Heidi Feldman dreams of dirt. “If you have dirt, you can do more farming,” she said this weekend. Ms. Feldman is picky about her dirt. She does not like what she has now — three inches of solid clay and sand beneath a layer of tilth. She yens for the good stuff. Had she been asked 16 years ago to list her life goals, dirt would not have made the cut. Then again, 16 years ago, Ms. Feldman was a computer programmer living in Jamaica Plain. She worked at a keyboard 40 hours a week and had never heard of Martha’s Vineyard.
Ms. Feldman and her husband, Curtis Friedman, first came to the Island in 1991. The vacation was somewhat of a splurge for the couple, and they spent their time hiking land bank trails instead of shopping or dining out. They returned each subsequent summer, seeking out new hikes by foot, bike or motorcycle. By the late 1990s, Ms. Feldman and Mr. Friedman were running out of available trails and the Boston real estate market was turning. They decided to sell their house and move to the Vineyard.
They looked at almost 50 houses and properties before coming across 9.63 wooded acres down Stoney Hill Road in Tisbury. “We had lived so many years with neighbors, we knew we wanted tranquil and quiet,” she said. “When we saw this piece, we thought, tranquil and quiet.” Today the property is not quite as serene. Ducks and peacocks roam and two golden retrievers greet visitors. Their two-bedroom home sits where trees once did. When they moved here in 2001, Ms. Feldman took a computer managing job and Mr. Friedman worked as an independent contractor.
Ms. Feldman, who grew up in West Hartford, Conn., describes herself as a city mouse who has always had a thing for gardens. Her family had one and when she and her husband lived in Boston, they grew vegetables, blueberries and currants on their small plot of urban land. Her husband, she says, is a country mouse raised on a 34-acre farm in rural Connecticut. On the Vineyard, Ms. Feldman planted edible flowers and perennial herbs such as lavender, thyme and sage. Edible flowers were flowers with a purpose, she thought.
As they cleared their land, Ms. Feldman faced a dilemma. What to do with all of the cut oaks? She did not want to sell or burn them, so, combining her computer skills with her love of gardening, she Googled “oak” and “crop.” She found mushrooms. “Mushrooms grow in wood compost,” she explained. “In fact, shii in Japanese means oak.” Growing mushrooms would be more of a farming adventure than a garden, she thought. But it might be an adventure worth taking. “My hands had been on a keyboard for my whole professional life,” she said. It was time to make a change.
Ms. Feldman left her office job and called Rebecca Miller at North Tabor Farm. “I wanted to get out there and see if I could physically be a farmer,” she said. “If I really want to be a farmer — and I’ve never farmed before — I should find out if this is something I can actually do.” After three months spent squatting in a row of greens, scissors in hand, Ms. Feldman discovered she could. “If there’s ever a chance to change what I’m doing in life, this is it,” she thought.
While volunteering at North Tabor Farm, Ms. Feldman learned to pick and package produce. She learned about presentation and client interaction. From her work in the computer field, she had developed organizational and marketing skills. As she began to cultivate her edible flowers, both sets of knowledge came in handy.
Ms. Feldman took a job at Educomp to make money while getting her feet wet in farming. On her lunch breaks, she packed a cooler with nasturtiums and knocked at the doors of restaurants nearby. Art Cliff was the first to buy the flowers at ten cents a pop. Cafe Moxie followed and soon, her business, Down Island Farm, began to grow, but not too big. The motto of the farm is “micro-farmed for freshness.”
“It’s because we’re small and we produce small, quality batches,” Ms. Feldman said.
To keep expenses and resources to a minimum, she decided not to sell at the farmers’ market or set up a stand. Instead, she sold directly to restaurants and only those down-Island. To pique interest, she sought to offer a product not typically found on Vineyard farms. After one season selling nasturtiums, she planted more edible flowers and expanded her herb garden, but mushrooms were always at the back of her mind.
Ms. Feldman sold her first mushroom in 2005. With a $3,000 grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, the couple built two shade structures to house their mushroom production. They cut the old oak trees into 34-inch sections, small enough for Ms. Feldman to carry into the shade. She then drills 60 holes in each and fills the holes with shiitake spores. The spores are grown in Oregon, but the couple hopes to grow their own in the future. “The goal is to be sustainable,” she said.
Once the holes are filled, Ms. Feldman soaks the logs and puts them on ricks to dry. Within two to three days, they begin to fruit. Ms. Feldman cuts the mushrooms off and starts the process again. Mushrooms need a median temperature of 70 degrees to grow, which limits the season to the spring, summer and fall. This year, Ms. Feldman had about 80 logs in rotation. In two years, she hopes to have 250.
Today, Ms. Feldman has balanced her technical side with her earthy side. She now works on her own as an independent computer consultant and an independent gardening consultant. She spends the rest of her time growing, picking and selling her flowers, herbs and mushrooms to nine restaurants and caterers. Her products can be found in lemon verbena martinis, tomatillo salsa and smothered over striped sea bass in a shiitake mushroom ragu. This spring, Ms. Feldman expanded again, this time with wheat grass.
Despite its growth, the business and the farm are both very much works in progress. Recently, the couple built two hoop houses, greenhouse-like structures that protect the flowers from downpours and frosts, and just put the finishing touches on a cabin donated by the land bank. They plan to use it as a barn for pigs and chickens. Ms. Feldman hopes the animals will finally cultivate the dirt of her dreams. Sixteen years after her first visit to the Island, Ms. Feldman is farming, something that she never imagined. “Here, you don’t have to do one thing,” she said of the Vineyard. “It’s the open nature of the community that allows people to find they have talents that they didn’t know before.”