Photo by Lynn Christoffers
In a series of profiles, The Times introduces the men and women who farm on Martha’s Vineyard. For a complete interactive map of Island farms, go to bit.ly/MVFarmMap. Flat Point Farm will be one of the farms featured at the Martha’s Vineyard Food and Wine Festival’s Fresh off the Farm event, on Thursday, Oct. 15; they will be serving deviled eggs. For more information: mvfoodandwine.com.
Eleanor (Fischer) Neubert owns Flat Point Farm with her brother, Arnie Fischer (who was away when this interview was conducted). She runs the daily operations with her nieces, Lila and Emily Fischer. When Eleanor isn’t farming, she runs the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair.
Tell us a little bit about your family farm history.
Eleanor: I grew up on the farm — it’s always been a working farm — and I used to love every aspect of coming out here: helping my dad milk the cows; seeing the new calves being born. My dad grew up in Vineyard Haven and bought the acreage in the late ’30s, when most of it was scrub oak that he turned into a dairy farm. He had some dairy cows in Vineyard Haven and he drove the herd up here before the road was paved; we had no electricity when he first started out. That must have been from 1938 to 1948 — 10 years without electricity.
He cleared all the fields down to the point. There was an orchard that my grandfather used to take care of, with grape arbors, fruit trees, and asparagus beds. The hen house and pig houses were out in the woods. It was similar, but different back then.
We had enough stations for 26 milking cows — they started out as all Guernseys, then we got half Holsteins. The Jersey cows had richer milk, so we had those as well. Now we have only beef animals.
The dairy farm was the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Then the co-op dairy folded as we couldn’t make enough milk … in came Hood and whatever else, and we couldn’t compete. My dad sold the dairy cows, switching over to beef Angus and Herefords — calmer and easier to handle. A few Herefords now, and sheep — we always had a few sheep. They used to drive up to Harmony, Maine, with them; it hardly paid for the trip, but it was fun to get away.
We always had the laying hens, and always sold eggs; we raised turkeys at one time, and used to raise all of our own chickens: fryers, broilers, and roasters when we were kids growing up.
My first five years, I lived in the farmhouse with my grandparents. My mother got a teaching job at the West Tisbury School, and I was her student for the first three grades.
I am the oldest of the siblings; Arnie [Fischer] is the youngest. We are the only two living on the property at this point; our remaining sister lives in Ohio.
How has it changed?
Eleanor: We switched from dairy to beef, lamb, and eggs. Now the next generation is bringing new activities: Emily and [her husband] Doug [Brush] are doing goats and goat milk, making soap. Lila is raising quails and harvesting berries. She is the fruit lady.
I deal with marketing the eggs and lamb.
How do you market your farm’s produce?
Eleanor: People come here to the barn to buy [eggs], and I deliver to customers at school; Doug takes some to teachers at the Oak Bluffs School, and any leftovers go to the Scottish Bakehouse, and they can’t keep them on the shelves. In the winter when the pullets have started to lay, I will sell the smaller and medium-size ones to Cronig’s; the large ones go to the Scottish Bakehouse.
The farm has been formed into a corporation — my dad did that — so I deal with taking care of the money.
We all do it for fun, as nobody uses it for their main source of income. Everyone has other jobs — multiple jobs — it’s sort of what we do for pleasure. It’s part of our lives.
Emily: Yes, it’s what we do as sort of a hobby. We make money, but it’s never our source of sole livelihood. For me, the soapmaking is more than a hobby at this point, but it provides only a supplemental income. Doug now teaches science at the Oak Bluffs School and manages a vegetable garden with his students, working a lot with Island Grown Schools. He and [their son] Milo have a stand and sold a lot last year, which enabled Milo to start his own savings account. They sold potatoes to Cronig’s this summer.
When I was growing up, we also had a big haying operation. We used to take trailerloads of hay to different farms on the Island. But this year and last the hay is really bad — it’s due to lack of rain for two years. Also, because we are so busy, there’s not enough time to plow up a field, harrow, disc, fertilize, seed it, and it costs a lot to maintain. We have hay for our own animals — that’s what makes it a viable operation.
What is the size of the farm’s property?
Eleanor: We recently sold some land to the Land Bank, but we still use the pasture for cows and sheep in the summertime. It still exists as one piece of property — the whole thing is close to 99 acres, including the Land Bank property. There’s a public Land Bank trail that passes through … it starts at Tiah’s Cove Road at the horse farm, goes all around the point to Short Cove, and back through the woods. It’s a long walk.
The soapmaking business — can you tell us how you got started?
Emily: Doug and I spent some time on a sheep farm in New York State, and when we moved back to the Island eight years ago, started an effort to make cheese from sheep milk. We found it an expensive and difficult operation to maintain, and making cheese requires a very high learning curve. I had worked in Providence in a bookbinding shop, and enjoyed working with my hands, and realized I liked doing crafts. Doug started substitute teaching, and I tried my hand at soapmaking and realized that it was a lot easier than making cheese. And I had fun doing it. Lila and I started our first batch of soap about eight years ago. I started selling soaps at the Farmers Market in 2007 — the year Milo was born — which worked out well.
Making soap is something I can do at home, when I’m not doing my mom job. [Doug and Emily also have another child, Leon, age 3.] It’s relaxing, and a pleasurable job that’s not stressful.
And soap marketing?
Emily: The Farmers Market is so great: I’m with so many local farming people who have built up great loyal customers who are educated in what handmade goods and small farm products cost and are willing to pay for them. I’m lucky to be a part of this farming group. Today a woman from Rhode Island stopped by the table, and said her main reason for coming was to buy my soap. That makes me feel good — keeps me going.
I don’t want my own shop. I sell a lot to retailers: Morning Glory Farm, the Allen Farm, Rainy Day and Citrine in Vineyard Haven. I also take orders for weddings and events. I’d like to do more online business. My winter goal is to open a webstore — I’m trying really hard to set up an Etsy shop to sell online. Lila and I have a Nov. 1st goal. We like to dream up projects …
Are the products grown locally?
Emily: The only product used in the soap that is local is the goat milk. For the scents, I buy essential oils and fragrances. The wool is our own wool that my mom dyes herself. She sends the wool away to small-batch wool processing operations at small farmers. She also sells at the Farmers Market and teaches felting at the fair in the Fiber tent.
Eleanor: Emily does the soapmaking demo at the fair each year, and was on MVTV.
Emily: Yes, I’ve been giving the soapmaking demo at the fair for the past three or four years now. I do a felting soap demo for kids — a fun thing to do. I’m getting over my fear of it, as I have a hard time being on the spot. Not like my son, Milo, who is a natural at the stand. Doug is also an excellent soap seller. I like selling soap, but he is good at chatting with people. He also does all the goat milking, with Milo helping out.
The farm as home
Eleanor: We all went off the Island for a time in our lives. I was off to college — actually, I was gone for 10 years. Arnie did; we all did that, but we all came back to roost. (Oh, no … did I say that?!)
Emily: We had kids, and they take up a lot of time to grow too … a whole other kind of farming.