There was a homemade meatloaf to photograph, the office door of the old farmhouse needed fixing, and there were chickens to attend to, all while Farmer the farm dog was chasing Barney the new barn cat.
It was a typical afternoon at Green Island Farm in West Tisbury, and quite a change of pace for farmer, chef and writer Susie Middleton. Gone are the days of long hours as editor in chief of a major food magazine. Instead, Ms. Middleton has turned to farming and writing. This month her third cookbook debuts, weaving the challenges and joys of farming with recipes inspired by her first market garden.
Ms. Middleton will read from Fresh from the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven on Saturday, Feb. 15, at 3 p.m.
What started as an escape from a stressful lifestyle has turned into a thriving small business off State Road, just across the street from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Hall. Ms. Middleton was editor in chief of Fine Cooking magazine when she visited the Island to begin writing her first cookbook, Fast, Fresh and Green.
“I came up here to start writing and chill out, and I fell in love with the Vineyard,” she said. Ms. Middleton traveled back and forth from Connecticut for several months until she moved here permanently in 2008 after 11 years at Fine Cooking. She remains an editor at large at the magazine.
“I was really, really intrigued by the farmers and the local food movement out here,” she said. “As an editor in chief of the magazine I was talking about food every day, editing articles about food, working with chefs . . . but I felt really disconnected from my food, which I’ve learned is extremely important to me.”
On Monday, she was photographing her winter green market meatloaf for her blog, sixburnersue.com.
“There’s something there for my happiness and well-being to be involved in growing and sharing food with other people,” she said.
Happiness also involved meeting Roy Riley, a builder and carpenter with a green thumb. They decided to grow vegetables at the community plot at Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, and seedlings were started in their apartment over Alley’s General Store, where they lived together with Roy’s daughter Libby.
During the summer of 2010, a friend mentioned that the house and farm owned by Tom Hickie’s family was available for rent.
“I immediately fell in love with it and the giant maple tree outside,” Ms. Middleton said.
They moved in that fall, planted their first market garden, built a small farm stand and bought eight chickens. By the next year, they doubled the size of the market garden, built a hoop house and added 50 chickens to their flock.
Ms. Middleton and Mr. Riley then “thought long and hard” about how to best use the additional four acres behind their home, which has an agricultural preservation restriction on it intended for farm production. The answer was simple: eggs.
“We realized the market for eggs was so huge and underserved,” she said.
The farm now has 500 laying hens, including 24 Auracana chickens that lay blue eggs. This season they’ll grow vegetables in an additional quarter acre.
“It’s been a huge learning curve, which is partly why I like it,” Ms. Middleton said. “It keeps my brain stimulated.”
Ms. Middleton recognized some of the issues facing farmers on the Island, including pest control, access to water and affordable land. She recommended starting small for future beginning farmers.
“We got lucky in a way that we found an Island family who wanted to have their land farmed,” she said. “We started so tiny and people don’t think that’s viable, but considering you’re going to almost have to be working doing something else as a farmer, it’s not a bad idea to start small and sell small so you don’t get into debt. We work all the time and it’s a good thing.”
Growing her own food has provided its own challenges, and cooking the vegetables another.
“There are things I like to grow, like fairy tale eggplant or sunburst squash, and I realized that they are challenging to cook for people — how to cut them and how do they not come out mushy,” she said. “The new vegetables have created great opportunities for me to try out new techniques and different flavors. My mission is to help people enjoy cooking. If I can demystify something, that’s great.”
Her galley kitchen is filled with pitchers of whisks, spoons and varying sizes of graters. Speckled enamelware decorates the shelves and small stacking bowls line the counter.
“I’m kind of a mini bowl freak,” Ms. Middleton laughed.
Ms. Middleton encourages people to keep a basic pantry of garlic, ginger, shallots, a couple of good vinegars, citrus and plenty of fresh herbs.
“With those things . . . you can do anything with vegetables,” she said.
Cookbooks of all varieties are stored nearby. These days Ms. Middleton relies on the River Cottage cookbooks and Nigel Slater. She learned to cook from the Joy of Cooking and the New York Times Cookbook, but the Silver Palate was her go-to when she was coming of age.
When Ms. Middleton moved to the Vineyard, she left much of her past life behind, paring down her cookbook collection by having two book sales. She said she enjoys the “much simpler” lifestyle.
“I spend a lot more time outdoors, which I found is very important to me,” she said. “It’s also allowed me to get my writing career going. This is all much more rewarding.”
Susie Middleton will read from Fresh from the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Saturday, Feb. 15, at 3 p.m.