Boy farmer grows up
by Remy Tumin
As Oscar Thompson walks around his farm animals, come up to him eagerly hoping to snag a treat. The pigs beg at his ankles, the sheep stare at him cautiously. He walks through a gaggle of poultry—ducks, chickens, a peacock showing its prideful feathers—paying them no mind, and pauses at a fence line.
“I haven’t seen the cows yet today,” he says. “This is my grandfather’s field. We keep our cows on it. It’s a one-mile perimeter that goes from here all the way to Lambert’s Cove Road. They have plenty of space to roam.”
At 17 years old, Oscar’s attitude towards farming is one that has been cultivated over years of growing up as a farm kid. He’s accustomed to waking up with the sun, setting about his chores and balancing school work with the farm’s demands. It’s his life. During the summer Oscar gets up at 5 a.m. to make sure everything is done before the strong sun beats down on the farm’s rolling hills, tucked away on Northern Pines Road.
Oscar has always been a chicken guy, but he never gets attached. Most of the cows, sheep, and pigs at his family farm in Vineyard Haven have names, but a chicken’s life is short so he sees no reason to name them.
“These things? This is what they do: They just sit around and eat and poop. Eight weeks and they’re dead,” Oscar says one morning in July, standing next to one of his chicken tractors containing a dozen or so broiler chickens.
Oscar began taking care of chickens when he was five years old. By the time he was 12, he had almost 200 layers and sold his eggs at the family business, SBS The Grain Store. But once he started high school, priorities shifted and Oscar downsized his egg operation.
“I no longer have 200 layers and get eight dozen eggs a day and spend hours cleaning them,” says the teenager. “I got to high school and said, nope, I’m done.”
Today he raises only 10 layers and sells about four dozen eggs a week. But he’s also raising 20 younger layers and 100 broilers. Even with the downsize, Oscar is still committed to living a young farmer’s life.
The chickens he is raising now came in the mail from a hatchery as day-old chicks at the end of May. Oscar kept them in 100 gallon water troughs at SBS until they were a few weeks old, at which point he brought them back home to live in big hoop houses made of wire. The hoop houses began as ten feet across, and as the chickens got bigger, “we made the hoops bigger and bigger to almost the size of the entire greenhouse,” he says. The chickens then moved to the tractors and a month later, he says, they’re finished.
“It’s fun and a lot of work,” he says. Past an orchard where apples, cherries, pears, apricots, plums, and peaches grow, he comes to the vegetable garden. Although the days of managing 200 layers are gone, the chickens left a gift behind that continues to give—nice, healthy fertilizer.
Farming is a balance he and his sister Lucy, 13, have learned by trial and error, their mother Liz Packer says, taking a break from managing the storefront at SBS just down the road from home.
“You can’t do this by yourself…we definitely do it all together. Oscar and Lucy are really helpful with the day-to-day chores,” says Liz. “It’s a balance, and when it gets to be too much, you learn what too much is early on…the indicators are really very real. But it’s a lovely balance.”
“That’s why we don’t have 200 layers any more,” adds Oscar.
“It’s not always the same [rhythm]. Right now we have a lot going on, but in November everything gets very quiet. It has its moments,” Liz continues. “It’s fun to have these guys choose it. I’ve put it before them, and they always say, ‘We like it.’ Something like family vacations or the farm—the choices are put right to them and they choose this.”
Lucy is an “all purpose lovely assistant” Liz says. “They work together nicely. She’s really good with baby lambs and calves. She’s spent nights in the barn with a cold calf. She’s very sensitive to the whole thing, but she doesn’t care for chickens that much.”
This summer Lucy has been taking care of the vegetable garden and a few new peacocks.
Oscar and Lucy each have their own responsibilities, but it’s always a family affair. Just that morning Liz and Oscar moved chickens together from the greenhouse to the tractors.
“It can be frustrating at times,” Oscar says.
“Working on chicken tractors when it’s hot and sticky out and you’re all together at the end of the day—not a good idea.”
“I have him take point on some stuff, and this is his deal, I’m the supporting role,” his mother adds.
Farming is in his blood—his uncle John Packer runs a farm a few doors down, and his grandfather Ralph Packer keeps livestock as well. Oscar has fond memories growing up on the farm, including helping his grandfather move livestock around and one particularity energetic chicken.
“We used to have a chicken when I was five that would hop up high and grab Cheerios out of your hands,” he laughs.
When he’s not tending to the farm, Oscar is a 17-year-old high school student. He’s a committed member of the YMCA swim club team (he spends two hours a day, five days a week in the pool during the summer; breast stroke and freestyle are his strokes).
This fall he’ll begin applying to colleges. And by the time school starts up again, he’ll hopefully be a licensed driver, dealing with normal 17-year-old roles and responsibilities as well as continuing both work and play on the family farm.