Whilst August yet wears her golden crown,
Ripening fields lush — bright with promise;
Summer waxes long, then wanes, quietly passing
Her fading green glory on to riotous Autumn.
— Michelle L. Thieme, August’s Crown
Looking back on the summer, Heidi Feldman, owner of Down Island Farm, a small Tisbury farm specializing in shiitake mushrooms, herbs and edible flowers had this to say: “From a shiitake production standpoint, August was terrible. It could be everything. Maybe the ambient temperature wasn’t right. Maybe I wasn’t monitoring them closely enough. And I also think the repeated caterpillar invasions left me with so much sunshine that, even though I have them in heavy shade, maybe they just couldn’t get enough shade.”
Prime shiitake season is July and August. Sometimes an early bloom occurs in June, and Ms. Feldman can also get a late bloom in the fall.
The summer conditions left Ms. Feldman in a bind this year. “I had nearly nothing this summer,” she said. She was contracted to be the sole provider of shiitake mushrooms to one Island restaurant. The lack of mushrooms forced her to get creative. She began a collaboration with executive chef Robert Lionette of Zephrus restaurant and a neighbor who farms, but has no desire to sell his vegetables. Ms. Feldman is now marketing her neighbor’s tomatoes — Persimmons, Celebrities, Pink Ladies, Russian Reds and three varieties of cherry tomatoes — to local restaurants. “I have sold about 350 to 400 pounds this summer,” she said. “Big, gorgeous, beautiful heirloom tomatoes.”
She also invested in a dehydrator and has been using it to dry tomatoes, peppers, apples which are just beginning to come in, and mushrooms that are not good enough to sell. She will include the dried fruits, vegetables and fungi in her fall offerings.
And all was not lost this season on Down Island Farm. “The combination of rain then sun made for a good herb season,” said Ms. Feldman, who grows all types of herbs from lavender and thyme to sage.
Hot, dry July weather also affected August crops at Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark. “I had a hard time getting my lettuce to germinate and my greens. It’s been a little sparse, but we’re still picking them,” said owner Marie Scott. “Things like lettuce and greens like it cool.”
Her tomatoes also suffered. “I had enough tomatoes for my customers, but I also had a lot of funky ones,” said Ms. Scott, who grows a mix of heirloom and standard tomatoes. “Especially toward the end of August, they got really gunky. I don’t know whether it had to do with July’s weather. When the weather’s that hot, they tend to drop their blossoms and you tend not to get as large a crop.” She has a late crop of Sungolds just starting to come in.
Ms. Scott uses a drip line irrigation system. “Without it, I wouldn’t have had anything,” she said. Three farmers work separate gardens on the property: herself, her father who grows vegetables and flowers, and Island chef Chris Fischer. They share the irrigation system.
Her father also struggled to get his dahlias to bloom at the beginning of the season, though now, with cooler weather, she reports that he has more flowers than customers.
And Ms. Scott said the summer was hard in other ways. “[The cost of] everything went up. Seed was more expensive. Fertilizer — I get that from the Allen Farm — that was more expensive. Gas for the rototiller and the lawn mower were more expensive. Just about everything,” she said, adding: “I also paid my workers a bit more. You have to, when the price of everything is more,” she said.
To compensate, Ms. Scott raised some prices this summer. “Tomatoes went up by 50 cents, greens went up by 50 cents,” she said. She sells three sizes of bags of lettuce at her Middle Road farm stand; the price of each went up by a quarter. “Hopefully we’ll come out about where we were last year,” she said.
Prices on herbs, carrots, beets, beans and squash stayed the same as last year and many of these crops are thriving at Beetlebung. A late crop of beans, including limas and green soybeans, are just coming in and the lettuce, greens and beets are still growing strong. The surprise bumper crop this season was carrots, thanks in part to the use of pelleted seed. “It takes longer to plant, but it saves time in the long run,” she said. “It allows you not to have to thin, which is a very time-consuming job.” Ms. Scott is still picking from the first row of carrots she planted this season and has heard reports from other farmers that the crop grew well Island-wide.
As she thinks ahead to next season, Ms. Scott has a change in mind. “Next year, I will be looking to hire on one extra person to deal with weeds,” she said. “I grew the most spectacular weeds this summer.”
Meanwhile, Island livestock fared well this summer. “August went really well for us,” said Sue Hopkins of Christiantown Farm in West Tisbury. “Our sheep have been happy because the pasture has been good because of the rain we got,” she continued. “The lambs are getting fat and we have 100 chickens that are just starting to lay.”
Mrs. Hopkins and her husband Sam have two nanny goats who need a home and are also taking names for anyone interested in buying lamb after the fall slaughter. Call them at 508-693-2065.
“The weather’s been great and Oscar’s chickens have been cranking,” said Liz Thompson, owner of SBS Grain Store and Thompson Farm, both in Vineyard Haven. Her son Oscar, 13, runs his own chicken business on the farm. He now has about 75 chickens which are kept in coops but have the run of the farm when they are let out at least twice a day.
Oscar kept egg prices steady this year, despite rising costs of fuel and grain, which went up between two and three dollars for a 50-pound bag, Mrs. Thompson said. “He hasn’t yet raised prices, but we’re sitting down now [to look at the numbers],” she said. “The margin is tighter, so we have to make sure he can buy grain and buy replacement chicks.” Oscar sells his eggs wholesale to SBS and to Fiddlehead Farm in West Tisbury. He also sells the eggs by appointment. Call 508-693-7354.
At SBS Mrs. Thompson reported steady business. “There was a great growing season here for the most part. This Island is committed to growing local,” she said. “In a weird economy, it’s nice to know, when push comes to shove, that you can go out to the backyard and collect an egg.” She said prices at the store remained steady despite rising costs. “Everything costs more,” she said. “It’s a challenge to try to keep things from being prohibitive. We want people to raise and grow the food they want in the way they want to.”
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.