As Sale Nears, Thimble Farm Could Be Lost
By JULIA RAPPAPORT
Andrew Woodruff, the owner of Whippoorwill Farm who is best known for bringing community supported agriculture to the Vineyard, is scrambling to put together a group to buy Thimble Farm to block a sale of the farm to a private buyer.
The deadline is August 28 and the outcome is at best uncertain.
Mr. Woodruff, an organic farmer who lives in West Tisbury, has leased a portion of Thimble Farm for the last three years as he has expanded his community supported agriculture program. The lease runs out at the end of this year. The 43-acre farm, which spans the towns of Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury and is currently owned by Lawrence Benson, has been on the market for the last three years at an asking price of $4.5 million. As part of his lease, Mr. Woodruff holds a right of first refusal on any sale of the farm.
All that was academic until three weeks ago when Mr. Benson accepted an offer from a private buyer for the farm. The offer is reportedly $2.3 million. The buyer has not been named.
Last Friday an e-mail went out from Whippoorwill Farm to community supported agriculture members and others describing the plight at hand and seeking donors to step forward and help with the effort. \"Because the need is so urgent and the numbers so large, we do not have time to mount a proper fund-raising effort. What is urgently needed is either significant donations or bridge financing so that we can acquire the farm and buy the time to create a thoughtful master plan for its continued ownership and use for food production,\" the e-mail said in part.
Mr. Woodruff and Alice Early, a board member for Whippoorwill Farm, confirmed that they are in active conversation with Island nonprofits, including conservation and housing groups, as they try to put together an eleventh-hour purchase group for the farm.
Phillipe Jordi, director of the Island Housing Trust, said yesterday that four groups, including his own, are actively involved in the effort. \"We have been working with Whippoorwill CSA for close to two years as far as trying to see if we can purchase the land for the purpose of long-term agricultural use,\" Mr. Jordi said. \"This is an important moment as far as whether we can be a part of something with them.\" Martha\'s Vineyard Land Bank executive director James Lengyel had no comment about whether the land bank is involved in the current effort. The land bank bought the development rights to the farm through an agricultural preservation restriction (APR) in 2000 for just over $1 million.
Thimble Farm began in 1982 when retired lawyers Bencion and Patricia Moskow opened an agriculture operation that included hydroponic tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries. In November of 2000, the land bank bought the development rights to the farm. The land bank restriction requires that the land be in agricultural use, but does not limit that use to food production. A horse farm, for example, would be allowed under the restriction.
Less than six months after selling the development rights, the Moskows closed the farm. Mr. Benson purchased the property in 2002 for $980,000. In 2005, he put it on the market for $4.5 million.
Mr. Woodruff and Ms. Early said ideally they would like to see some nonprofit group buy the property, which Mr. Woodruff would then farm under a long-term lease. \"I would like to create a place where I can invest my future in the land and build a community resource,\" Mr. Woodruff said. \"What we\'re trying to accomplish is protecting the land truly for food production and full-time farmers.\"
Mr. Woodruff, who owns eights acres of farmland off Old County Road in West Tisbury (about two of which are tillable), began Whippoorwill Farm in 1981 as an experimental internship while in the agriculture program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He and a friend took out a $5,000 loan and began working two acres in front of his family home in West Tisbury. \"I didn\'t finish school I was so excited about farming,\" he said. He also farms small parcels of land around the Island, which he leases.
He started the community supported agriculture on the Vineyard in the early 1990s. The program, which has been successful in many other parts of the country, involves share members, who pay the farmer a flat fee at the beginning of the year and then come to the farm to pick up a weekly share of produce during the growing season. The program works because it provides needed cash for the farmer in the lean winter months and low-cost fresh produce for share members from early summer until Thanksgiving. The program had a slow start on the Vineyard but in the last three years it has grown considerably under Mr. Woodruff\'s management. This year the program has 400 members.
For Mr. Woodruff Thimble Farm with its extra acreage (he leases about 20 acres) has allowed him to expand his operation. He said he would like to do more - and could with an infrastructure that is already in place from the previous farmers, including an irrigation system and a large complex of greenhouses.
\"The goal for Andrew has not been to own all the land we farm outright. We have been seeking a structure where an Island conservation group would own the land and grant Andrew [and] CSA a lease that is long enough to justify the investments in the soil that organic farming requires,\" the e-mail that went out last week said.
Yesterday Ms. Early admitted that things may well come down to the wire. \"This may be the last opportunity that anyone would have on this piece to preserve it as a working farm,\" she said. \"If we get it, it will be the culmination of three very busy years and if we don\'t, it won\'t be for lack of trying.\"