by Kate Tvelia Athearn
One thunderstormy afternoon last summer, my soaking wet husband burst through our back door in a frenzy of expletives. While stomping around looking for his boots and rain slicks, Brian explained that the chicken coop was filling up with rain water. The water level was rising quickly and we were in danger of losing all of our meat birds.
I ran out the door in a panic, only to discover our friends and co-farmers, Jake Levett and Tony Holand, had arrived before I could even get out of my house. Wearing muck boots, swim trunks, and bright yellow rain coats, and laughing at each other as they slid in the mud, they looked more like kids playing in the rain than men on a serious agricultural mission. Immediately, they set to work moving the portable coops to higher ground, securing tarps and fencing, rescuing 200 soggy-feathered meat birds. Just as important, their quick response and upbeat attitude once again rescued my husband’s will to farm.
Jake and Tony aren’t farmers in the traditional sense. They live in bustling Vineyard Haven, with their respective wives and dogs, on small residential lots, free from crowing roosters and manure piles. But over the past few years, they have been raising pigs and chickens with us on our farm in West Tisbury.
This type of non-residential farming is gaining popularity on the Island, where land is expensive and the demand for local meat is high. Aspiring farmers partner with established farms (or with non-farming landowners who are willing to lease land for agricultural use). Some will even allow livestock to inhabit part of their property rent-free, either for tax purposes (if land is zoned as agricultural, it is
assessed and thus taxed at a much lower rate), or for land management (sheep and pigs make excellent eco-friendly lawn mowers and Rototillers), or just because they want to support local agriculture.
At first, Jake and Tony admit it was all about the meat. But they quickly realized that farming gave them so much more than just delicious, locally and humanelyraised protein. They feel a satisfaction in caring for their animals, and a pride in providing for their families that is hard to find elsewhere. In an increasingly complex world, they take comfort in participating in the simplicity of farming life.
Especially during dramatic times— near-drowned chickens, escaped pigs, hungry red-tailed hawks—the objective is clear: bring animals to safety. Provide for them so that some day they will provide for you.
My husband asserts that he benefits most from this arrangement. Sure, Jake and Tony chip in on all the costs, but he also gets something much more valuable to him than money: he gets help, someone to call in case of emergencies. He stresses that this arrangement wouldn’t work with just anyone. “It’s like carrying a bookcase down a set of stairs,” he says. “You know when the other guy isn’t holding up his end. And it really sucks.”
It takes an uncommon combination of dedication and cheerfulness to leave work after a long day of juggling customer demands and employee schedules and head for the farm instead of home. They pile slop buckets and hay bales into their shiny SUVs and minivans—fighting traffic and the nagging thought that it might be easier, and possibly cheaper, to just pick up a steak at Cronig’s Market. Somehow they don’t complain about the sweaty, stinky work. Instead, they see the farm as a pastoral oasis of cow patties and pig pens and self-reliance.
They don’t live on rolling bucolic pastures. They aren’t woken at dawn by roosters. But despite their non-resident status, they are no less farmers than those of us whose mudrooms provide temporary housing to brooding baby chicks and bottle-fed lambs. From planning and feeding and capturing (and re-capturing) to harvesting and butchering, they are there—pilgrims on the journey from fence to feast.