Sea to Shaker on Down Island Farm
by Katherine Perry
You don’t just stumble on Down Island Farm. It’s not one of the rustic, Vineyard, side-of-road gems, farmstands with hand-painted signs and baskets of dewy produce, nor is it one of those elegantly sprawling fields, dotted tastefully with standing horses and resting cows behind rolling stone walls. A mile down an undercarriage-slayer of a dirt road, nestled in a tangle of poison ivy, brush and creaking lichen-covered oaks, it’s in the scrubby heart of the Vineyard. And Heidi Feldman, one half of Down Island, is the first to admit that it’s not a very good place for a farm.
“We don’t have any dirt here,” says Heidi, pointing to the land. The land was once just a tangle of roots and weeds, impossible to cultivate. “We had to bring that dirt in. Like, I’m talking a foot of dirt … over everything.”
But after several rather spectacular farming-type failures, Heidi has finally figured out how to wrest something substantial and sustainable from her land.
Actually though, it’s not wrested from the land at all. The farm, about as far away from the sea as you can get on an island, is the site of Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt.
Martha’s Vineyard, and much of coastal Massachusetts, has a long tradition of salt making. Though the Island doesn’t get the flashy historical billing of the larger Cape Cod saltworks, saltworks were in operation in Vineyard Haven as early as the time of the American Revolution. In 1778, along with 23 whale boats and 10,000 sheep, two were targeted and destroyed in a raid by the British. But the people on the Vineyard rebuilt, and by the early 1800s there were five recorded sets of saltworks—evaporation structures with retractable wooden roofs—in Tisbury, and three sets in Edgartown. The saltworks continued to operate at least until the 1850s, dying out with the entire Massachusetts salt industry under the pressure of cheaper competition and the rise of refrigeration.
But Heidi didn’t know that a year ago, or at least wasn’t thinking about it, as she sat on the steps of Alley’s General Store eating a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. She had left a desk job 15 years prior to move to the Island with her husband Curt, wanting to work with her hands in the earth. But, in addition to the terrible earth she had to work with, she never actually knew anything about working with it in the first place. Over the years, the deer had eaten her edible landscaping dream, and a plague of caterpillars left holes in their forest and feces in her shiitake mushroom logs.
But she was ready to start again—she just needed an idea. And the old adages are true: necessity is the mother of invention and those who don’t remember history are doomed, or delighted, to repeat it. So obvious as to be invisible, so basic as to be ignored, lapping at all edges of her landscape, and sitting expectantly on her potato chip: salt.
Like a lot of Martha’s Vineyard, behind the breezy-linen, sandy-barbeque, nowhere-to-be image, is real life and hard work. Following the Feldman’s first season from sea to salt, it’s evident that the true art of the Island is making it all look so easy.
Heidi is a little buzzing cloud of a forty-something, a wispy woman with the freckles of a redhead who defiantly refuses to stay out of the sun. She emanates efficiency and impulsivity in equal measure, giving the impression that she would be as suited to backyard goat-rearing as she would be to analyzing your quarterlies. Perhaps it’s the peasantblouse- meets-spectacles ensemble, or that she’s padding about outside in the dirt shoeless, but not so far as sockless— and, the socks are argyle. Maybe it’s that she’s talking about business plans and economies of scale while she toes at her backyard chickens.
Curt, Heidi’s husband, walks up their dirt driveway, followed by two dogs— one young and spritely, one old, sick and slow—like a budget farm parade. He looks like he was raised on a farm, which he was, in fact: 30 acres in Connecticut. While Heidi has a remarkable lack of self-doubt, Curt is quiet and measured and has “a healthy skepticism on everything.” But he is the most supportive skeptic you’ll ever meet, a partner to Heidi on her series of agricultural adventures.
They stand together in front of their barn, which houses a friendly miniature horse, an unfriendly ram, two visiting goats and two peacocks; in the background is the silhouetted frame of a building under construction. It will be their large-scale salt evaporation house. They call it “yonder,” or “the back 9,” or simply “Evap 2.” Right now all their salt is produced in Evap 1, a far more modest affair. It’s a 13-by-3-foot hoop house—a plastic tunnel supported by arches—and it’s already working hard, if slowly, on a batch of salt.
The Feldmans have been refining their evaporation technique and equipment over the past year, but the basic process doesn’t vary: the pair heads to the ocean and pumps water into a container, brings it back home and pumps the water out into the shallow basin that makes up the floor of the greenhousetype evaporation building. The water is left to heat up and evaporate, leaving behind the precious yield of salt. Evap 1’s basin can hold about an inch of water, and how full they fill it depends on how fast they need the product; the more water, the longer it will take to evaporate, though the yield will be higher.
Then they rake up the salt, head out for more water, and begin again. How fast it takes for the water to evaporate depends on two factors: the efficiency of the evaporation house and the weather. Of course, they can control only one of those factors; Evap 2 will be much larger and, they hope, much more efficient. In cooler weather it has taken months for Evap 1’s full basin to evaporate, though in the right summer conditions it can take just weeks. Evap 1 will yield about 35 pounds of salt per 150-gallon batch of water when it’s finally done, which the Feldman’s had begun to doubt would ever happen. The weather has not cooperated in the past two months, and the water has been attempting to evaporate since April.
But today is hot and sunny, and Heidi is cheerful, proudly pointing out how she has sealed the house from the insects that are forever invading it for use as a steam room, showing off the small soapstone box nearby that was their first evaporation vessel prototype. Both Heidi and Curt work full-time, so all salt work— water harvesting, raking, packaging—has to be done in the hours before work, late into the night, and on weekends, which are also spent manning farmers’ market booths. They are very tired. Heidi says if you had asked her how she was feeling a few days before, after two weeks of unrelenting rain and soupy heat—evaporation’s natural enemies—she would have said: “Miserable, miserable. Just saying what did we get ourselves into?”
But now there is a literal shimmer of progress: on the surface of the water, small patches of film. Truthfully, if you saw it anywhere else, you might assume it was an unwholesome algae bloom. But it’s actually the famous fleur de sel, the “flower of salt,” fine and difficult to harvest. The fleur de sel has to be carefully raked off the surface of the water as it emerges, and, “We’re not there yet,” says Heidi. But getting there isn’t on her mind today. Today you can feel the heat radiating off the hoop house, heat hot enough to start to melt even Curt’s wariness.
They started up a batch last October, in 2012, which took seven months to crystallize. Then they refilled the hoop house in April and were able, as the weather began to warm, to harvest in the middle of May. Both batches sold out almost immediately: to local restaurants, as well as candy, cookie, soap and cosmetics makers looking to feature Island-made salt. Off- Island attention has included newspaper articles, a call from the owner of Legal Sea Foods, and perhaps most surreal, a request from a German television station that makes tourism videos.
Two outdoor gas burners with lobster pots full of boiling water are evidence of how their success has outpaced them; to help meet demand, they’ve resorted to boiling the water to produce salt. This process takes hours, not weeks, but leaves them with a much finer texture of salt— not the coarse flakes that they are able to achieve through solar evaporation.
But with backorders piling up, the large evaporation house really has to work; neither the smaller hoop house nor the boiling method can produce the volume they need to even sustain their initial success. Good press, and locavore momentum can only take them so far—they need more than just promise, they need product.
When Heidi and Curt harvest water they try to get there early, when the wind and water are the calmest, before the dogwalkers and beachgoers show up with their strange looks and inevitable questions, and before, they hope, the seals have started congregating in the water where they are about to pump. “No seals!” Heidi shouts over the surf, and gives a thumbs-up. They harvest the water from the right fork of South Beach, where there is less human and boat traffic, and therefore less sunscreen, fuel and other unsavories. Twice a year they send the water off to be tested, and so far they’ve had no problems.
They back up their pickup truck, which is carrying a 300-gallon plastic tank, to the dune, strip down to wetsuits and begin an extremely athletic and decidedly goofy-looking routine. Heidi uncoils 125 feet of plastic hose. “I have a new appreciation for firemen,” Heidi says while Curt takes the pumping apparatus, essentially a milk crate weighted down with bricks and affixed with a filter, a suction hose and a small gas pump, down to the water and jumps in with it. He leaves it there while they both move at sprints to unkink the hose and drape it over the dune. While the process looks like a good workout, it’s far less strenuous than the first method they ever tried: moving the water by hand in five-gallon buckets, which left Heidi with hyperextended arms and without the use of her hands for two weeks.
Curt starts the motor now, and the hose stiffens as water starts to blast out. “It pumps about a gallon a minute!” Curt shouts while Heidi is struggling to recapture the hose, which has leapt out of the tank in proper cartoon fashion. Sure enough, in just a few minutes, the tank is full and they are scrambling to pack up. And not a minute too soon: “The seals are here!” Heidi points to the blacking bobbing heads popping up in the surf.
The Edgartown Beach Patrol drives up in his sand vehicle. “I’m wondering what the hell y’all are up to here.” They’ve met, Heidi reminds him, and they talk sharks and weather until he motors away. Back at the farm, they filter the water of seaweed, brine shrimp and other unwelcome salt flavorings, to ready it for use in the next batch. Since the last visit, something of a salt miracle has happened. “Honestly, I’m a little stunned,” says Heidi, as we peer into the enormous, now-complete evaporation house at the trails and swirls and of salt, like the tops of a snowy mountain range. It was filled just two weeks ago and it’s almost ready to rake.
“This was completely liquid at the beginning of the week,” says Heidi, pinching a fingerful of the wet flakes and offering it out, “A little snowflake of salt?” She samples it. “Almost ready.” Ready is the exact moment of harmony between wet and dry, when enough moisture has evaporated that the salt is rakeable, but not so dry that it glues itself to the bottom of the basin. Heidi’s salt is wetter and coarser than many sea salts, partly because it’s very difficult to get it completely dry in the Island climate, and partly because she wants it that way. The seawater and its minerals, the brine, is where the salt’s unique flavor lives. The salt tastes more than just salty—it tastes like the sea, like licking your lips coming out of the ocean. Their challenge is to retain enough moisture to give the salt character without it dissolving into a damp mess the texture of wet sand. The water temperature also plays a role in the final product, and it is another parameter for experimentation; the colder the water is when it’s harvested, the higher the salinity and the larger the crystals.
“I’m just happy it works,” Curt says, with characteristic understatement, of Evap’s 2 design. The new Evap holds 1,000 gallons of water to the old hoop house’s 150, and is a model of moisture elimination, with an insulated bottom, a high roof that slopes to the ground, a solar fan and a series of vents designed to flush out humid air without losing heat. In a couple of days, roughly 175 pounds of salt will be ready for harvest.
Much of salt making is waiting. Waiting for the sun to shine and the heat to build, the water to evaporate and the crystals to grow. Raking the salt, like harvesting the water, has to be done early in the morning before the heat builds in the evaporation house and threatens to bake the raker along with the salt.
As Curt preparesto get to work early on a Sunday morning, Heidi is already jumping in her car to head to another market. “I’m late! Yesterday I got lost driving to the Farmers’ Market,” Heidi says, which for her is like getting lost looking for your hands.
“I was just so tired,” she says breathlessly and when asked to summarize their first salt season, she struggles with her seatbelt and looks up just long enough to say: “Overwhelming. Amazing. And overwhelming.” And then she’s gone.
Curt heads barefoot down the dirt road, flanked by a slightly menacing mob of farm animals, to the new Evap and unlatches the wooden doors. The salt landscape is subtly different; there are still pools of water but the dry white mounds are spreading, as though those snow-capped mountains were rising from the ocean.
The tools of the salt-raking trade are not glamorous: no handhewn wooden rake or wide-brimmed straw hat in sight. Instead, a long handled floor scrubber cum-squeegee that looks like it came directly out of an elementary school janitor’s closet. He dons his Crocs and starts doing what looks like that janitor’s task, using the brush to break up the patches of salt and then raking it into piles, which he’ll shovel up like mounds of dirt.
Except this dirt looks much more like diamonds. Curt plucks a giant salt crystal. Looking at it up close you could really get carried away with metaphor: the fantastic geometrics of an Escher drawing; the profile of Greek hillside villages; the precise, brutal perfection of jagged ice. Curt skims a bit of fleur de sel off a pool—it is a clump of impossibly fine threads, like a tuft of spun glass. What stands out is how perfectly pristine it all looks.
Curt picks up an enormous salt-crusted beetle he’s found embalmed in the basin. “It’s still a farming endeavor. It’s dirty, and not necessarily that dramatic. It’s still just a lot of handwork,” he says and gets back to raking.
And there will be plenty more handwork to come: more evaporators will have to be built and larger water harvests taken if they are going to scale up.
With the end of summer comes the end of their first high salt season. They hope the fall and winter will still bear some yield and are busy looking for creative ways to enhance it; already, a test batch of smoked salt sits on their kitchen counter.
Once the current batch is harvested, the saltheads inside the house, into a dehydrator to get it down to a packageable consistency. Then into simple brown bags, which are put into tasteful linen bags, carefully stamped with the Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt logo, crisp and clean, with no trace of the summer’s labor.
Which is how they want it. It should be, to the holiday salter, the essence of the good life and good taste: precious, simple and seemingly effortless. The eloquence of New England uttered in a single laconic flavor. But it’s precious because it’s difficult, and getting to that simplicity is messy and complicated, and takes tremendous effort. At the risk of evoking some slightly disturbing imagery, one could say it’s the salt of sweat. But then, that’s usually the sweetest kind.