As the last week of August and first week of September are upon us, there is no getting around the crisp smell of soil in the air, the slight crunch under your feet as leaves begin to drop, and the light that has been so heavy yet soft over the past few months is beginning to mellow. Soon the fall harvest will be upon us, and with that comes a new bounty. Instead of juicy peaches we’ll be biting into crisp apples, the tender summer squash will make way for hardier winter squash, and those tomatoes that we have relished every day since late June will be put to rest once more.
The Gazette spoke with people from all different forms of agriculture this summer, ranging from dairy and produce to fair entries and tractors. And now that the busiest time of the year is winding down, some of them had time to reflect on how their summers went and what they’re looking forward to in the coming weeks.
For many farmers, this summer was the year of the tomato. With one of the hottest Julys on record, tomatoes enjoyed the drought. “We’ve never had tomatoes in 20 years like we’ve had this year,” Jim Athearn from Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown said this past weekend as he walked through his cornfields. “It was early and plentiful and lacking in diseases, which is what usually takes them down.”
“It’s been a good summer for corn, too. It’s all early instead of all late,” Mr. Athearn added. “It’s been a very light year for earworms, which are usually present. Some of it is out there but it hasn’t been eating scores.” Mr. Athearn said he plans to harvest corn through mid-October, frost depending.
And while his August lettuce did not fare so well this year, he’s looking forward to harvesting winter squash, pumpkins and other fall produce that he can’t see quite yet because they’re still hidden under the leaves. But the most notable difference this year was the new farm stand at the farm’s Meshacket Road location. “Everyone ate,” Mr. Athearn said of his increase in business this summer. “After the first month or so of shakedown, we got our system in order and people started coming in greater numbers and we found ourselves in happy positions. There was more corn, more tomatoes and more people.”
North Tabor Farm found it an equally good year for tomatoes and had better luck than Morning Glory with salad greens. “It felt like we had a lot of salad throughout the summer,” Rebecca Miller said.
Ms. Miller said they’ve committed to a couple more batches of processing their chickens with the Island Grown Initiative mobile unit, and they’re getting ready to have their pigs processed in October. “I’m really looking forward to the winter farmers’ markets,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to sell our meat and share that with people. It’s a great growing time for salads and I’m excited about that, too; I change my mix when it gets cooler out and have a new kind of fall-oriented salad mix.”
But most of all, Ms. Taylor is looking forward to having a moment to enjoy what she and her husband, Matthew Dix, grow on their Chilmark farm. “I feel like I never have time,” Ms. Miller said. “I’m looking forward to having time to eat the vegetables that I grow.”
Caitlin Jones at Mermaid Farm said she, too, was excited to enjoy what she’s worked so hard for this summer. “I’m exhausted,” Ms. Jones said, watering her baby greens in the greenhouse. “It’s just a big cleanup. I’ve planted a lot of greens so I could have some to eat. Tomatoes are like garden candy to me.” While her cherry tomatoes are finished for the year, Ms. Jones was busy rinsing large heirlooms to sell at the stand on Middle Road. There were even a few mini pumpkins available for purchase.
Last week brought drenching rain for five days straight, damaging some of the last summer crops. Lisa Fisher at Stannard Farms was concerned about her soybeans and pear tree that took a hit from the rain and wind, but she was confident they would recover.
“If [the weather] could just mellow out a bit,” Ms. Fisher said. “We can’t do anything about the weather. That’s why we’re farmers, we must be optimists.” Even mold and mildew couldn’t stop the only certified organic farmer from harvesting tomatoes like the rest of the Island farmers. She’s still proud to wear the badge of organic farmer, and while she’s hesitant about other farmers tossing the word around, she’s excited about new Island farms going through the organic process, such as the Grey Barn in Chilmark.
Ms. Fisher was excited about the large crop of soybeans she hoped had survived the storm, and the carrots, beets and greens that will be ready to pick soon enough. “I plant my garden and it’s a keep-harvesting kind of a garden,” she said. “I want to plant things that I can keep growing and keep progressing with.
“All and all things did pretty well despite the weather,” she added. “I’ve had worse summers than this.”
With fall comes the return of school, and IGI president Ali Berlow said the group was gearing up for another school year with activities planned for Massachusetts Harvest Week in September. The feasibility study for a four-legged slaughterhouse on-Island will also begin this fall.
“It seems like the intensity of farmers’ market interest exploded, and not just because it’s obviously wonderful to experience,” Mrs. Berlow said, perched on the old Grange Hall steps at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market last week. “It’s the necessity to connect people to their local food systems.”
Of course there are farmers other than produce farmers on the Vineyard. Victoria Phillips, one of the flower growers, said she was thinking about growing more food next year because of the empty nest left behind from her college-age children. She was busy wrapping a bouquet of her traditional blue-and-white-only flowers, while serving up samples of her blonde beach plum jelly.
“It was a good year businesswise, the flowers were gorgeous, almost disease free, which is unheard of,” fellow flower grower Krishana Collins said. “It was in fast forward; everything was two weeks ahead of time. It felt like by mid-August we should be done.”
And even though she doesn’t deal with animals, Ms. Collins has mixed emotions every year about the end of her crops. “It’s life and death. You start these seeds and you see them grow and you know they’re going to die,” she explained. “So it’s a little bit heartbreaking for me. I know what I’m getting myself into every year.”
And with one more Wednesday farmers’ market, weddings booked throughout September, and work beginning to slow down, Ms. Collins says she’s looking forward to a long deserved swim. “You start dreaming about what you’re going to do for next year and you start again,” she said. “There’s always next year. That’s what we think about. That’s what keeps us inspired.”
This is the last Farm and Field column for the season, but the Gazette will be actively following agricultural activities on the Vineyard throughout the year. Island farmers are some of the hardest working people on the Vineyard, and this last column is dedicated to them.