Who’s Your Farmer? -Fall 2013
by: Justine Paradis
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Boot-clad, sporting a pair of dirt-stained jeans supported by suspenders, PHIL BARTLETT, 77, looks every inch the farmer. Most days, from sunup to sundown, you’ll find him out in the fields on his tractor, cultivating some of the 125 ACRES that BARTLETT’S OCEAN VIEW FARM has in production.
On a typical day, Bartlett will drive three different tractors before lunch, and hop on a couple of others in the afternoon.
He has 17, or 18. He can’t remember how many at last count.
The business has changed significantly since William Bartlett settled on Nantucket’s south shore and married Lydia Macy in the early 19th century, and even since June Bartlett, Phil’s father, raised flocks of sheep in the 1950s. Today, Bartlett’s is a grocery store, vegetable farm, garden-flower supplier and commercial kitchen, and continues to expand. This summer, the Bartletts opened a small shop on Old South Wharf to sell to the yachts that dock at the Boat Basin and anyone else in that neck of the woods.
While Phil and Dorothy Bartlett spend the growing season on the farm, several years ago they began passing their winters in Florida, where Phil works with a local community garden.
“You can take the farmer off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the farmer,” Dorothy joked.
She spent much of her working life in the greenhouses, but today, she takes a backstage role, acting as an advisor to the business and helping manage the family’s charitable donations. She still makes it to the market at least once a day.
“I hate to see people having to wait in line, so I jump in and bag groceries,” she said.
All four of Phil and Dorothy’s children work at the farm. Cynthia is the office bookkeeper, while the twins, Daniel and Dave, work in the fields. Dave manages the farming, while Dan, as a “Jack-of-all-trades,” takes care of the mechanical and repair work.
John, 48, serves as president and CEO of Bartlett’s. He studied plant science at Cornell University.
“I always knew I wanted to come back,” said John, leaning back in his office chair, above the farm market. “I had already spent so much of my life working on this farm. I just felt that my opportunities really lay here.”
Despite the family legacy, maintaining a small farm can be a challenge, particularly on an island. In 2004, the Nantucket Land Council helped ensure the agricultural future of the property, paying the Bartletts $6 million for the development rights to 104 acres, or half the farm, to ensure it would remain undeveloped forever.
“It takes a bit of creativity to keep things going,” Dorothy said. In the 1980s, that involved installing Dutch glass greenhouses equipped with computercontrolled heat-monitoring and ventilation, which made the greenhouse systems more efficient.
“We’ve always tried to be mindful of how technology works and how we can use it to our advantage,” John said. In 2009, the family continued that tradition, installing a wind turbine to help meet the farm’s energy needs.
The changes at Bartlett’s can also be viewed as part of the broader story of struggling small American farms. At the turn of the 20th century, half the country’s population lived on farms, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, less than 2 percent of the population lists farming as their occupation today, with many small family farms swallowed up by large corporations, operating as agribusinesses.
To compete with industrial agriculture, smaller farms often see the need to grow bigger, or they specialize to serve a niche market.
“I think most people don’t have any idea the amount of produce that this country produces,” John said, noting that modern agriculture is heavily dependent on refrigeration, transportation and petrochemicals.
Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm has certainly gotten bigger, most significantly with the construction of a new farm-market facility, completed in 2006. Originally, the family sold only produce they grew themselves. Dorothy remembers that she used to chuckle when customers asked for lemons, which don’t grow on Nantucket. Now, of course, the market stocks citrus, in addition to a much larger proportion of non-local products.
“The intention was to create a business that would sustain the family,” Dorothy said. They felt the grocery store and commercial kitchen would provide more stability, especially after a stretch of bad storms impacted the harvest.
“You’re at the mercy of the weather,” John said. “We had to find a way to grow and diversify.”
“We worked on that angle of making it a destination, so it was more than just coming out to buy your vegetables,” Dorothy said. “Sort of the ‘onestop shopping’ idea ... even in a summer resort area, people’s time is at a premium.”
The new facility also changed day-to-day operations on the farm. It made things much more efficient, but also demanded more structure and changes in internal procedure.
Upstairs above the market is a space known as the Hayloft, available to the community for events and which often hosts farm dinners, agriculture talks, yoga classes and more.
Phil Bartlett reflected on an operation that is vastly different in many ways from the farm he grew up on as a child.
“I really don’t know whether it’s exciting or not,” he said. “When you’ve got over a hundred employees, it’s mind-boggling. You’ve got to have really good people to keep tabs on what’s going on. It’s difficult. Whereas before, we had our finger on everything ... now it’s not that way at all.”
Among those helping to keep tabs are Hilary Newell and Pete Smith. The couple moved to Nantucket in 1986 to work for the Bartletts, becoming the first non-family members to hold leadership positions in the business. Hilary oversees greenhouse production and works as marketing director, while Pete is the general greenhouse manager. The pair helped introduce organic methods of pest control to the farm.
“It was the early 1990s when Pete decided to really explore using fewer pesticides, also as a matter of his own health,” Hilary said. “It’s far better to use beneficial insects than expose yourself to those kinds of chemicals.”
Today, all of the mixed and baby greens, herbs and vegetable starts are certified organic.
“That’s a pretty big change,” Hilary said. The farm has also reduced waste by using biodegradable containers instead of plastic pots.
They haven’t completely gone organic, and John said they probably won’t, due to obstacles presented by Nantucket’s muggy climate, sandy soils, insect pressure and high labor costs. Still, Hilary thinks they’re on the right track.
“The demand for fresh, locally-grown food is never going to go away. This is not a fad,” she said.
Phil remains skeptical of organic production. “I guess it’s fine,” he conceded. “I see problems with growing organic. You have a weed problem, you can’t use any chemicals ... I think it’s a little overdone, but people enjoy it.”
Dorothy certainly does. “There’s nothing better than organic arugula,” she said, but Phil disagreed.
“There’s nothing good about arugula!” he responded.
“He doesn’t like it,” she said with a smile. “I think it’s good. There’s good reasons for growing organic and I understand why people want it.”
Regardless of the changes in the business, it is important to the family that their land always remain a working farm. That’s why they worked with the Nantucket Land Council to place such a large tract under a conservation restriction, while also helping the Bartletts with estate-planning and easing the tax burden on their children.
Without it, the land could have eventually fallen into the hands of developers. On the road to the main gate, instead of sprawling pumpkin vines and colorful flowers, visitors could have seen 200 houses.
“It could have been two houses per acre. We sure wouldn’t want to have that,” Dorothy said.
The Bartletts are proud of their heritage as farmers and that they’ve been able to carry on the tradition into seven generations.
“I’m proud of the fact that we are farmers,” John said. “Our roots are really in agriculture, and we really enjoy working the land ... being able to sit down and have a meal with family or friends, and know that you had a contribution.”
Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm
33 Bartlett Farm Road
Justine Paradis is a freelance writer living on Nantucket.