Hot summer day. Cloudless sapphire sky. Bumping down a sandy road in an open Jeep, sun beating down, dust rising in our wake, fields of green crops stretching to the horizon. The only sense I had of being on Martha's Vineyard was a salty edge to the breeze and the knowledge I had stepped off the ferry that morning. Otherwise, I found myself in the heart of a working farm, in another realm entirely from the celebrated beaches, shops, and restaurants on this island seven miles off the mainland.
"You need sunscreen? There's some in the glove compartment," Joshua
A square green map had inspired this trip. "From Farm to Table," produced by the Island Grown Initiative (referred to locally as IGI) catalogs 28 Vineyard farms and encourages the user to "buy local." Certainly familiar buzzwords in the culinary world, buying local is gaining exposure and acceptance in a wider public arena.
IGI was born from a series of "salons" hosted by Ali Berlow, a food writer and radio essayist, where "grocers, growers, and anyone interested in food" were invited to her home to discuss sustainable agriculture.
Berlow, who says she "doesn't grow anything," explained that the initiative and its map were created to educate the consumer about the agricultural community on the island as well as to support local farmers.
"We're not farmers for farmers, we're eaters for farmers," she said.
I arrived as an eater and was escorted to several farms by Berlow, and also by Hollinger, the executive chef at the Harbor View Hotel and Resort here, and a fervent believer in cooking with local products and supporting local vendors.
My first stop was The Farm Institute, a nonprofit organization located on the 162-acre Katama Farm, not far from South Beach. In the 1970s, this property became conservation land to protect it from development. Now, in addition to being a working farm with crops and livestock, the institute offers year-round educational programs, an income-sharing project for teens, summer camp, and a "farmer-for-a-day" program.
"Over 800 kids come to our programs in the summer to learn what a farm is. We have an educational mission to show how food is grown and where it is grown," said Rob Goldfarb, summer programs event and marketing director.
Indeed, every aspect of this working farm presents an opportunity for teaching. In one barn, while sheep and angora goats hid from the sun, Goldfarb explained that after the sheep are shorn their wool is cleaned, spun, dyed, and used by islanders to make blankets and sweaters. In another barn, chickens were being harvested. Near the main farmhouse, students prepared the farm stand that's open to the public every afternoon. Products for sale that day included chicken, ground beef, lamb, pork chops, strawberries, pea pods, herbs, eggs, T-shirts, yarn, and sheepskins.
"The farm engages kids at all levels. It's all about the dignity of labor, so kids feel a sense of accomplishment," said Goldfarb.
As if on cue, a group of giggling girls emerged from the farm's kitchen, proudly showing the fruits of their labor: small strawberry pies.
"We picked berries this morning in the garden. And we ate them," said an enthusiastic Isabella O'Connell.
Hollinger walked through the fields, pointing out rows of mustard greens, arugula, kale, and mizuna greens that he'll use in his hotel kitchen. Because the Harbor View is the island's second-largest employer (after the hospital) and biggest buyer of local goods year round, the farm grows extra produce specifically for him.
Our next stop was Morning Glory Farm on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. The farm runs a small old-fashioned grocery store where it's easy for the public to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables, corn, eggs, plants, and baked goods. One Boston visitor said she makes a point of stocking up here on strawberry jam, and bread and butter pickles.
"Morning Glory's corn is consistently good," said Hollinger.
Outside, a rooster strolled past an empty wheelbarrow parked near a greenhouse that was bursting with newly sprouted plants and vegetables.
Over in Chilmark, Allen Farm occupies about 100 acres of rolling hills with a water view. The original homestead has been in Clarissa Allen's family since 1762. She and her husband, Mitchell Posin, raise sheep and, in a small shop on the property, sell wool products such as sweaters, vests, hats, and yarn, as well as grass-fed lamb, lamb sausages, and eggs. (Federal law requires that all animals be sent to facilities off the island to be butchered. They are sent back frozen.)
Hollinger stopped at a windy beach to point to Jack Blake's oyster farm in Katama Bay. Drawing no distinction between agriculture and aquaculture, Hollinger prefers locally caught seafood and shellfish, and local poultry and meats and vegetables to anything brought onto the island.
A recent lunch menu at the Harbor View's restaurant, The Coach House, featured oysters harvested from Blake's Sweetneck Farm, Cape Pogue littleneck clams, quiche Lorraine with fresh eggs, fish and chips with local cod, and a farmer's salad with local greens. The most popular dinner item is the roast chicken from Katama Farm served with dumplings and mashed potatoes.
Another Edgartown restaurant committed to including local products on its menu is Détente. Tucked off the street in Nevin Square, this intimate 30-seat dining room is in its third season. Chef-owner Kevin Crowell, and his wife, Suzanna, who runs the front of the house, use up to 50 percent local produce at the height of the summer.
"The Island Grown Initiative was a great connect-the-dots between farmers and chefs," said Kevin Crowell. "For example, instead of just zucchini, potatoes, and corn, the farmers are now growing pea tendrils and micro-greens."
A recent dinner menu included chicken from Katama Farm, and local baby bok choy, salad greens, and lemon verbena.
The next morning was foggy and drizzly but that didn't deter Berlow from continuing my tour.
"This could be the smallest farm on the island," said Berlow, as we turned in the driveway of Breezy Pines Farm in West Tisbury.
A multigenerational farm run by Heather and Travis Thurber, Breezy Pines doesn't grow enough for the twice-a-week farmer's market. Instead, the couple turned an old goat-milking shed into a self-serve farm stand that's open to the public July through October.
"We grow what we eat. What we don't eat we sell," said Heather.
In Chilmark, the Native Earth Teaching Farm provides an opportunity for kids to interact with farm animals while offering a self-serve farm stand. Run by Rebecca Gilbert and Randy Ben David, the 30-acre spread has a self-guided trail with pigs, goats, turkeys, geese, and rare breeds of ducks.
"We try and split our time between farming and education," said Gilbert, whose grandfather, a painter, bought the farm in the late 1920s.
If you don't have a car or a guide to get to the farms on the map (though some can be reached on public buses), the best way to buy locally is at the West Tisbury Farmers' Market in the parking lot at Grange Hall. Open Wednesday and Saturday mornings, rain or shine, the market brings farmers and purveyors from all corners of the island together in one festive environment.
"It's an event. It's quite a scene with the playground next door. People get coffee and pastries, there are kids, dogs, flowers . . .," said Berlow, her voice trailing off as she paused to buy some baby arugula from North Tabor Farm.
Even on a drizzly weekday morning the market was active and choices were many and varied, including granola, blueberry tarts, onion jam, egg rolls, herbal skin care products, organic strawberries, all manner of vegetables, pastel frosted cupcakes, herbed vinegars, and fresh-pressed wheatgrass juice. There was more than enough available to assemble a tasty meal.
Elizabeth Germain agreed. We bumped into the Vineyard chef and writer as she shopped. Germain, vice president of Slow Foods Martha's Vineyard, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting local food traditions, explained that she hopes to inspire people to cook with local food by offering trips to farms as part of her summer and fall cooking classes.
"When you have great materials and are filled with joy, it's easy to cook great meals," Germain said.
With the Farm to Table map it's easy to find the materials. The joy is up to you.
Necee Regis, a freelance writer in Boston and Miami Beach, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.