As I tell people fairly often—with both pride and a little embarrassment—my first job on Martha’s Vineyard when I was 15 was in a farm stand. That long ago venue was at Arrowhead Farm on Indian Hill in West Tisbury. At the time it was run by Clem and Millie Ferguson as one of those retirement projects turned into 80-hour workweeks. Renowned island birder Sue Whiting–older by two big years–was my immediate supervisor. I don’t remember local food or farm stands being trendy, but the vegetables, flowers and herbs had earned a reputation. I remember especially aggressive competition for peas. Household cooks would arrive from as far away as –yes, Edgartown!– to pick up their green treasures. One of my favorite tasks was watering Millie’s small greenhouse full of six-foot tall rosemary plants—a sensual assault of heated fragrance. It was a wonderful if somewhat misleading introduction to the world of work.
Now for the past two summers—more than fifty years later—I’ve been the farm stand attendant at TFI, located in the sweet little summer cottage donated by Nancy Kramer and Christopher Celeste. There are a few elements of nostalgia here: the pine-smell that all Vineyard summer homes once had, the undertone of salt air on foggy mornings, the smell of fresh cut basil and spicy tomato vines. And of course customers who love good food and are willing to go out of their way for it. But much is very different.
At the TFI farm stand, so much more is going on than food sales. First we have our farm families–campers and their parents. Campers bring their parents to the farm stand at the end of the day, pointing out the vegetables they harvested, planning an evening meal. The kids are often educating their parents about why one egg looks different from another, or the difference between a steer and a heifer. I overheard an extended discussion between a parent and an older camper about the details, even the ethical issues, of chicken processing. Clearly a subject the camper was more comfortable with than the parent. At TFI, it isn’t just the campers who learn about where their food comes from.
The farm is also a tourist destination and the farm stand is the check in spot. Over 2000 visitors—not counting campers and shoppers–signed in. They came from all over the country and other countries as well, Rwanda, Sweden, Argentina Taiwan, Russia. There is a special desperate influx of families with toddlers on rainy or cold days (“We’ve already been out to breakfast and the merry-go-round and its only 10 o’clock!) Animals are the big draw, but there are many visitors from off-island farms and educational programs interested in our mission. And for all, there is a reiteration of our own gratitude that this beautiful land was saved from development.
And of course, there is this interest in food that is very different from my first farm stand vigil. Its been a delight to meet so many professional and amateur cooks who share recipes and talk about how they use our meat and produce: from Italian fennel casserole to beef jerky (the latter caught me by surprise.) It’s a pleasure to talk food and learn from customers. But along with the gourmet interest in good food and cooking, there is a lot of worried talk about food, its nutrition, and its effect on health, its source, its availability, and its politics.
The farm stand “salon” welcomes all parts of the farm-to-table conversation. Thanks to all who joined us. See you next summer.