Theme Park Farming

Long time ago, like about 1988, I had this idea: build a Martha’s Vineyard theme park in Falmouth. People could loll on virtual beaches, buy picture postcards and Black Dog T-shirts, and thrill to a hair-raising simulated moped ride on twisty island roadways, all without the expense and hassle of crossing Vineyard Sound. My modest proposal to this effect was published in both papers; the Vineyard Gazette even ran it as an op-ed with a cool carnival graphic.

At that point I was too newbie clueless to realize two things: (1) This would not make people in Falmouth happy at all, and (2) Martha’s Vineyard was a theme park already, or well on its way to becoming one.

I have lived in Martha’s Vineyard: The Theme Park long enough to know that though most visitors voluntarily fall for the illusion — for the $$$ they’re spending, it better meet all their expectations, so they convince themselves that it does — backstage at the theme park is most definitely Real Life. As anyone who’s ever been involved with theater or filmmaking knows, creating and sustaining an illusion is hard work. It also generates its own thrills, chills, and bouts of hysterical laughter, most of which go unnoticed by the visitors, who understandably think that the theme park is all about them. This gives rise to the perennial question: “What do you people do in the winter?”

We tend to finesse this question because (1) it takes too long to explain, and (2) the askers don’t really want to know. Most visitors, like most theatergoers, don’t want to know too much about what it costs to sustain the illusion that they revel in every year. Besides, it’s our Real Life, not theirs.

These guys were guests at the same party. No, it was not at the alpaca farm. Yes, there is a connection between the alpaca farm and theme park agriculture.

So yesterday afternoon at a wonderful party a friend and I got onto the subject of theme parkery. An ever-increasing number of year-round residents seem to have fallen for the theme park illusion, we noted, especially when it comes to agriculture. They rhapsodize about island-grown this, that, and the other thing without taking note of some key numbers:

  • the cost of land
  • the labor-intensiveness of small-scale farming
  • the paltry wages earned by farm laborers
  • the often prohibitively high cost of the resulting produce

My dinghy garden is not a commercial endeavor. Woman does not live by tomatoes alone . . .

As a commercial endeavor “island-grown” isn’t sustainable without a variety of subsidies, including agricultural development restrictions; people willing and able to work for wages too low to pay island rents, never mind buy a house; people willing and able to pay more, often a lot more, for local produce and meat. Last month the island’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) program was saved when three wealthy summer residents funded the purchase of Thimble Farm by the Island-Grown Initiative, which had been trying unsuccessfully to raise the $2.5 million asking price for the 37-acre farm. (For details, see “Big Donors to Fund Island Grown Initiative.”)

. . . or basil either.

So my friend and I were brainstorming ways to make island agriculture sustainable, and (under the influence of beer, chocolate cupcakes, fresh pineapple, and other wondrous goodies) we came up with a Brilliant Idea. Here it is, uncopyrighted and ready to be implemented by — who? You?

  • First, the Wampanoag Tribe gets to build the casino they want in Aquinnah.
  • The VTA (Vineyard Transit Authority) runs regular shuttle service to Aquinnah from the ferry docks and the airport.
  • Aquinnah licenses a lending institution or two to set up shop outside the casino so gamblers who blow their entire wads don’t have to stop playing.
  • Gamblers who win big get complimentary limo service to the airport or the ferry dock, their choice.
  • Those who lose big and can’t cover their losses are urged to indenture themselves to the Island-Grown Initiative or comparable local agricultural endeavor for as long as it takes to pay off their debt at minimum wage.

Is there another way to make “island-grown” sustainable? I dunno. Stake us to a six-pack and let’s see what we come up with.



About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to Theme Park Farming

  1. perfumepharmer says:

    Yes there are a couple of beekeepers who do that (call me). AND bees are not the only ”thing” we can farm in that way. Hey, how much of my 20 years on MV do you want to hear about? OK, I’ll stay in the present tense. My business plan (and present) involves rotating crops of bee-delicious flowers that are then turned into the liquid delight we call perfume. Voila! Honey AND perfume. My perfume sells for $48-$200 per oz EDP. \”Grow Your Own Perfume\”
    BTW No-one ever believed me when I told them my business wasn’t seasonal. Actually I sell a lot more medicinal tinctures, skin care and perfume in the Fall and Winter. February isn’t a down month. I learned to move beyond the island with my marketing strategy. And you do have to make value-added products.


    • I’m thinking more of growing food and raising livestock — which is what the rhetoric of the Island Grown people seems to emphasize. I love Linda Alley’s (New Lane Sundries) marmalades and mustards, but they aren’t a significant part of my diet. Neither is honey. (I’ve never bought or used perfume.)


      • Food and livestock is the current premier focus of IGI and education which is as it should be. Medicinal herbs and flavors/fragrance as well as fiber arts WILL have more of a focus in the future as part of the Permanent Culture Permaculture of the Island. Baby Steps. If you have ever bought or used toothpaste, deodorant, soap, vanilla extract, flavoring extracts of any kind, shampoo, conditioner, salves ointments or linaments (just as a beginning sampler) you have bought and used perfume. Perfume is simply the aromatic parts of woods, leaves, resins, gums and flowers. I know what the current focus is and yes, a few steps ahead is “perfume”. If you have ever bought or used food bees have most likely been a part of the production. Yes, we’re a theme park, I couldn’t agree more BUT we are positively engaged towards real change.


  2. tompostpile says:

    The notion of the Island as a Theme Park touches on a much larger notion, which is that of tourism in general. A major aspect of tourism is the fact that people come to a place not for what it actually is, but for what it “is” in their imagination. That imagination can be fed by Chamber of Commerce type advertising, or buy the “information” that’s out there in books, in other peoples’ perceptions, and on the intertubes. If you’ve never been to a place, until you’re actually there, it’s only a dream. If you’ve never been to Macchu Picchu, it’s just a dream til you get there. You don’t know a place until you spend time there. Tourism is an odd activity. Particularly tourism as recreation. That takes us back closer to the theme park idea, doesn’t it? To finish off, there’s the story of David Donald, who works the information booth down at the ferry dock. Some nice people arrived one morning, and wanted to schedule their time here. After finding out some of the things they could do, they asked him, “What time does Martha’s Vineyard close?”


    • It’s such a fascinating subject! “You don’t know a place until you spend time there” — yeah. In 1975 I spent three months hiking and hitchhiking around Britain and Ireland, staying almost entirely in youth hostels. What made a big difference was that I’d lived in England for a year before I started. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known where I wanted to go, what people in different places were likely to be interested in, how to understand what I saw and heard.

      When I came to MV as a teenager with my family, and later as a young adult, the emphasis seemed to be mostly on being here. If that’s tourism, it’s different from the kind of tourism that emphasizes seeing and doing. At first the whole idea of tour buses struck me as very strange: “But what is there to see?” But I knew a couple of people who drove tour buses, and I heard their spiels — they created a story based on certain sites, and the story would evolve according to the tourists’ responses and expectations.. They didn’t see the MV where I lived but they definitely saw some MV. When I worked at the Lambert’s Cove Inn, I was surprised how many people wanted to get married in a place where they had no personal or family connections. And so on.


  3. Have you ever ridden through Switzerland on a train? When you look out the window you will see little terrace farms on the sides of the hills. Every square inch of dirt has something growing in it. What we need here on the Island are traveling farmers. Land is expensive, yes, but I’d loan a small plot to a farmer, and I’m sure other people would too. There is a bee keeper who puts his hives all around the Island on properties whose owners give him the OK. I think this could work. Turn the whole Island into a co-operative farm!


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