posted by Susie Middleton
One Sunday last winter, I settled into a cozy couch at the Chilmark Community Center to watch a film called “Ladies of the Land.” Maybe not everyone’s idea of weekend entertainment, but when I heard that the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival was featuring this award-winning film—and had invited a panel of women farmers to speak afterwards, I knew I had to be there.
I wasn’t disappointed. The enchanting film trails four women who never thought they’d be farmers but wound up finding a calling. (You can watch the trailer here.) According to the film, 27% of all farmers are women, and, as the New York Times Magazine reported last week, that number is growing in sync with the movement back towards smaller, more diverse, farms.
Listening to the 10-woman panel afterwards was fascinating. I enjoyed the perspective of one long-time islander, Clarissa Allen, who said that women farmers on the Vineyard aren’t anything new; in the years when the island was predominantly agricultural—and men often had to go off to sea or to war—women ran the farms. Yet I was also intrigued by the experience of the newest island farmer, Heidi Feldman, who organized the panel.
A corporate refugee, Heidi and her husband had vacationed on the Vineyard for years before finally moving here for good. When they bought their 10-acre wooded property, they never thought their desire to be more self-sufficient would gradually entice them to grow crops for sale. The only problem was, their soil turned out to be less than perfect.
That didn’t stop Heidi from doing a calculated study of the land to figure out what they could grow profitably. As a result, Down Island Farm ended up specializing in shiitake mushrooms, edible flowers, and herbs, which Heidi now sells to caterers, restaurants, and groceries. The shiitake mushrooms grow on young oak, which Down Island has in abundance. The herbs and flowers, which don’t need the deeply rich soil that vegetables do, grow in small beds where oaks have been cleared.
In the months since the film festival, I’ve learned to appreciate Heidi’s enthusiasm. I visit the farm, follow her around while she’s weeding (sometimes I weed, too—honest), and pick up all kinds of tips (like a subscription to the geeky homesteading journal, Countryside magazine.) So it didn’t surprise me to hear about her latest venture: helping to organize the original 10 panelists from the film festival into a mentoring group. It seems the ladies of the land have a new name—The Sowing Circle—and Heidi has another project to work on in her copious spare time.