No land, no farms, no food
by Emily Palmer
Local non-profit conservation organizations have played a key role in preserving the traditional Vineyard landscape, and as Islanders look to increase local food production, farmers are turning to these land trusts for access to open space. These are not farm-focused organizations; their primary objective is to protect land from development, but agricultural activity is a key part of the pastoral landscape. Collaborations between conservation organizations and local farmers have expanded in recent years, with meaningful consequences for the Island’s food economy. Allen Healy of Mermaid Farm & Dairy in Chilmark is an example of this principle. “Without those fields,” Allen says, “we just wouldn’t be a dairy. I probably would’ve found work as a mechanic.”
Allen operates a raw milk dairy in Chilmark and grazes his animals on nine different land trust properties. With his wife Caitlin Jones, he started the farm on Middle Road in the mid-90s with a couple of dogs, a handful of sheep, and a small tomato garden. It was a humble, homestead sort of beginning, one that fit their largely forested property. They have expanded and diversified in the 14 years since, picking up leases on different fields and parcels along the way. After selling fresh raw milk for a number of years, he recently expanded into yogurt and cheese production, and is putting the finishing touches on a cave to produce aged cheese.
The conservation organizations that Allen works with are the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and the Land Bank, which are the Island’s two largest conservation landholders. While these organizations offer farmers access to farmland at extremely affordable rates (the Land Bank charges ten dollars per acre annually, a nominal amount), these collaborations are not without challenges. For Allen, having his animals grazing in fields in different parts of town poses logistical difficulties, such as hauling water and maintaining temporary electric fencing. He dreams of having a mobile milking parlor, so that he can milk the cows in the fields they graze instead of bringing them back to the barn every morning
There is also potential for friction between a conservation organization’s mission to prevent development and the farmer’s imperative to produce food. Allen will be cutting hay at Nat’s Farm in West Tisbury this fall, a property owned by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, but of the 25-acre parcel, only 10 of those acres will be cultivated. The rest will be left uncut, to preserve a population of ladies’ tresses, a rare wild orchid that has been found blooming in the field.
To further protect the landscape, the leases offered to farmers by conservation organizations often prohibit development of any kind. Without the option of agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation,permanent fences, greenhouses, or buildings, the use of these properties is therefore greatly restricted, and most are appropriate only for grazing livestock or cutting hay.
Fortunately for Mermaid Farm, and for other farms like the Grey Barn & Farm in Chilmark, working relationships with land conservation groups is what they need. West Tisbury and Chilmark works quite differently from the large contiguous farm properties of the Vineyard’s past, but, it works.