Returning Home to West Tisbury with Sunny Outlook on Farming
By IAN FEIN
Emily Fischer feels privileged to have grown up as she has - on her family's Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury - among sheep, chickens and bales of hay spread out over more than 100 acres fronting Tisbury Great Pond.
"I look around the farm some days and think, ‘Anybody should be so lucky to be me,' " Ms. Fischer said.
"Some people say Martha's Vineyard is a microcosm of the rest of the country, but it's really not. Not even close," she added. "We're much better off than most everywhere else."
A graduate of Bard College, Ms. Fischer, who is 25, recently moved back to the Island with her fiance, Doug, and an East Friesian ram named Randy. They are hoping to breed Randy with the Flat Point Farm ewes this fall - the first step in a larger plan to start a cheese-making operation on the family farm.
With a father and late grandfather both well respected in the Island agricultural community, Ms. Fischer knows first-hand about the challenges and sacrifices involved in such an endeavor. In fact, her grandfather, Arnold Fischer Sr., once ran a successful dairy operation at Flat Point, and co-founded the cooperative dairy on the Vineyard. He was forced to sell his herd and replace it with sheep after the market turned in the 1960s.
Ms. Fischer, however, has a fresh outlook and optimism about the resurgence of Island agriculture. And though her operation will take at least two years to get up and running, she and Doug plan to embark on some cheese-making experiments this winter.
"You have to just start doing it at some point," Ms. Fischer said in an interview this week. "Otherwise, you end up sitting around and talking about it forever."
The same words apply to the Martha's Vineyard Commission as it moves into the next phase in the daunting task of developing a comprehensive Island Plan. After soliciting public comments throughout summer, the commission will soon take up the business of assigning topics to groups to begin laying out goals. The final product is aimed at charting a course for the future of the Vineyard.
By tying her own future to that of the Island, Ms. Fischer has cast a quiet vote of confidence in the commission plan. But she also notes that no matter what plan the Vineyard has in place, it will still require a group of like-minded people around to carry out the vision in the coming decades.
Characteristically, Ms. Fischer does not believe that will be a problem.
"I feel like the Vineyard will always be okay, because there are so many great young people here who really care about this place," she said, humbly deflecting the comment away from herself and her fiance.
In particular, she is excited about the younger generation of farmers who are showing a long-term commitment to the Vineyard. Ms. Fischer praised the Island Grown Initiative, which was launched early this summer, and believes in the potential for its growth.
"It could become a much bigger thing on the Vineyard," she said over a lunchtime meal at the Scottish Bakehouse in Vineyard Haven. "Supporting Island agriculture is important because it has always been one of the things that makes us so unique."
Demand and a market for Island-grown food are already in place, Ms. Fischer noted. Earlier this year, she and Doug worked at a cheese-making dairy in upstate New York, where the farmers spent two days out of the week driving to Manhattan to sell their products. The West Tisbury Farmers' Market, meanwhile, is one of the most successful in all of Massachusetts.
Ms. Fischer recognizes that Island-grown food can be expensive, but she believes local agriculture is worth the price. She also believes that - with time and support - Island farms will be able to reach a point where the food is more affordable.
She suggested that the Vineyard might want to consider developing a grant program to help young farmers with initial investments. She said that even though she counts herself as extraordinarily fortunate to already have land that she can farm, it will still cost her and her fiance thousands of dollars to purchase equipment and build the infrastructure necessary to comply with regulatory standards for cheese-making.
"It would be nice for the Vineyard to have a way to give people some assistance for farming," said Ms. Fischer, who is currently working for a Vineyard Haven book binder. "If Dan Athearn [at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown] wanted to start making biodiesel, that's something we should support, because it could benefit us all."
Agriculture also provides a more sustainable economy for the Vineyard than the service sector, she noted, which is currently the leading industry on the Island. "We have so many carpenters right now. But what is going to happen to all of them when there aren't as many houses to build?"
It was a question with no answer.
Increased farming would also have environmental benefits for the Island, Ms. Fischer said. The moral aspects of small-scale, sustainable farming were part of what convinced her to continue the stewardship of her family land.
"I rode horses for a long time as a child, but then stopped as a teenager and had no interest in farming at all," Ms. Fischer said. "But recently, it has all just seemed more and more important to me."
Her grandfather was her age - in his mid-20s - when he bought Flat Point Farm in 1939, known at the time as former Look estate. Down a long dirt road, the property was densely overgrown and had not been used for anything other than hunting.
Legend has it that Mr. Fischer picked up a handful of soil, felt its quality and agreed on the spot to purchase the 100-plus acres for what was then a reasonable price of roughly $4,000. He restored it to a working farm, and lived there for the duration of his life.
Arnold Fischer Sr. told the Gazette in the 1980s that he frequently received offers for his land, which includes almost a mile of pond frontage, but that he would never think of selling it to a developer. His children today, as they prepare for future inheritance taxes, are considering selling a portion of the land to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.
Ms. Fischer said she is in favor of having the public conservation organization next door. She criticized other waterfront property owners who strictly enforce trespassing laws along the shoreline, and said she would rather see public access trails on her family farm than a large, private trophy home.
The work of the land bank and other Island conservation organizations has instilled faith in Ms. Fischer about the future of the Vineyard.
"They have preserved some of the most beautiful spots on the Vineyard already," she said. "It's so comforting to know that Peaked Hill and Cedar Tree Neck are always going to be there. When the land bank buys something, it's there forever. And it would be nice to know that Flat Point will always be Flat Point."
She and Doug are planning a small wedding on the farm next year, and they are considering building a house for themselves, but she said she would prefer to use an existing structure and not add another footprint on the soil. She said she supports the affordable housing efforts on the Vineyard, but is not convinced that adding to the stock of buildings is the way to go.
"Why do we always have to build new houses?" she asked. "There are so many buildings on this Island already. Can't we figure out a way to use those?"
She also favors creating regulations on the Island to limit the size of homes and require energy efficient architecture. Many landowners on the Island call themselves environmentalists, she noted, but do not practice sustainability in their own homes. She has seen a marked difference in the types of homes that are built today, as opposed to those from her childhood.
"It seems like people used to come here because they loved the place. But now, they do because it's a status symbol," Ms. Fischer said. "People don't need the size of the houses they're building. It's just gross."
The cultural shift brought with it a level of consumerism, she said, which the Island historically avoided. Ms. Fischer also noted that large homes are often referred to as McMansions - drawing a parallel between the suburban development of large homes and chain stores, both of which she said are incongruous with the Vineyard. She would support regulations that prohibit chain stores on the Vineyard, but also believes it might not be needed.
"There will never be a Walmart or a McDonald's. It's always going to be Shirley's Hardware - and they usually have what you need," she said.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission is soliciting comment from the public for its Island Plan, a two-year project to develop a 10, 20 and 50-year comprehensive plan for the Vineyard. For more information, visit Islandplan.org or call the commission at 508-693-3453.