a pound.
One cow or beef steer yields 400 pounds of hamburger meat, Mr. Previant said, and it’s all gone in 21 days.
“If you burgered the whole [animal], the demand is so strong — and to me it’s the best value — an entire carcass of burgers wouldn’t last us a month,” he said. “Our animal production is up and demand is up.”
The Farm Institute sells 100 pounds of ground beef each week at Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven.
In addition to hamburger meat, pork sausage has seen a “steady demand whether it’s grilling season or not,” Mr. Previant said, and odd cuts are also increasingly popular.
“I’m personally surprised at the amount of organ meats we sell,” he said. “It’s a testimony to good inventive cooking and a testimony to people wanting to pursue new dishes. It means we’re getting more value from the carcass — liver, tongue, heart — I think it’s great.”
But as grain prices begin to soar in the wake of the severe drought across much of the country this year, Island farmers are wondering if they will be forced to raise their prices. “If you’re fortunate enough to raise animals on grass, then your concern is the access to your own hay or being forced to buy it,” Mr. Previant said. “If you’re finishing animals [with grain, as the Institute does with some of its animals], it has to make you a little nervous.”
Jefferson Munroe at the Good Farm and Richard Andre at the Cleveland Farm, who both raise poultry, have been able to keep up with demand so far but they’ve also increased their production by 50 per cent. The two farmers collectively are raising 3,500 birds this season.
Mr. Munroe said his sales are up 100 per cent over last season.
They also have increased production to carry them into the winter months, when demand for local meat is still high. Mr. Munroe sold out of his chickens in April; Mr. Andre sold out in January.
“The chicken [growing] season is only in the summertime but there’s still a market for birds all winter long,” Mr. Munroe said.
Conventionally-raised chicken sells for $6.50 a pound, while organic chicken sells for $7.50 a pound. Next season both farms will transition to all-organic feed.
Mr. Andre said butchering the chickens into butterflied breasts, thighs and other cut-up parts has “opened up the market for people who didn’t know what to do with an entire chicken.”
Meat availability at Morning Glory Farm has been low, which is normal for this time of year, farm owner Jim Athearn said.
“People love sausage and bacon,” Mr. Athearn said. “We’re grinding up the whole pig now for sausage and keeping the bacon because that’s what people want to buy.”
Demand for local produce and meat is also up at Island grocery stores. Cronig’s Markets manager Sarah McKay said both stores have seen “a huge increase every year with local products.”
“Customers are definitely looking for it and anything we bring in sells right away, it just keeps growing and growing,” she said.
The demand for Island-raised meat is now steady, Ms. McKay said.
“Last year was the first year we sold it and it was all kind of new, but now we’re seeing consistent business,” she said. “Whether it’s chicken or ground beef, it’s doing really well. There’s still a price difference issue but we know people are gradually getting there and enjoying the product. We’re seeing people buy a little less and making what they buy go a little further.”
Allen Healy at Mermaid Farm, a popular Island dairy, agreed that the demand has put pressure on farmers here.
“It’s hard to get to peak production while balancing peak demand,” he said. Demand for Mermaid Farm yogurt is well up this year, Mr. Healy said.
Matthew Dix at North Tabor Farm agreed, but said, “It’s always been hard on the Vineyard to keep up with the August demand.”
Mr. Dix couldn’t say whether numbers are up over last year, but he could say with certainty that customer appreciation is on the rise.
“The biggest thing is you get so many people thankful for what you’re doing; we hear more of that and it’s definitely increased over last year,” he said.
The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair is right around the corner; entry forms for this year’s fair are due on Monday by 5 p.m. Fair booklets and entry forms are available at the agricultural hall. The Agricultural Society is also hosting a book-signing event for Bountiful: A History of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society and the Livestock Show and Fair on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the a agricultural hall with author Susan Klein and photographer Alan Brigish.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agriculture and farm life on the Vineyard. Remy Tumin may be contacted at 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at email@example.com.