All the tools you’ll need to break ground on your own farm.
After the glory days of whaling during the late 19th century, retired sea captains and shipping agents returned to Nantucket with their various fortunes and began establishing model farms and dairies. These so called “fancy famers” broke ground and outfitted their rural operations with state-of-the-art machinery and premium livestock in hopes of bringing their barren island back to life.
These days, while gentleman farming is not nearly as common, there are still some who enjoy this tradition of working the land, and appreciate the simple and healthy pleasures found in cultivating their own crops. Whether you pursue the agrarian calling as a practical farmer or as a gentleman (or lady) farmer, there are a bundle of considerations relevant to all crop growers that will turn your rural aspirations into a realized farming venture.
The initial stages of farm development—clearing and leveling the land—ideally occur before the ground freezes in late fall. This first phase of land-prep should be followed up with a “cover crop” (a mix of grasses, small grains, or legumes) over the entire planting site. This grassy covering will lock down the soil, protecting it from further wind and rain erosion. In the spring, the cover crop is tilled under, effectively creating a “green manure” that also works to revitalize the soil.
After the land has been cleared and the area leveled to maximize water drainage, the focus turns to the quality of your soil, specifically its pH balance. Nantucket has mostly acidic soil because of its sandy loam and heavy rainfall, but adding garden lime will help restore alkaline levels. Soil changes over time, and because Nantucket does have pockets of rich loam sprinkled throughout its terrain, getting an accurate pH reading—a mid-level score of 6 to 7.5 is the rule of thumb for most garden plants—is worth the minimal cost and effort involved. In addition, amending your topsoil with organic compost, peat moss, fertilizers and manure will infuse the soil with more living organisms and replenish fertility.
Irrigation is also a chief concern among all arable farms, and determining the best type of irrigation for your rural complex will ultimately save time and resources. Common watering systems include traditional dry-farming (i.e. harvesting rainwater), or modern techniques such as timed sprinklers or water-saving precision drip systems, which are \ cost effective and promote overall weed control. Digging a well on your farm site might also be necessary to allow for higher water pressure demands and increased water consumption requirements.
Protecting your crops from island wildlife—deer, rabbits, rats, crows and other birds—is absolutely crucial. Extensive heavy-duty or electrical-wire deer fencing and secondary rabbit fencing around the periphery of your plot will greatly reduce crop damage. If the area is small enough, a mesh net installed high across your plantings to deter birds will also promote a more bountiful harvest.
PICKING A CROP
Given Nantucket’s predominately sandy soil, relatively mild climate, and short growing season, “annual” vegetable and fruit crops are most commonly grown on the island. For those wanting to dabble in the marketplace, locally “Nantucket Grown” crops supply a high restaurant demand during the tourist season. A host of proven specialty crops include vegetables such as carrot, spinach, lettuce, kale, green beans, beets, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, onions, peas, potato, sweet potato, sweet corn, eggplant, garlic, basil, and chives, as well as fruits like melons, pumpkin, strawberry, quince, pears, black cherry, blueberries, and raspberries.
Due to Nantucket’s long spring season, when soil and weather conditions are still too cold to directly seed the ground, most plants are started in greenhouses. After a period of germination indoors, the seedlings are “hardened off” for a spell outdoors, and then transplanted into raised rows that have been covered in a fabric or plastic layer to support water retention and weed control. Raised beds, framed in cedar, are also convenient when growing a variety of plants and herbs garden-style, as are vertical tuteurs and large arbors when growing beans, peas and other vine crops.
Ponderosa Farm on Millbrook Road is a perfect example of a gentleman’s farm. At 3,000 square feet, the farm features an assortment of choice asparagus varieties being cultivated in raised rows on experimental test plots. Two new hybrid varieties released out of New Zealand in 2000 are being tried: a distinctively dark purple spear known for its sweetness, Purple Passion, and a green variety with a slender, tight spear. From the Old World, there will be two distinguished heirloom varieties: a blush spear from Spain, the Blanco de Navarro, and a robust white spear renowned in France, the Argenteuil. Asparagus has long been esteemed in the Old World, and its careful cultivation, alongside wine grapes, began in monasteries dating back to the 14th century. It will be three years before a proper spring harvest will commence, which is typical for these perennials whose crowns produce for upwards of twenty years. In the meantime, the plants will be treated to a steady supply of local sea kelp as fertilizer as asparagus, having originated by the sea, is said to favor salt and sandy soil.
All the crops of mostly heritage varieties, are being grown organically at Ponderosa Farm. With a crop list that was created with island restaurants in mind, Ponderosa Farm plans to specialize in grown-to-order produce to accommodate chefs preferring custom ingredients. Additional farm produce will include over a dozen varieties of specialty lettuces and leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and swiss chard, as well as a mix of herbs and garlic, several varieties of tomatoes and tomatillos, and choice potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli and brocollini. Following Nantucket tradition, root vegetables, squashes, and cut flowers are also under cultivation; fruit crops such as strawberries, blueberries and raspberries have been planted. Nestled on a small knoll, a vigilant pair of “bee boxes” will provide a local supply of honey.
Today, most of us have lives far removed from the rural traditions associated with gentleman farming or the day-to-day operations of running a small farm. But for those determined souls seeking self-sufficiency and a rurally inspired life, there are a number of opportunities available through traditional farming routes and cooperative agricultural programs, to make it possible to break ground on your new farm.