The Farm and Field column began in 1976 recording weather events and hay bale counts, new livestock additions and crop woes. Reporter Mary Breslauer wrote a brief description on the first day, June 22, 1976, of the column’s mission.
“Home gardeners cooking spinach and serving fresh lettuce on the table, Vineyard farm life — we hope the column will become a reflection of all aspects of Vineyard agriculture activities.”
The column has grown over the years along with the Vineyard farming movement, moving away from basic weather and vegetable reports to specific issues farmers confront each season. With the ending of the Tuesday paper, today marks the first time in its history that the column appears in the Friday edition of the Gazette.
The 37 years of the column have seen many themes. Weather can make or break a season, customers dealing with sticker shock at the markets, the high cost of land, food security and, perhaps most important, conservation.
In the 1980s, conservation meant preservation. As large swaths of land on the Vineyard were being developed, conservation groups played a key role in creating agriculture restrictions.
A farm survey conducted by the Dukes County Extension Program in 1986 found that of 84 landowners, a total of 2,117 acres out of a combined 3,271 acres of cropland was in active farm use. Haying, pasture and land that was fallow accounted for the difference. The survey also noted that a land use study in 1980 showed 4,053 acres of abandoned fields.
In the area of vegetable and fruit production, the town of West Tisbury was first with 72 acres, followed by Edgartown with 38 acres, Oak Bluffs at 19 acres, Chilmark with 13 acres and Vineyard Haven with 4 acres.
“The potential for expanding farmland in production appears to lie in rental agreements,” Dukes County agriculture agent Bill Wilcox said in a June 1987 column. “There are nearly 3,000 acres of relatively open land into which agriculture activity could readily expand.”
There were also a total of 78 barns of storage structure with a total floor space of more than 136,000 square feet.
Fast forward to 2009 and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Island Plan which recorded 1,756 acres of farmland on the Vineyard, but with land used for drainage, rough pasture, hay pasture and horse farms, it was estimated that there were only 935 acres of farmland in active food production. In short, available farm land had dropped significantly. And yet over the last two decades there has been plenty of good news reported in this column, too, particularly in the past few years.
In 1992, state agriculture commissioner Greg Watson called the Island “a model for the rest of the commonwealth.” Mr. Watson reaffirmed this statement on a tour of Island farms last summer when he spoke of the Vineyard as a model for other small-scale farm communities.
Recent columns have focused on a new wave of young farmers such as Emily Fisher and Doug Brush at Flat Point Farm, Lily Walter at Slip Away Farm, Krishana Collins at Tea Lane Farm and Chris Fischer at Beetlebung Farm, grounding themselves in the soil that feeds the Island. There have been other significant changes, too, that have added to the larger fabric of agriculture life — new farming techniques in haying or composting, a mobile poultry unit that has seen the number of chickens on the Island grown from 100 in 2007 to 10,000 last year and the introduction of a farm network called the Island Grown Initiative.
Farming, like fishing, is a tradition on the Vineyard supported from schools to backyards. It grows and changes every year, but the moment to moment life of farmers remains the same. They rise with the sun and after a full day in the fields, fall asleep physically exhausted.
This will be my fourth summer as the Farm and Field columnist. I came into this position with an interest in food and sustainability on the Island. I had also worked for four summers prior to coming to the Gazette at Morning Glory Farm. Before my first column was due I ran into Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory, and asked him for advice.
“Focus on the news,” Jim told me. “Not too much of that gushy stuff. Farmers need to know what’s going on.”
I took that to heart.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agriculture and farm life on the Vineyard. Remy Tumin may be contacted at 508-627-4311, extension 120, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.