From her farm to your table

Rose Willett is as passionate about farming as she is about food.

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—Sheny Leon

In late May, North Tisbury Farm and Market on State Road reopens. It’s as I remember, but maybe even more beautifully arranged. I’m there to see Rose Willett, the magician of all this wonder, who’s busy behind the counter. Customers are purchasing cheese and placing orders for croissants. I’m happy to wait and admire the selection of olive oils, nuts, cans of Italian tomatoes, coffees, artisanal cheeses, meats, and small-batch ice creams. By the time Rose is free, I’ve purchased a fresh baguette, a soft Vermont chèvre, and a bunch of lovage from the garden behind the store, where Rose and I eventually sit and talk.

Rose opened North Tisbury Farm and Market, formerly Fiddlehead Farm, 15 years ago because she loved to cook, and couldn’t find the ingredients she wanted to use. “I decided to create a place that would have them,” Rose says, making it sound simple. “The engagement with food in France and Italy really inspired me, and I wanted to make that kind of community here. It was very personality-driven, very social.”

From the beginning, Rose’s garden has been a vital part of her store: “I like taking people with me to harvest rhubarb and herbs. You’d be surprised how many of us don’t know where our food comes from.” Rose is passionate when discussing regenerative agriculture. “We use preindustrial methods. No machinery. Minimal tilling. We’re working toward healthy soil for a healthier planet. The types of crops we grow sequester a great deal of carbon.”

In November 2020, Rose signed a long-term lease with Andrew Woodruff for 4.5 acres of Whippoorwill Farm on Old County Road in West Tisbury. “I care about stewardship of the land. When Whippoorwill became available, I wanted that opportunity,” Rose says. “Andrew has been instrumental in helping to convert his farm to regenerative organic. With four goats clearing, it took us 18 months to prepare a half-acre to farm.

“I am so happy Andrew is excited by what we are doing. He consults, teaches, and often works hand in hand with our assistant field manager, William. Housing, of course, is the big crisis. William has to commute from New Bedford.”

Rebecca Sanders heads to the farmstand at Whippoorwill Farm with fresh bunches of opal basil. —Tina Miller

Under the management of Rebecca Sanders, formerly of the FARM Institute, Rose is building a strong team at Whippoorwill. Team meetings and farm lunches help grow the community.

The farmstand at Whippoorwill opened in the spring of 2021, where vegetables and local products are available on a self-serve basis with cash or Venmo. Here, too, the display is beautiful. In late May I found mint, rhubarb, a variety of lettuce, and bags of greens.

Whippoorwill Farm has a self-serve farmstand and acres of fresh veggies. —Tina Miller

This summer, three additional acres will be under production, growing perennial flowers, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, currants, melons, and “every vegetable you can think of.” The focus is perennial crops, so not everything will be ready to pick this year. “We’ll have some asparagus,” Rose says, “but we’re planting for the future.” Ultimately, Rose wants Whippoorwill to be a teaching farm, with an internship program that includes soil science, animal husbandry, conservation, and engineering.

When I ask Rose if North Tisbury Market helps offset her farming, she nods: “I worked in Chicago in commodities and futures, which were originally created to help farmers hedge their crops. I think in terms of finding business models that support regenerative agriculture. I want to create new farmers and make a reasonable life doing it — earn a decent, living wage. This is why I’m excited about my new project.”

Last summer Rose mentored Tyler Potter of the Swimming Pig, who was making sausage and charcuterie. This year they are reopening the Larder in Vineyard Haven on State Road together. Their focus is on keeping food production as local as possible, and cutting food waste. “Many of the products I sell at North Tisbury Market come from far away,” Rose says. “I’m trying to shrink my carbon footprint. This is nose-to-tail, farm-to-pantry. It will be a finite, small supply, expensive to manufacture, but still, hopefully affordable.” They will work with the Grey Barn & Farm and source additional animals regionally from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Produce will come from Whippoorwill.

Rose Willett at The Larder. —Jeremy Driesen

“Tyler is talented and passionate. We’ll do charcuterie and sausages in-house, and some butchery,” Rose says. “There will be a real cheese counter. Not precut and wrapped, like here at North Tisbury, but cut to order. We’ll be making pantry items of all kinds: canning, pickling, fermenting, bone broths. We’ll have some prepared food, and even a small takeaway menu. Sundays we’ll be cooking and selling fried chicken, carrying on the tradition of Jefferson Munroe.”

Packaging will be glass, tin, and paper; as little plastic as possible. A salad will be served in a reusable, recyclable Mason jar. “Nothing will go to waste,” Rose says. “We take so many things for granted. I grew up without much money, and not a stitch of food went to waste.”

When I compliment Rose on her energy and vision, she replies simply, “I have a million ideas, but when I can really picture something in its finished state, then I go for it. That’s how it was with the Larder.

“I have to get back,” Rose says, standing. We say goodbye, and then I follow her inside. I want to buy a pound of that sausage to taste, of course, but also, in a small way, to support Rose’s farming and her vision.

North Tisbury Farm and Market, 632 State Road, West Tisbury. Open daily. Check northtisburyfarm.com for current hours. 

Whippoorwill Farm, Old County Road, West Tisbury. Self-service, cash, or Venmo. Visit whippoorwillfarm.com

The Larder, 342 State Road, Vineyard Haven. Open daily. Check thelarder-mv.com.