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5.1.08

Making Farming Work

Krishana Collins didn’t grow up within the longtime tradition of farming on the Island, but this young farmer has built a successful business with a couple of acres, a spot at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, orders from high-end restaurants – and a lot of hard work and support from Mother Nature.

It might be hard to see Krishana Collins behind the dozens and dozens of bouquets she’s busily arranging and selling at the West Tisbury Farmer’s
Market. When you do see the five-foot-three, thirty-three-year-old grower, you are also looking at the next generation of Vineyard farmers: dedicated, energetic, knowledgeable, and – in the summer – tired.

She works an intense season, as many growers here do. By the time the market opens in June, her flowers are well under way, since she started in mid-March planting seedlings in a greenhouse, and bulbs and tubers outside throughout April and May. Her garden is blooming with twenty different types of zinnias, fifteen varieties of lilies, thirty varieties of dahlias, fifty varieties of sunflowers, and some forty other varieties of flowers. At her Bluebird Farm, the two acres she leases at the old Whippoorwill Farm on Old County Road in West Tisbury (owned and farmed by Andrew Woodruff before he moved operations to Thimble Farm in Oak Bluffs off Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road), Krishana also grows arugula, mixed lettuce greens, baby bok choy, and microgreens – and she has a good business selling to restaurant chefs.

A key to Krishana’s success is the ability to market directly to the restaurants, as well as to the public, and she says this may be a key component that can help young farmers succeed today. “It’s finding a niche market and figuring out what’s most profitable – and becoming efficient in what you do. I learned that from Andrew.”

To get ready for Saturday’s market, she spends each Friday just cutting flowers and bok choy with a worker or two she hires for production days. “I’m up at 5 and in the fields at 5:30 a.m. Basically, we’re cutting all day long. The whole time we’re picking, we’re thinking of bouquets and how we’re going to put them together. It’s really beautiful and it smells so great.”

As soon as it’s light on market day, she begins to put bouquets together and then takes a couple of loads of flowers up to West Tisbury center. “Between 7:30 and 8, we start setting up.” By the noontime closing, many dozens of customers later, Krishana usually sells out of flowers and greens. If she has remaining flowers, she can sell to Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury or Fiddlehead Farm and Eden, two markets along State Road in West Tisbury and Vineyard Haven, respectively.

“Farming seems like a romantic dream – raising your own food, living on a farm,” says the Florida native. “It sounds amazing and great, but it’s also a lot of really hard work. You have days of glory when the Vidalias are blooming and days they’re getting eaten by bugs or rotting, or they have a disease, and all your work is in vain.

“It’s such a gamble year by year – you always have that hope the next year will be better. If we have a wet summer, I’m not going to do well. It’s about the economy and all these things, but it’s really about nature.”

Last summer was a dry one, and Krishana had a good year. Too much rain, especially for flowers, means more disease, fungus, and damage, she explains. During a drier summer, she can control the water using a drip irrigation system.

Growing a business

Though she did not grow up on a farm or come from a farming family, Krishana followed a childhood interest that first took her to Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, near Putney, when she was eighteen.

“I had always wanted to work on an organic farm, and I completely fell in love,” she says. “I ate a carrot from the ground and it was like tasting a carrot for the first time.”

She had spent three years in Vermont, working at the farm and attending local colleges for environmental studies and midwifery, before some friends suggested the Vineyard, where she had visited only once before. Krishana arrived here in 1994 and lived in her Volkswagen bus that summer while looking for a farm to work at. She was directed to Andrew Woodruff, who has owned Whippoorwill Farm in West Tisbury since the early nineties, and had himself started farming when he was eighteen.

“He said ‘Okay, I’ll try you out,’” Krishana recalls, laughing as she thinks of Andrew watching her VW bus backfiring down the road as she left the farm. “I don’t know what he saw in me,” she says.

“We worked really hard – sunup to sundown. It was really hard, but it was such a good crew and such a lot of fun. After that, I asked him if I could come back the next year and I did.”

One of the summers at Whippoorwill, she asked Andrew if they could grow salad greens. “Andrew hadn’t done that before, but wanted to. We tried a lot of experiments, putting all different lettuces in with the greens. It worked out really well and he kept doing it.” Krishana learned a lot from Andrew, who she says looks at the larger scale and is very efficient.

At one point, Krishana returned to Florida and turned her growing knowledge into running her own farm on land owned by her mother. She and a partner started growing tropical fruit for restaurants and farmer’s markets using organic farming methods of building the soil rather than relying on pesticides, and weeding instead of using herbicides. Florida locals told them, “Good luck – you’re never going to make it” going organic. But Krishana says, “That was the only way we were going to do it. Each week we had a new problem and we had to ask how are we going to get around this problem. It was a huge education.”

During her third year in Florida, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Krishana had to suspend farming to take care of her. When her mother passed away, she had to sell the land. “I said, ‘What am I going to do?’” Less than three years later, her father, living elsewhere in Florida, also died of cancer.
Krishana came back to the Vineyard in the summer of 2004. By this time, Andrew had started the Island’s first community supported agriculture program, or CSA. Krishana asked him if she could grow the flowers for his CSA. “I just wanted to direct my energy. I planted his huge garden and the CSA members cut once or twice a week.”

Meanwhile, she also leased land off Edgartown–West Tisbury Road, and grew baby lettuces and leafy greens like chard and bok choy, which she began marketing to restaurants and selling at the Farmer’s Market. “I don’t know how it started, but people started buying them, then a lot more.”

When business grew, Krishana needed to look for more land. Jack Reed, a Chilmarker who acted as a go-between for restaurants and farms, told her about Thimble Farm, a forty-three-acre farm with thirty-three acres of farmable land not in current use except for a greenhouse producing hydroponic tomatoes and basil. She went to have a look. “Andrew came and he saw the big picture,” she explains. “This was a better fit for him than being in four different places. He saw the opportunity to rent Thimble Farm and he did it, and his farm became available for me to rent on my own. It was just a perfect fit for Andrew and I was looking for a couple of acres.”

As a result, Krishana moved her operations to Andrew’s original farm, where she’s beginning her fourth year farming about two of its eight acres. She was greatly relieved this winter when a buyout occurred at Thimble Farm, enabling Andrew to keep his CSA there and allowing Krishana to continue where she is. (Though there’s a roadside stand at the old Whippoorwill, where she farms, it’s not in use now.)

“I farm it pretty intensively,” she explains. “I have to use every little bit of space for income – if I’m done with bok choy, I turn it over immediately and plant a new crop.” That production includes almost a hundred pounds of greens a week that she delivers to two Edgartown restaurants and one in Oak Bluffs. And on restaurant delivery day, she’s again in the field by 5:30 a.m.     

Using a sharp knife – which she says is faster and easier on the hands than opening and closing scissors – she heads to the top of a long row of baby lettuce greens. “It’s basically like mowing a lawn with a knife,” she says with a laugh. “It takes a lot of focus when you see a huge row ahead of you. I need to do eighty pounds – and lettuce does not weigh very much.”

After mixing, washing, and then drying in a washing machine she adapted into a large lettuce spinner, the greens are packed into two-gallon Ziploc bags and weighed. Twelve hours after she started, Krishana arrives at the first restaurant – with just minutes to spare.

Chef Christian Thornton, who owns Atria Restaurant in Edgartown with his wife, Greer, calls the arugula, spicy lettuce greens, and microgreens he buys from Krishana nothing short of spectacular. “I’ve worked in a lot of different places; I find her greens to be above all – they’re so full of flavor,” he says. “I respect her so much as a grower, I tell her to bring whatever she wants. I will work my menu around her. We buy everything we can – she can’t keep up.
“There’s something special about Krishana,” he adds, mentioning her laughter and sense of humor. “She’s a gentle soul. She’s just a pleasure to be around and she makes everybody feel good.” (Through the back door, Krishana met another chef at Atria, Scott Ehrlich; they’ve been dating for two and a half years. He is now head chef at the Sweet Life Café in Oak Bluffs, which also buys from Krishana.)

Kevin Crowell remembers when Krishana first dropped by the back door of his Edgartown restaurant, Détente, three years ago, with some chard and baby bok choy.

“I’ve never had bok choy like that before,” he explains. “I refuse to cook it because it’s so good. I use it in a salad.” He’s been buying Krishana’s produce ever since.

A tiny part of Krishana’s business, but one she enjoys, is an anonymous roadside flower stand, operated on the honor system, at the entrance to West Tisbury’s Red Hat Bed and Breakfast on Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. The owner, Harriet Bernstein, has told her, “I always dreamed of having flowers at the end of my road.”

Krishana muses about the story behind every bouquet. “I wonder who these are going to; maybe a couple got into a fight and these are going to make all the difference in the world.

“I get these notes in the box that are so sweet,” she says.

“‘I just gave my daughter a bouquet for her thirteenth birthday.’ ‘My grandmother loves your zinnias.’”

This past summer, Krishana joined forces with grower Victoria Phillips, who co-managed the Farmer’s Market for many years, to supply and arrange flowers for brides for their wedding day. She hopes this new sideline, called “September Weddings,” promoting West Tisbury–grown flowers, will also flourish.

The future of farming on the Island

When she first arrived at the Farmer’s Market three years ago in her own truck, selling her own produce, Krishana says it was like a dream come true. For some of the small and larger farms on the Island, the market is the one place they can sell directly to consumers, which helps the bottom line. Krishana likes knowing her customers as well as the small-town feeling she gets. But when she looks around the market, she sees few growers younger than she is and worries. “Who’s behind us to fill our place?” she wonders. “Is someone going to want to do it on the small-scale sustainable level, especially for this Island? No matter what, we’re always going to need food.”

Krishana was delighted last summer when she discovered two other young farmers at the market: Robyn Hosey and Alexis Schoppe, who oversaw the FARM Institute’s pilot “Work Income Sharing Project” for middle-school students to grow and market the produce they grew at FARM Institute gardens in Katama.

“We were all young, we were all women, and we all love farming,” she says. “We just started talking and became friends. I realized I was lonely before.”
Another young grower, Cory Walker of Gorilla Grown Produce, who rented land in West Tisbury where Krishana had farmed in the past, also participated at the Farmer’s Market for the ’07 season, but has left the Island for Vermont. “He tried to make it here, and he just had a hard time making ends meet,” says Krishana. Now, both Robyn and Alexis have left the Island too.

Getting land and the cost of land can be obstacles to starting and staying in this business. “There are development pressures everywhere, especially on the Island, where access to land is a unique challenge,” says Matthew Goldfarb, the FARM Institute’s executive director, a thirty-two-year-old who has worked in farming and farm education across the country.

Krishana considers herself very fortunate to have found land here to rent. “Either you have to have it in your family, or you have to have a break and rent it. I’m really fortunate. I couldn’t afford a mortgage and farm. Last I heard an acre of land was $300,000. How can you pay a mortgage on $300,000 and make a living on farming? It’s not possible.”

Krishana says she was able to start small-scale farming without much capital. “I wasn’t investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, just tons and tons of labor, just an infinite, never-ending amount of labor….I knew I couldn’t really hire anyone, so I did all the work” in the first few years, she says. She still does the bulk of the work herself to keep labor costs low, but she’s been joined in the last two years by a worker or two to help increase production, as well as a few friends that stop by to help – especially if they want to see her.

The knowledge that she’s gained has made Krishana want to support other young farmers, just as Andrew did with her. “If anyone shows a little bit of interest, I’m fully behind them. There’s a couple of people who have worked for me that have continued to farm, and that feels really great.

“That’s another thing about this Island, people really support us. In Florida, we had to really educate people, which was fine, but here people are so open to it already. It’s how the Island has worked for years and years, people eating locally,” explains Krishana. “The response here was so incredible, it was just so encouraging.”

She says the support of local agriculture, both here on the Island and around the country, means there are emerging markets for those who want to farm. “There’s space for all these people. It’s just a matter of who’s ready to do it. I think we should support young farmers as much as we can if they show an interest, because it seems rare and they are few and far between.”

The success of entering farming here is probably a lot like nature itself, and depends on having the right conditions for growth. Matthew Goldfarb sees a growing interest by youth in farming here on the Vineyard and elsewhere. “Young people all over the country are going through university [agricultural] programs and apprentice programs on farms. It’s really exploded, it’s pretty incredible,” he says. And of course, hundreds of youngsters are introduced to farming every year through educational farm programs offered at the FARM Institute.

Krishana isn’t alone here on the Island. Looking around the Vineyard there are some young farmers getting on-the-farm training at their families’ farms. Emily Fischer, twenty-six, who recently married and now lives on-Island, has been making goat cheese at Flat Point Farm, a working family farm in West Tisbury, owned by her father, Arnie Fischer Jr., and her aunt Eleanor Neubert, and started by her grandfather, who ran a dairy there from the early forties until the late sixties. Emily and her husband, Doug Brush, who’s from East Greenwich, Rhode Island, both spent a few years at a cheese-making farm in upstate New York and have plans to start a similar business here. They are now considering a business loan that may be necessary for all the specific equipment and building updates needed to meet stringent dairy regulations. Doug has more immediate plans to start a pastured poultry business there this spring – a CSC, or community supported chickens program.

“It’s really important to me to keep the farm going,” says Emily, who knows firsthand the challenges and sacrifices involved in farming. “All the grandchildren want the farm to stay a farm. Hopefully that will happen.”

Elsewhere, Simon Athearn, thirty, has been working full-time for seven years at the Island’s largest farm and farm stand, Morning Glory in Edgartown, owned and operated by his parents, Jim and Debbie Athearn. Simon’s brother, Dan, twenty-seven, also works full-time at the farm. And at another family farm, Bayes Norton in Oak Bluffs, Jamie Norton and his wife, Dianne, both forty-three with two young children, plan to continue the farm that’s been in his family since 1837 and are converting it to an all-organic operation. They farm with Jamie’s parents in the summer and teach at the high school in the non-growing season.

Even with great support on the Island, Krishana eyes the future warily, and hopes she can keep on farming. Three years ago, she went back to school to obtain a nursing degree – as a backup. For two years, she commuted off-Island each week after the growing season was over.

Krishana’s mother was a nurse practitioner, and the nursing profession has been in her family forever, she says. “It felt comfortable. I love science – it’s a lot like farming. Farming is so much about observing: Leaves turning yellow is usually about a nitrogen deficiency. Nursing is preventative maintenance and observing: noticing if feet are swollen or eyes are bloodshot.”    

Ideally, she would like to find a way to do both farming and nursing, but the initial startup of one and a half years’ commitment to a hospital stands in the way. If she gets a tractor to help with efficiency, maybe she could spare a few days a week in the summer to start the process.

 “A few things about farming make me nervous. It’s a real gamble. It’s real security to know I have that [degree]. There’s always a need for nursing.”

Then she pictures herself stuck inside in the summer rather than planting greens, and shudders. “The quality of life is really good with farming. Farming is really my true love. I haven’t found how to do both yet.”

For now, it looks like we’ll continue to see Krishana’s auburn-haired head poking out from among the flowers each Saturday at the Farmer’s Market.
“I’m so appreciative of what this Island has given me,”

she says. “I get to do what I love – I feel really fortunate about that.”

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