CSA startup on Chappaquiddick

Slip Away Farm

by Remy Tumin

Slip Away Farm

Ivy Ashe

The buzz of bees and green of spring seem far away on a January day at Slip Away Farm on Chappaquiddick, where farm owner Lily Walter has gathered her crew in the kitchen for their weekly Sunday meeting. But even in the thrust of winter, with a recent snowfall just settling in and the glass beginning to fog up in the corners of the windowpanes, Slip Away Farm keeps its eye on spring. The bees need to be ordered and Lily’s brother Christian Walter is on top of it.

The new beehives at Slip Away Farm should arrive by the first dandelion bloom in May.

Christian is eyeing Russian bees from an apiary in Western Massachusetts. “I’m really interested in the Russian bees because of their mite resistance, and they are so hygienic,” he says. “It sounds like they’re the most disease resistant…and they’re really, really great for our climate.” He also notes that the timing of the bees will give the hives a nice first boost of energy from the
dandelions’ early spring pollen.

The other farm to-dos include finishing the greenhouse frame in time for the arrival of the potting soil and first seed packets. The chickens need feeding, the fencing needs ordering, and the crew needs to review the soil mix slated for delivery in the coming weeks.

It will be the first growing season for Slip Away at the historic Marshall Farm property on Chappaquiddick. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust purchased the property in 2002 with the intent of creating affordable housing for a tenant farmer. The house dates back to 1790 and was fully restored by the Trust.

The purchase aimed to reconcile the two main challenges facing young farmers these days: affordable housing and access to land. Over the summer the farm kicked off with a one-acre plot at the FARM Institute in Katama, moving their operations to the small island off of Edgartown in the fall. Lily, Christian, and friends Jason Nichols and Collins Heavener settled into their new location this winter, finalizing budgets, building a greenhouse, and helping to restore the old Chappaquiddick schoolhouse into a farm stand.

The farm is first and foremost a business, Lily says, and it needs to be run that way in order for it to be sustainable—both to the crew and to the land. “Once you sit down and look at those numbers you realize how narrow your profit margin really is,” she says. “Startup business owners’ primary mistake is they don’t pay themselves. I’m really trying to make a point of paying us something. It’s certainly not a lot, but I’m really trying to make the business sustainable for ourselves as much as it is for the land.”

A $10,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ Matching Enterprise Grants Program is helping the farm with infrastructure purchases and capital expenses. The grant is “one of the only grants that exists for farmers who don’t own their land,” Lily explains. The farm is looking into other grant opportunities for beginner farmers as well.

This summer they’ll begin small, on three of the seven acres, supplying vegetables to a 40–member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program with 30 members on Chappaquiddick and 10 on the Vineyard.

The 1850 schoolhouse, which served as the primary school for Chappy kids until the 1950s, will be a bustling farm stand on the weekend and the pickup location for the farm’s CSA program. But Lily has high hopes that the stand will become a central gathering place for the tiny island, a place where people can purchase produce and eggs, grab a cup of coffee, and catch up with friends. Perhaps they’ll even be able to check out a book from the planned lending library and enjoy a read outside.

The crew has a diverse background when it comes to farming, with a common thread of working at Morning Glory Farm. “We’ve all worked at different farms for different amounts of time. We have different philosophies and approaches,” Jason says. “It’s really nice to have people who are asking a lot of questions because it challenges
us to look back.”

Farming is not for everyone, the crew concedes, but if you’re lucky enough to live on the land and work with your friends, you’re lucky enough.

“The bottom line is I like the lifestyle,” Collins says. “I love working outside, I love working with my hands, I love working with my friends. This kind of environment is a lot of work–it’s all day everyday–but if you can do it with your friends and at your own pace, it’s totally worth it.”

Having four problem–solving minds on hand has also been extremely helpful in working out the kinks of their geographic location. Living on an island has its challenges, but living on an island off an island proves to be even more difficult. Timing deliveries, paying extra for freight via the Chappy Ferry, planning for trips off-off- Island to the mainland all have to be taken into consideration at Slip Away.

But the outer reaches of the Vineyard hold a special place for Lily. Wasque Point was a longtime summer destination for her and her family. Originally from Atlanta, Ga., Lily and her family moved to the Vineyard full time in 2002. Her father, John Walter, died unexpectedly in 2008. Slip Away is a quote from a Bob Dylan song, Shooting Star, a favorite of her dad’s:

Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away
Tomorrow will be
Another day

Lily is the first farmer to return the Marshall Farm to a working farm in some time, and the crew says they feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to the land and the community. Lily hopes to broaden farming resources beyond the shores of Chappaquiddick and the Vineyard.

“In establishing Slip Away, I’ve really been trying to make connections in Massachusetts with other farmers,” she says. “There is so much support in the farming community right now for farms because there are so many people starting up,” she continues. “That can be such a huge resource.”

But advice from the homestead is equally important, if not more. “We have our own little farming movement on Martha’s Vineyard, which I feel very connected to,” she says. Longtime Vineyard farmers like Simon Athearn, Krishana Collins, and Andrew Woodruff have been “making it work long before local food was ever popular. They get what it takes to start an operation like this so I find it very easy to talk to them and to pull techniques or advice.”

By 12 p.m. it’s time for lunch. With the snow melting off the boots by the side door, Lily retrieves several frozen tomatoes from the freezer and plops them into a soup pot. The tomatoes were frozen whole, and while the vibrant red of August has lost some of its brilliant color, the taste remains.