Olivia Rabbitt’s smile is as wide as the sun when she hands her customers a personalized bouquet. But even brighter is the look on the face of the person receiving the flowers.

“I really love the joy someone gets when you hand them their flowers. It’s a beautiful way to care for people,” Olivia says.

Olivia is in her second season of growing flowers at Piecemeal Farm, a half-acre farm she established through a private land lease in Edgartown. Though Piecemeal is only two years old, she has spent seven seasons (and off-seasons!) on the Island after her initial introduction through cousins who live here year-round. She is fulfilling her childhood determination to be a farmer.

“I enjoy being part of communities that build tangible things,” she explains. “Growing food or flowers is a clear way to do that. The system of growing food and getting it to people is fascinating to me,” she notes.

At the West Tisbury Farmers' Market, Olivia makes custom bouquets for customers. Maria Thibodeau

Farming in the context of an island’s unique topography is something Olivia is familiar with. She has worked on farms in Costa Rica, New Zealand and Oahu. These experiences built on her first job working at the same family farm in Seekonk, Mass., where her father worked. Her decision to make the Vineyard her full-time home and farming site was based on the community here and how much it made her feel at home.

Olivia learned about growing by working alongside people who transmit the earth’s secrets through practical, hands-on experience. Her first teacher was Emily, her next-door neighbor in her hometown of Rehoboth, who Olivia describes as a surrogate grandmother. “Every kid should have an Emily who lets you play with her pet parakeets and teaches you about gardening,” she proclaims. “I learned so much from her about growing perennials and planting perennial gardens.” She also cites flower farmer Krishana Collins at Tea Lane Farm as a mentor.

Olivia feels there are conditions specific to the Vineyard that growers need to be mindful of. “We are growing in sand and the soil here is pretty acidic,” she notes. “That’s why we have so many blueberries and oaks growing. The soil system is different from other places. You have to amend it with compost. Sand drains well, so you have to be sure to irrigate and make sure that what you’re growing has enough nutrients.”

She also advises home gardeners that they should spend time with their plants every day. “Especially if growing something for the first time,” she advises. “Not only because it’s fun, but also because a quick daily check helps you notice little changes and head off potential challenges before they become bigger problems.”

Because farming on the Island is seasonal, Olivia has usually held two or three jobs simultaneously. While holding “day jobs,” she also farmed her own plot at Island Grown Initiative’s community garden for three years. She joined the IGI staff in 2017 and worked there through 2021. Becoming an instructor and coordinator as part of the Island Grown Schools team gave her the opportunity to farm during summer months and work as an educator during the school year. The experience of providing the Island’s school-aged children with gardening, food education and exposure to local farms was meaningful work that influenced her experience of community.

Olivia loves seeing people light up when she hands them their bouquet. Maria Thibodeau

Through Island Grown Schools, she was assigned to the Tisbury School. She lights up when recalling the work.

“I love that community and can’t say enough good things about them” she offers. “They were a joy. The teachers are amazing and supportive. The women in the lunchroom were incredible. Everyone really valued the program.”

“Kids notice the most amazing things because they haven’t been taught to glaze over them,” she says. “Most kids are scientists. We are all natural observers and kids have an ability to tap into that if you give them permission to do it.”

“You can say ‘Today, we’re going outside. We’re going to lie under all of these different trees and you’re just going to be quiet. Tell me what you notice about the trees. How does it sound? What color is it? How does it smell to you?’”

While Olivia was at the Tisbury School, IGI expanded programming and Olivia is proud of the direction those changes took. “We started teaching food history courses to the older kids,” she recalls. “We held a cooking class that was fun. It was not too different from what FoodCorps is doing. This is part of what is happening across America now; there’s a lot of similar programming to change lunch programs and introduce garden and food education in schools.”

Flower crowns are part of the blooming business. Maria Thibodeau

Olivia also co-managed the West Tisbury Farmers' Market with Collins Heavener from 2019 to 2020. That experience provided invaluable lessons about working in a community and what the challenges were in running a small business. She is glad to now be “on the other side of the booth” as she describes it. A new provision allows smaller vendors to share a space with one other vendor so that the cost and effort is manageable. That has enabled Olivia to share a booth with Martha’s Vineyard Mycological. During set-up and breakdown time, she enjoys talking with other farmers, comparing notes on growing conditions and flower and plant varieties.

Her booth is set up so that customers can see the flowers she’s brought to market and can collaborate on what goes into a bouquet. Some people tell her to surprise them; others know what they want; some gravitate to her booth because they spotted a particular flower from across the market and knew they had to have it. “Part of the fun for me is to work with people,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me your vibe or color scheme. Give me something to ground this bouquet. Is there anything, any one flower here that speaks to your soul that I missed?’ I’ve never had anyone frown on their flowers.”

Olivia is clear about how hard it is to start a farm. “Year two is great,” she proclaims. Over the summer, she’ll be leading flower crown-making workshops, setting up DIY flower buckets so brides and hosts can create their own arrangements for events, and creating bouquets and settings for special events. She has lately enjoyed creating flowers for elopements and weddings.

When the season winds down, she’ll spend more time at her home on Chappaquiddick. She’ll continue creating garden kits for people who want to plant on their own. She works with private clients, tracking it all on Excel spreadsheets and working off a hotspot on her phone because her house lacks WiFi. The off-season gives her time to research and go for long walks during which she can daydream about – you guessed it – the varieties she’ll plant next year!

Elizabeth Bennett is community editor for the Vineyard Gazette.