Year Four Brings Growing Pains at Thimble Farm

By MAX HART

Perhaps the best indication of the kind of summer Andrew Woodruff has endured these past months can be found inside his covered vegetable stand at Benson's Thimble Farm.

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Against the back wall, five enlarged photographs of crops ravaged by animals tell part of the story. Three show watermelons with neatly carved circles bored out of the rind by crows, their insides siphoned dry. The others depict the carnage that took place in Mr. Woodruff's cornfield: ears of corn, still on the stalk, devoured by raccoons. Only bare cobs remain.

Beside each photograph is an explanation to customers for why these staples of summer will not be available this harvest season.

"We built houses with metal frames and tight crow net," the first note reads. "All of our watermelons and cantaloupes were eaten anyway."

Above the other photos, another note simply reads: "Raccoons have eaten the rest of the corn crop."

These are just a few of Mr. Woodruff's growing pains. Not tacked up on the wall are stories about the other acts of nature that combined to make this year one of the West Tisbury farmer's more difficult. In May and into June, heavy rains drowned his strawberry patch - all two acres of it - ruining more than two-thirds of the crop. Later in the month, Mr. Woodruff found his beans infested by Mexican bean beetles. The heavy rains were also responsible for germination problems with the peas, and hungry deer have seemingly become indifferent to the high wattage surging through his electrical fences.

They all add up to a long and somewhat disappointingly fruitless season.

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"I'm a fighter," Mr. Woodruff said with a half smile on Wednesday afternoon, just a few feet from the farm stand. "It has taken me 25 years to learn that this is a difficult business, and this year has certainly been challenging. The weather was difficult, and the wildlife pressure on this Island is very intense. But that's farming."

If Mr. Woodruff had a difficult year, that means so did his customers - including the more than 300 Islanders who invested $600 each for a full share of community supported agriculture (CSA), the innovative farming program where participants invest in the farm and receive weekly bundles of its yield. CSA members pay a fee at the start of the growing season to provide Mr. Woodruff with the funds needed to get planting under way, and then pick up produce free of charge as the harvests come in.

Now in its fourth season, CSA has become increasingly popular, rising from 80 members in 2003 to more than 300 this year. Mr. Woodruff has also begun offering a variety of seasonal packages over several weeks throughout the summer.

But with increasing popularity, comes increasing responsibility.

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"There is a responsibility to supply them with food and fulfill that commitment, and that is something that weighs on me," Mr. Woodruff said. "But CSA is about good years and bad years and trying to find an average of the two. My hope is that my customers will stick with it and hopefully find that average to be a pretty good value."

Mr. Woodruff, who owns and operates Whippoorwill Farm on Old County Road in West Tisbury, is entering the third and final year on a lease of 20 acres of Benson's Thimble Farm - 43 total acres of farmland that straddle the towns of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury - from Lawrence Benson. Mr. Benson bought the farm in 2001 from Bencion and Patricia Moskow, who had owned it since 1982 and grew their coveted tomatoes. In 2000, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank purchased the development rights to the land and placed it under an agricultural preservation restriction, ensuring it will be actively farmed well into the future.

But this year, Mr. Benson put the farm on the market for $4 million, and while no buyer has stepped forward to purchase the land, a sale would put the future of Mr. Woodruff's farm and CSA in doubt.

"It is definitely a possibility, and that has weighed on me quite a bit all summer," Mr. Woodruff said. "Personally, now starting my third year here, I have enough energy and stamina to stick it out - I've got some more fight left in me. But if nothing is done with respect to the purchase of the property, it is unlikely that I will continue CSA, at least as it is now in this location."

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Unable to purchase the farm himself, Mr. Woodruff has been working with a nonprofit group that would buy the farm and offer Mr. Woodruff a long-term, affordable lease. He has not approached the land bank about purchasing the property outright, though he said the idea has been broached.

"What we are trying to achieve is long-term affordability and security for either myself or some future farmer," he added. "There are still a lot of challenges, but the critical key is ownership and affordability and access to land."

Despite the setbacks, Mr. Woodruff said the farm did better financially than last year. However, because the income fell short of Mr. Woodruff's expectations (partly due to the shortage in strawberries) he was limited to a smaller staff and less resources.

"Businesses take a few years to get comfortable, and I am reasonably optimistic next year will be better than this one," he said. "One of the hardest things about growing food is having something fail and having to wait eight months to try it again.

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"I have learned a lot this year, and I think I will be able to put that toward next year. Weather permitting."