The FARM Institute
by Remy Tumin
When Julie Olson visited her sister at horse riding camp on Cape Cod, she always made a beeline for the pigs, chickens and goats. The 12-year-old budding farmer from Dennis was never drawn to the horses, so instead, the camp created a program just for her.
“I think it was called ‘See How They Grow,’” Julie recalls. “My mom got to pay for me to come and hang out with the animals. I would be with the other kids in the horse camp for some of the activities, but it focused on me being able to take care of the pigs, hang out with the goats and collect the eggs.”
That was Julie’s first farming experience. Today, she is the farm manager at The FARM Institute in Katama, overseeing the animals and the fields on the 162-acre working and teaching farm. She finds comfort in her relationships with the animals that she tends to, and while the farm may not be hers, Julie feels a sense of ownership and responsibility for the land.
At 27, she is the youngest trustee to serve as an alternate on the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society board. She has worked hard to earn a seat at the table. “It was really hard to penetrate the farm community when I first came here,” she said. “You have to realize there’s a lot of history here between Island farmers.”
The connections and background among the farmers, though, are part of what makes the monthly agricultural meetings so interesting. “I get granted access to a time machine once a month when I sit in Agricultural Society meetings,” Julie said. “The Island is so passionate about what’s always happened and its people who have lived here forever. To step in there once a month and be able to feel that—it might feel really stone-age sometimes, but it’s pretty special.”
Julie first visited The FARM Institute as a senior at Sterling College in Vermont, where she was studying sustainable agriculture. The Cape and Islands Farm Bureau approached her with a proposal to turn a vacant farm lot into a teaching farm, and she visited The FARM Institute as part of her research. After graduating and working at a farm in Mendocino, CA, Julie wanted to come back east. In 2008 she was offered jobs at Shelburne Farms in Vermont and at The FARM Institute. “The only thing that made me pick here was the ocean,” she says.
From Vermont to the Cape to California, the Vineyard is especially welcoming and inviting for new young farmers who want to learn, Julie says. “Working Island farming community is a key to success,” and over the past few years she’s worked with Vineyard farmers to better coordinate equipment-sharing, bull-sharing, off-Island trips, and slaughterhouse deliveries.
Though slaughter is part of the job, an attachment to some animals happens, she concedes.
“It’s like you go to a party where you don’t know anybody—you’re not going to bond instantly with everybody, you probably aren’t going to bond with most people—maybe one or two people you click with,” she explained. “It’s kind of the same when you walk into a group of cows. There are a couple that might come over to you and say hey; others might not care. When you’re with the cows every day, there are a handful of ones you bond with.”
Heritage breeds are of particular interest to Julie. “Protecting heritage breeds is a really important thing for small farms,” she said. “Choosing the hardy breeds that we’ve chosen is a good idea. Everyone is fired up about heirloom plants—it’s the same thing with animals.”
The FARM Institute’s heritage breeds include Belted Galloway cows, a breed from the “harsh regions of Scotland,” and heritage breeds of turkeys, pigs and sheep.
Now entering her sixth summer, the greatest lesson Julie has learned is not to be afraid to ask for help. Whether it’s her boss Jon Previant, Mermaid Farm and Dairy owner and mentor Allen Healy, or veterinarian Constance Breese, to name a few, Julie counts herself “lucky” to have a list of people to call.
That includes her boyfriend Laine Scott, who works at The Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark and pitches in at The FARM Institute when need be. “If I go to the farm in the middle of the night to check on a calf, he’s there; if I’m spending the night because a pig is giving birth, he’s there,” she says. “Farming when it’s not your own farm is really complicated. You’re not always home for dinner, and you don’t always know when that’s going to be sometimes.”
She looks forward to the day when farm life and family time can meet.
“[The FARM Institute] is going to have a new feeling to me because I’m going to raise my kid there,” she said. “It will add a whole new element…that will make it a family farm.”