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Background photo by Tom Lyons

John Bartlett

Island Legacy

Farming is really a way of life for us. It’s not something that you can pick up and put down—it’s something you’re involved with all the time. We always have our eye on the weather, we always have to keep track of things and be prepared. That can be stressful at times. But it’s also rewarding to be able to sew a seed and harvest the fruits of your labor.

My father’s side of the family was full of coopers—they came to Nantucket to make the casks that held the whale oil . . . My family acquired most of the property in the mid-1800s and early 1900s. For the most part, the farm stayed the same size since then. It was a dairy farm into the ’50s, and at some level, they had vegetables going on all the time. Whether it’s strawberries or vegetables or milk, we’ve been taking things and delivering them into town and around the island for more than 150 years.

Stina Sayre

After the dairy house left, we had 30 to 40 head of black Angus cattle for a while. But as things got more developed here, it became a little bit more of a big deal when the cows got out. They’d get out and start munching on shrubs and things like that—that was in the early ’80s when development really started around here and things started to become less rural. So we decided to go greater into vegetable production and greenhouse annuals and perennials and things like that.

We grow greenhouse tomatoes, field tomatoes, we also specialize in growing lettuce too—we have eight or nine different varieties of lettuce that we grow. Now we do a lot of the baby greens—baby arugula, baby kale. We have organic herbs as well. We round that out with whatever we can grow here. Thirty miles from here, on the Cape, you can grow fruit trees. You can’t really do that here.

Being a farmer, you’re always at the mercy of the weather. You never know if you’re going to have a nor’easter, or a hurricane, or both in two weeks, or two inches of rain, or no rain for two months. Every year is different, but at the same time, every year is kind of magical.

•••

My brothers and sister  and I grew up on the farm, and when we walked out the door, we were at work (laughs) . . . We had this little progression of things we did as kids to kind of work our way into the business. You’d start off with cutting parsley and bunch radishes, then you’d go up to doing stuff with a bigger knife (laughs). You’d get lettuce or broccoli or cabbage, there’d be tomato picking, always weeding and things like that. Then as we got older, we’d be driving tractors and doing stuff with more machinery.

There would always be some banter over who got to do the good jobs or who got the bad jobs. There would be times when we’d be running irrigation and one of the heads would plug up, and somebody would have to run in and get wet and unplug it. There was always a short straw for who had to do that. Sometimes it would be really hot and it wasn’t so bad. When it was the first thing in the morning, it wasn’t really something you wanted to do.

I’m the president and CEO at Bartlett’s Farm—I kind of handle day-to-day operations now. My younger brother Dave is really the farmer—he handles all the organic production, all the farming production, and he manages all the inside vegetable production, greenhouse tomatoes. My brother Dan does a lot of farming as well—he handles most of the maintenance here. My sister Cynthia does bookkeeping and accounts payable. My mom’s still an ambassador and does a lot of things behind the scenes. My dad’s still really active when he’s here in the summer, always on the tractor and always with his finger on the pulse of what’s going on.

I think my whole family feels the same way: It’s really rewarding work to plant something and watch it grow, harvest it, and sit down and have a meal with family and friends, and enjoy the experience and the satisfaction of enjoying something tangible that is sustaining you at the same time.

•••

There’s a real sense of place on Nantucket, a real sense of history as well. And I think coming from a generational business and a family that has history and roots here, it’s a place that has resonated with me. We all share the same cycle in some ways. The tourists come and the tourists go. There are great benefits with the summer community that comes here, but then we kind of get the island back and the pace becomes slower in the off-season, and we have a chance to connect with our neighbors.

The people that are here really have a sense of place, a sense of where they are. They enjoy connecting with the environment and being outside. Boston and New York are great and exciting places to be, but it’s concrete and asphalt. There are different things you can do there from a career standpoint, but you can’t be at the beach in 10 minutes. You can’t walk into the market and spend half an hour getting three things because you’ve run into five or six people that you haven’t seen in a while. You’re not always anonymous here, even though sometimes you want to be, but you’re never too far from somebody you know and somebody you care about.

About

Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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