Jim and Debbie Athearn, owners of Morning Glory Farm, still remember the day their children told him they weren’t interested in running the family business.

“Apparently premeditated, the three of them were sitting with us at our dinner table and said, we want you to know Mom and Dad, none of us are interested in taking over the farm,” Jim recalled, swaying gently on a rocker in the attic of the farm’s processing building on recent sunny afternoon.

“We were surprised because it never occurred to us that they would, not once. Why would you? You’re supposed to go off and do your own thing,” he said, Debbie nodding in agreement on a rocker beside him.

At the time the kids were teenagers. But several years later, on a trip to Maine, they changed their tune.

“Simon was riding up with me to work on our log cabins and he said, Dad, I want to come home and be your right hand man on the farm. That time, I was even more surprised,” Jim said.

Now, some 20 years later, the second generation of Athearns will be taking over the family business this year.

Simon Athearn, with his parents, will take over as CEO. — Jeanna Shepard

Working hand in glove with their parents — retirement is not a word in the Athearn vocabulary — Simon will lead the business as the new CEO with his brother Daniel as chief operating officer and their wives, Robyn Hosey Athearn and Meeghan Knapp Athearn, beside them at the helm. The couple’s eldest daughter Prudence will also be involved, along with running her full-time business Vineyard Nutrition.

Jim described the new management as a family-wide partnership. “They turn to us with plenty of questions and thoughts, I don’t really see that changing, but they’ll take on more and more and I see us dropping the jobs that we don’t love,” he said, a grin breaking across his face.

The farm, which began with a collection of modest fields, has grown steadily over the years, blossoming into one of the largest farming operations on the Island, a beloved institution for Islanders and summer residents alike. This summer, the Athearns will employ about 150 people.

The early days were a much different story. But as with many great origin stories, Morning Glory’s birth was literal, beginning with the Athearn’s first child, Prudence.

The couple began dating while in high school on the Vineyard. They graduated from Bates College together and then moved to the Cape, getting caught up in their work and plans for a life on the mainland. But they also longed for the Vineyard.

Dan Athearn is the chief operating officer and livestock manager. — Jeanna Shepard

“Both of us go back many generations on this Island,” Debbie said. “It’s home and it just kept tugging us.”

When Debbie became pregnant, they hatched a plan to take a two-week vacation so Prudence could be born on the Island. But two weeks quickly stretched into four as the couple passed their days on the farm of Jim’s uncle. Being back home at the farm where as a boy he picked his first blueberries and milked his first cows reignited something in Jim.

“I bought a little chainsaw and I started to carve out some space,” he recalled. “I thought it would be fun to have a field . . . and wherever we took our summer vacation on the Vineyard, we could play at being farmers for two weeks. We were focused on off-Island and conventional careers, but in the background of my mind was always farming.”

But the Athearns don’t play at farming.

In 1975, they made it official, moving home and harvesting vegetables and flowers from a field in Edgartown and a smattering of fields owned by their parents. They set up a stall at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market and in 1981 opened their farm stand, a 20 by 18-foot structure. The rest of their history is told in acres. Today, the business has become a community fixture, responsible for a good percentage of the Island’s local food resources and preserving large swaths of land from development — all governed by basic principles of farming and a guiding philosophy of fairness.

“It was very important to us to be fair to the customer, fair to the employees,” Debbie said.

The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2019. — Jeanna Shepard

And despite difficulties along the way, including hurricane Bob which wiped out an entire season’s worth of crops, and early challenges with irrigation and insects, they prospered.

“It took 30 years to be profitable, a long, long time,” Debbie said. “And yet we survived.”

For Jim and Debbie, who began dating as teenagers and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, partnership is the bedrock upon which the operation stands. Seated together in twin rocking chairs, that partnership is still obvious, as the two tease each other playfully, correcting one another as they tell familiar family stories. Like the time baby Prudence unplugged the freezer, thawing all their stored vegetables, or when Jim’s father wished the couple luck on their adventure as farmers: “I hope you like eating snowballs in the winter.”

The land immediately surrounding the farmstand — inherited from Debbie’s parents (her father bought the 20-acre parcel for $7 at half interest in the early 1940s) — has also been home for generations of Island families who spent summers working the farm’s corn fields and greenhouses through childhood, none more so than the Athearn children themselves. But for Simon, Daniel and Prudence, who grew up playing and working on the farm from the time they learned to walk, taking over the farm and family business was not always an obvious choice.

Simon, who worked in the restaurant industry, returned to the Island in 2000 looking for something new. Working alongside his siblings at the farm that year, he began to sow his own seeds in the Edgartown soil. They quickly took root.

“I recognized that the thing of beauty that I left behind was not going to be matched by anything else I chased down out there in the world,” Simon recalled, describing his destiny with a laugh. “No one will do this job but family. It’s a full life job.”

As the farm enters a new chapter, Simon has his own visions for the property, including plans to become partially organic certified and service the Island year-round. Both ideas are near on the horizon, as the old guard upholds tradition and the new one infuses fresh ideas into the work.

Farm operations, too, are expected to expand this year, after recently securing a lease for 120 acres at Katama Farm. Jim said he plans to use the farm as grazing fields for cattle, a vast expansion from the farm’s current capacity. A portion will also be sub-leased to Grey Barn farm.

But as leaders both new and old set about their work this summer, the family piece of the puzzle remains exactly the same.

“The community has been telling us every year they want this to be happening,” Debbie said. “The customers wanting us to do it is the positive reinforcement that we get. It’s [the] driving force.”