A vocal gathering of Vineyard farmers heard about plans for a campus-style educational agricultural center during a tour of the former Thimble Farm property this week.
Sponsored by the Island Grown Initiative, which bought the 40-acre farm in the center of the Island last year, the tour sparked a lively discussion among some 30 growers about how best to encourage growth and also ensure survival for the burgeoning network of small farms on the Island that operate with little or no subsidy. Opinion was far from unanimous.
At the outset IGI leaders announced plans this week to use a one-acre greenhouse on the property to grow produce for Vineyard schools.
President Sarah McKay said the first year of production in the greenhouse will focus on providing greens, including lettuce, spinach, bok choy, chard and herbs to the public schools and, possibly also the YMCA and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
“We are deeply and truly committed to doing this for the community, and we are committed to not competing with local farmers,” Ms. McKay said, standing inside the warm and humid 33,000-square-foot greenhouse on Wednesday, a sunny, cool day outside. “It will give us an opportunity to do something different, spend some time doing research and how to make this as energy efficient as it can be.”
Ms. McKay said next winter IGI will develop a fuller plan for the greenhouse, which needs some refurbishment. The long-range plan calls for converting the greenhouse into a hydroponic growing and educational center with some kind of aquaculture project, new affordable housing for year-round and seasonal farm workers, a commercial kitchen and a U.S. Department of Agriculture permitted slaughterhouse and cut and wrap facility.
The property will be called Island Grown Farms. Keith Wilda, a former greenhouse consultant with extensive farming and aquaponic background, has been hired as the manager.
Island Grown Farms plans to lease out two 10-acre plots to Island farmers, with another 10-acre plot reserved for agriculture education. A community garden space is also planned.
The facility will be as close to zero-discharge as possible, Mr. Wilda said. The greenhouse will also be Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) certified, which allows sales to schools and commercial outlets, and genetically modified organism (GMO) free.
Cover crops will be planted in the fields this year and next year to begin to rebuild the soils, Mr. Wilda said.
IGI treasurer Steve Bernier, who owns Cronig’s Markets, praised the plan to grow greens for the schools.
“We can make serious inroads with school lunches,” Mr. Bernier said. “For the sake of our kids and the way we’ve fed them the last 20 years . . .”
Mr. Bernier, who sells produce from Island farmers in his markets, estimated about two to three per cent of produce distributed on the Island comes from Vineyard growers. He said he would like to see the number grow to 50 per cent in the next 20 years.
Farmers had many questions, some of them peppery. Krishana Collins, a flower grower who recently took a long-term lease on the town-owned Tea Lane Farm in Chilmark, said she would like to see the new farm center operate as a cooperative, with a mechanic on staff and a program to rent shared farm equipment. She also raised concerns about increased competition from a large greenhouse growing operation.
Andrew Woodruff, who ran his community supported agriculture (CSA) Whippoorwill Farm at Thimble Farm for eight years, had similar concerns.
“I do not think this is the future of growing on Martha’s Vineyard, I do not think this greenhouse operation as presented is really helping local agriculture,” Mr. Woodruff said.
David Radcliffe from Pilot Hill Farm said he liked the educational component of the new farm center.
“It’s an educational opportunity for the whole community,” he said. “Do you realize what you do with a handful of educators and a squad of junior farmers? It’s an army.”
Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman and longtime advocate for the local fisheries, applauded the conversation.
“It’s really important that these people came into this room today and said what they had to say,” he said. “Even though it’s hard to decide the competition issue, organic certification, decide what goes on inside this greenhouse, we talked about it today and it’s going to continue.”