Here’s to the next generation of Island Farmers

The Greenhorns

by Julia Rappaport

The Greenhorns

Randi Baird

SEATED: Ruby Dix (North Tabor Farm), Chris Fischer (Beetlebung Farm), Heather Thurber (Breezy Pines Farm), Sadie Dix (North Tabor Farm), Brian Athearn (RunAmok Farm), Oscar Thompson (Thompson Family Farm) STANDING: Bea Whiting (Whiting Farm), Doug Brush and Emily Fischer (Flat Point Farm), Dan Athearn (Morning Glory Farm), Travis Thurber (Breezy Pines Farm), Simon Athearn (Morning Glory Farm), Kate Athearn (RunAmok Farm), Everett Whiting, holding lamb (Whiting Farm).  

The federal government recently released its latest Census of Agriculture report, and the findings paint a thriving picture for Massachusetts. Crop and livestock sales grew 27 percent between 2002 and 2007. More than 1,500 farms opened during this time, and sales from Massachusetts’ 7,691 farms totaled $42 million in 2007, up from $31 million in 2002.

That’s the good news. Yet there’s another number out there that’s not so rosy: 56—the average age of the principal farm operator in the United States. Martha’s Vineyard is no exception. However, there is fortunately a new generation of Vineyard farmers, some who’ve grown up here and some who landed here. This is lucky for us, the eaters— those of us who don’t or can’t farm, yet who want access to locally grown produce, meat, dairy, and eggs.

Without the greenhorns, the Island’s open working fields could disappear. So might the valuable knowledge passed down through the generations. Moreover, these new farers’ tools include Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, and laptops; they know how to raise a pig and roast it as well as how to blog about it. They harvest asparagus, collect blue eggs, milk goats, and grow shiitake mushrooms. They hold the future of Island agriculture in their hearts, hands, and strong backs. We are lucky eaters, indeed.

One sunny Saturday in March, the very morning three new spring lambs arrived on Whiting farm, we gathered a group of young farmers together for a photo. Some of these folks had never met before. They exchanged email addresses, talked about planting schedules, about how to market product, and in some cases about homework, while photographer Randi Baird got the shot. We offer this portrait, and some of their voices, as a moment in the continuum that is farming. While it wasn’t possible to get every young farmer into this one photo, this group represents the flourishing revitalization of our Island’s agricultural heritage.

Doug Brush, age 27, and his wife, Emily Fischer, age 28, live on Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury, where Emily grew up. Just two years into Vineyard life and agriculture, not everything has been smooth sailing for them. “I made a lot of rookie mistakes that were really frustrating,” said Doug, who started a poultry CSA with a friend, without ever having raised a chicken in his life. “Aside from the learning curve, there is the challenge of making a living.” Emily, the farm’s goat herder, elaborates: “Taxes keep going up and up, and it’s hard because we want to keep the farm…but the conservation money doesn’t cover what we really need to pay the taxes.” But the couple, who are expecting their first child, say farming is in their future, despite the tough days.

Krishana Collins, age 34, says, “The challenges for a female farmer are many. Land isn’t a stable thing. It’s my largest struggle, because this is my livelihood.” Yet, she says, “I find it empowering to have realized that, as a woman, it’s all about having the right tools. If you have them you can do just about anything.”

Simon Athearn, age 31, is now the chief operating officer at his parents’ Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. When the farm stand closes down for the winter, Simon keeps his hands dirty by tapping maple trees, raising sheep, and tending to his newly planted pear orchard. “I like the idea of fewer trucks of food rolling off the boat, of creating a community with a border… I am so lucky to be a part of it all; there’s no way I’m going to stop now.”

For Oscar Thompson, age 14, it’s all about running an egg business from the family farm in Tisbury, balancing the books, and being a student at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. “I was like four or five when I started helping with the chickens,” he says. “I took them on is what I did.” Oscar now has a flock of close to 200 birds. He sells his eggs at S.B.S. (another family business) and to markets. “It’s a lot of work. Sometimes the chickens don’t lay eggs for weeks.” And then there’s homework to do too.

“Ultimately, I was born into it. It was not something I sought out.” says Bea Whiting, age 29. Though she grew up baling hay on the multi-generational family-owned Whiting Farm that her father, aunt, and uncle run in West Tisbury, she started showing an interest in farming only a few years ago, when she raised her first small flock of chickens. Today Bea’s the self-described Head of the Whiting Farm Chicken Division. Over the past two years, she has raised close to 200 meat birds on the property. Recently, her brother Everett, 26, started raising pigs. “We’re blessed with an amazing resource, the property we own as a family,” says Bea. “It’s staring us in the eyes. We don’t want to see it fall apart or change hands, so we found a way to become more involved.”

Kate and Brian Athearn, ages 33 and 37 respectively, run RunAmok Farm in West Tisbury. Kate writes about the farming life in her blog. “I feel like we earn the food we eat. We know we are setting a good example for our kids. We take care of the chickens and they give us eggs; healthy sheep give us lambs; fat pigs give us bacon. It’s hard, stinky, dirty work, but you grab a shovel, or hop up on that tractor and do it because the animals depend on us…Sometimes we plant our peas too early and lose them all in a late frost, so we find those extra seeds and start over. Sometimes baby lambs die, even though we did our very best to save them.”

“I could say I do it for my kids, so that they will grow up into hard-working, compassionate, resilient creatures, but I’m still struggling with those very life lessons myself. I feel like this is something that we are all learning together, But you know something? This whole farming thing could come down to this one simple, teenagerly fact: I really love watching that man of mine drive a tractor. And he knows it.”