The community group working to conserve Thimble Farm as perpetual farmland was granted a reprieve this week when the owner of the land renewed a one-year lease with current tenant Whippoorwill Farm.
Land owner Eric Grubman said yesterday the deal with Whippoorwill Farm owner Andrew Woodruff was a placeholder to ensure the land stayed active while organizers behind the Vineyard Farm Project, the coalition of farmers and conservationists seeking to preserve the land, crafted a plan.
“It’s relatively simple, there has been no big decision made or anything like that,” said Mr. Grubman, adding that he’s still looking for a proposal from the Vineyard Farm Project for how they intend to raise money to purchase and maintain the land.
Mr. Grubman, executive vice president of the National Football League, bought the farm property in 2007 for $2.45 million in an eleventh-hour deal that saved the property from sale into the private residential market and kept it in food production. Whippoorwill Farm, which includes a large community-supported agriculture operation, has leased the property for the last several years.
In July 2011, Mr. Grubman said he was ready to turn over the farm to new owners and set a deadline for the end of the year for a formal plan. Members of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, the Farm Institute and the Island Grown Initiative organized to form the Vineyard Farm Project in response to the deadline. In October, Island Grown Initiative stepped forward to lead efforts for a business plan to present to Mr. Grubman.
That deadline has come and gone, but Mr. Grubman has said he is still committed to keeping the land in active food production.
Island Grown Initiative director Sarah McKay said yesterday components of a business plan are still coming together and she was optimistic the land would become “a great community project.”
“The working group is still getting together every week and working on a lot of great things,” she said, including a structural assessment of the one-acre greenhouse on the property that is “very viable for growing” and a sound structure. The group has also reached out to potential donors, she said.
Ms. McKay said the group was grateful for Mr. Grubman’s patience.
“We’re hopeful we can bring some things together in a timely fashion, even though it’s not as fast as we’d like,” she added. “We’re still very committed and optimistic.”
The working group is expected to present the status of the business plan in early March.
In the meantime, Mr. Woodruff will continue to grow produce on the Thimble Farm property. In a newsletter to members of Whippoorwill Farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program this week, Mr. Woodruff said Mr. Grubman had agreed to renew the lease for another year while the farm transitions back to its original home on Old County Road in West Tisbury.
“It’s good news for us,” Mr. Woodruff said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’re really looking forward to using the land and the greenhouses, which are an important part of our operation.”
Whippoorwill Farm grows produce at different locations across the Island, but Thimble Farm accounts for 50 per cent of the farm’s growing area. Having that parcel of land to farm will ease with the transition, Mr. Woodruff said,
“We’re looking at this as a transition year . . . and from a business standpoint we’re thankful for the opportunity to be there another year,” he said. “If we couldn’t be there we’d have to change our business plan. This is affording us a great opportunity to think about that and make the moves we need to make.”
Mr. Woodruff said he will scale back the CSA program from 400 available shares to 300 this year. As a result, production will also be scaled back. Pick-your-own items, a popular feature of the community program, will be grown at the Old County Road location this year, but will not be as extensive as in the past.
The Old County Road location has been farmed by Krishana Collins for flowers in the past few years, and Mr. Woodruff said she will continue to do so in the coming year.
Whether Mr. Woodruff will be involved with Thimble Farm after his lease is up is unclear, but he said he was hopeful the group would come to a resolve.
“It’s anyone’s guess what the future of Thimble Farm is and we remain hopeful that the land will remain a community resource permanently,” he said. “The most important thing is finding a long-term plan that provides permanent protection.”