The menu at the Scottish Bakehouse bakery and café on Martha’s Vineyard is a veritable map of the island’s farms. The chicken comes, mostly, from The Good Farm, a 10-acre poultry operation across the street. The greens come from neighboring Blackwater Farm and the yogurt is made at Mermaid Farm and Dairy, six tree-shaded miles down the road. The basil for the pesto and the cucumbers in the salad are grown right out back, in the bakehouse’s one-acre garden.
Martha’s Vineyard, the 87-square-mile island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, is probably best known as a summer vacation spot for the affluent and famous—including, this month, the Obama family. But behind the chic boutiques and impeccably groomed golf courses, the island is also home to a thriving, if largely unsung, agricultural community.
Though the island’s year-round population is just 17,000, some three dozen farms operate on Martha’s Vineyard, selling fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, honey, and cheese. Oyster cultivators and fishermen add to the local food scene, and it’s hard to drive far without seeing roadside stands where backyard growers are selling their produce, flowers, or honey.
“There’s a very strong interest in agriculture, all over the island, on every level, in almost every household,” said Jon Previant, executive director of the FARM Institute, a nonprofit that runs a small farm and educational program on Martha’s Vineyard.
This interest reaches beyond traditional growing activities.
The Island Grown Initiative, or IGI, a sustainable agriculture advocacy group, operates several programs designed to integrate local food into residents’ lives. Island Grown Gleaning organizes efforts to gather leftover produce from the fields—12 tons last year alone—for donation to area schools and hunger relief groups. The initiative has also launched farm-to-school programs in each of the island’s seven schools; students learn about local food in the classroom, eat it in their cafeterias, and grow it in their school gardens.
The IGI’s Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer, introduced in 2007, travels from farm to farm, supplying the equipment small chicken farmers need to slaughter their birds for retail sale. Since the trailer became active, it has processed more than 10,000 chickens, adding $100,000 to the Vineyard’s agricultural economy, the program estimates.
A handful of Vineyard farms are certified organic, and most of those that aren’t still use organic, sustainable, and humane practices. Morning Glory Farm, which includes a perpetually bustling farm stand and 120 acres of land, sells produce under the label “morganic,” meaning they use many of the same growing practices that certified organic farms do and then some.
At Grey Barn, a certified organic dairy and meat farm in the rural island town of Chilmark, the cows all have names and are milked in stalls positioned to allow eye contact between the milker and the animal. The Good Farm houses its chickens in bottomless pens that are moved around the pasture every day; the birds supplement their diets with insects and grubs from the grass and their waste helps fertilize the field.
“We try to give our pigs a lot more square footage,” said Grey Barn owner Eric Glasgow. “We try to keep it very natural.”
The island’s unique—and highly seasonal—demographics create both opportunities and challenges for farmers. In the summer, the influx of well-off, food-conscious tourists provides plenty of customers for high-end offerings like pasture-raised meat and organic, island-made cheese. In the winter, the local population keeps some level of demand going; the FARM Institute sold twice as much meat in local stores last winter as it had in previous off-seasons, Previant said.
Still, the year-round population has less money to spend on upscale food, farmers noted. Furthermore, harsh weather and the relatively high cost of importing supplies to the island can make for some long and difficult months.
“It’s hard to survive through the winter,” said Rebecca Gilbert, owner of Native Earth Teaching Farm, which offers classes and raises heritage breed pigs and poultry.
The community, however, is working to preserve the Vineyard’s agricultural traditions. Finding land to farm on is perhaps the biggest challenge on an island where a 5-acre plot can fetch millions from wealthy buyers looking to build vacation homes.
To respond to this trend, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank buys land for agricultural use and environmental preservation, using money from a 2 percent surcharge imposed on every real estate transaction on the island. The Vineyard Conservation Society also pays landowners the difference between the agricultural value and the fair market price of their property if they agree to a deed restriction that will put the land in permanent agricultural use.
Programs like these are essential to the survival of farming on Martha’s Vineyard —and elsewhere—said Jefferson Munroe, the owner of the Good Farm.
“I don’t think anyone in America can farm on land they bought at market value,” he said, walking up a hill on the property he leases from the Land Bank, a cluster of guinea fowl skittering away in front of him.
And in the end, most of the farmers and local food purveyors on Martha’s Vineyard are not aiming to get rich, Barrick said, looking out over the tomato-filled hoop houses of the bakehouse garden.
“It’s so nice that people are really into the craft of their profession here,” she said. “It’s not about money when it gets down to good food.”
This story originally ran at Civil Eats on August 20, 2015.