The Vineyard Gazette – Martha’s Vineyard News


Agriculture. Agri- from the Latin ager, meaning earth; -culture, from the Latin cultura, from the verb colo, to cultivate, care for, honor.

To cultivate is to take care of the earth, to cultivate it, to honor it. The word dates back to at least 160 BC. AD, when the Roman statesman Cato the Elder wrote his legendary agricultural manual, De Agri Cultura (the components of the word had not yet adhered).

Aquaculture. A neologism modeled on the previous one, to cultivate, care for and honor the sea, did not appear until the middle of the 20th century. Many would not consider aquaculturists farmers.

“People have been farming the land for 14,000 years,” said Dan Martino, co-founder of Cottage City Oysters and representative for the Dukes County chapter of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, who spoke to me on the phone after a delivery of oysters. “It’s really been in the last 50 years that we started farming the ocean.”

Much of the history of seafood, Mr. Martino said, took place in the restless and combative world of fishing, where fishermen competed to catch in the same basin (if you can call the mighty Oceanus a basin). Agriculture – land or water – is more of a community effort, he said. This thesis was confirmed by the effort between the island’s farmers on land and sea to form a new chapter of the agricultural office. Mr. Martino, representative of the sea, first met the Massachusetts Farm Bureau in his capacity as administrator of the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association: “It was a little strange for me that we did not have our own chapter, that we are grouped with the Cape. Brian Athearn, president of Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society and avatar of the land, agreed wholeheartedly.

“I started going to Mass office meetings and befriended the head of the Cape and Islands,” he told me, sitting in an empty farm room, the calm before the storm as the fair begins on Thursday. “In this process, I realized that the vineyard did not really have the same needs as the others.”

The Farm Bureau is a farmers’ advocacy group with its roots in Progressive Era politics. The national organization is made up of state offices, each made up of local chapters, a distribution arrangement that can lobby local priorities through the national organization. But that ideal was of little use when Martha’s Vineyard was under the umbrella of the Cape, a rather less active agro-politics focused on the cranberry bog.

Although a new chapter of the local agricultural bureau has not been formed in over 40 years, farmers on the island have benefited from the support of Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society (whose only fundraiser, coincidentally, is this week’s agricultural fair, which I’m sure all column readers attend).

“It was a Herculean battle to fight, but we did it,” Mr Athearn said.

Major improvements have already been made for livestock producers, he said, citing their ability to fend off state hay haul restrictions. Raising cattle, he says, is hard enough on the island. Land prices and development restrictions make new pastures or hayfields difficult to clear, and the lack of an abattoir on the island further increases transportation costs.

“That’s why the price of beef is, like, $35 a pound; each cow needs two ferry tickets,” Mr Athearn said.

On the waterfront, Martino also reports early successes, particularly in efforts to exempt aquaculture from the double insurance requirements of the Jones Act, which would significantly reduce operating costs. This law was created to protect seafarers, he says, but applies to aquaculturists, despite the fact that they spend very little time at sea. A bill to this effect is currently before Congress. .

The chapter welcomes commercial and backyard farmers. Mr Athearn described himself as ‘a gentleman-farmer without the gentleman’, although he recanted to say his roosters were doing their best to fill the role.

More than anything, the office is a community, a place where farmers come together, talk to each other, support each other, care for, cultivate and honor the land and sea.


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