A Farm by the Sea
by: Hilary Newell
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm, with its rich history, has been an integral part of Nantucket for 175 years. For six going on seven generations, there have been changes in what the Bartlett family has grown and raised, along with continual development of ideas about how to raise crops and animals, but the commitment to being good stewards of the land has never wavered.
Currently, with more than 100 acres under cultivation, nearly 35 greenhouses, and up to 125 employees etables and ornamental plants that are consumed or planted on Nantucket. Islanders and visitors alike grow excited when the corn and tomatoes are harvested, as these are the delights that everyone waits for all year.
The story of Bartlett’s figures richly in Nantucket history. Phil is the fifth generation of farmers, having succeeded his father, John H. “June” Bartlett Jr. Phil’s great-great-grandfather William came to Nantucket in the early 1800s from Marblehead. At the time, Nantucket was in the heyday of the whaling era, though the family lived a modest lifestyle as subsistence farmers.
As a youngster, Phil grew vegetables for Ed Gardner at Mount Vernon Farm and at age 12 or 13, he started growing tomatoes in his grandmother’s front yard. He challenged himself to try growing new vegetables and built a tiny greenhouse to grow seedlings, which he later transplanted into the ground. That little greenhouse stood until the late 1950s when Phil returned from his service in the U.S. Marines.
The farm has seen many changes over the years, with each generation modifying the business model to find the perfect niche for whatever needs the island population had at the time.
In Phil’s lifetime alone, he helped raise sheep and beef cattle, with the current model being what is there today: 100 acres under cultivation with corn, tomatoes, a wide variety of vegetables and cut flowers; more than 30 greenhouses for growing annuals, perennials and herbs for the garden; hothouse tomatoes; countless organic crops like baby spinach, arugula, greens, microgreens and
bunched culinary herbs; and hydroponicallygrown basil and lettuces, all while continuing to protect the land that has provided a living for all those generations.
The story of Bartlett’s is really a story of the whole family, and each of them has contributed significantly. Phil met Dorothy while they were attending Cornell University (he for agricultural sciences, she for education), and they were married in 1959.
Their meeting at Cornell may have been more than coincidental. At their wedding, Phil’s father and Dorothy’s father got to talking and realized they had met before. Eight years previously, June was having a problem with his flock of sheep and had communicated with professor John Peter Willman, a renowned expert in sheep husbandry at Cornell. Willman was Dorothy’s father.
Her early life on the farm consisted of helping with the harvest of carrots and beets, and eventually taking the vegetable truck to Sconset where she relished meeting and serving the people she met on the east end of the island. Phil’s mother Grace was careful to warn her not to learn the farm tasks she didn’t want to do, but Dorothy said she rarely found a job on the farm she didn’t enjoy, whether it was driving a tractor, hoeing, cultivating or harvesting.
Several years into her time at the farm, she began the flower-growing operation in the greenhouses. The first glass greenhouse was moved from Sconset in 1966 and used for flowers. Dorothy seeded in the evenings after the children were in bed, planted and picked when she could, and learned everything she could about how to sell flowers. This spurred the development of today’s full-service garden center.
Together, Phil and Dorothy raised four children who they are proud to say are all involved in the farm. As with children in most farming families, each began working very young. All of them started out by picking parsley or radishes around the age of 6 or 7, and a couple of them remember getting paid 25 cents an hour at that tender age.
Cynthia, the oldest, was also very fond of picking strawberries, and early on she developed a knack for selling flowers so she became the Johnny-jump-up seller. Later, she was excited to learn to drive so she could get out to the fields to pick gladiolus. As youngsters, all the children learned a lot about responsibility from their parents. Twins Dave and Dan were in charge of feeding the cows before and after school and throughout the summer months, and all of them worked during school vacations.
They helped sell corn off the produce truck in town, they planted and picked flowers and herbs, cleaned the vegetable stand at the end of each day, cleaned the barn on weekends, learned to construct and maintain greenhouses, with each of them developing their own interests that continue to serve the farm today.
They all spent time off-island, going to college, working or pursuing other interests. After Cynthia graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology, she worked on Long Island for a few years before coming back to the farm in 1989 to fill the bookkeeping position and help set up the first computer system.
John, following in his father’s footsteps, went to Cornell for plant science and currently serves as the CEO of the family business. Dave, an artist at heart, and Dan, a former Nantucket police officer, both returned to the island in their 20s, and are both happy to call themselves farmers. Planning, planting, cultivating, weeding, managing and growing field vegetables are their primary responsibilities. When they’re not caring for plants, they can be found doing maintenance, either on buildings or machinery.
There is no doubt that farm life means work, but not all their childhood memories are of working. The Bartlett kids used to play baseball and ride bareback ponies through the fields. In the winter, Phil would take them on farm-sleigh rides, the four of them sitting on an upturned car hood pulled behind the tractor in the snow.
Each have children of their own – 12 in all – ranging from 2 to 27 and nearly all of them that are old enough have had some kind of farm job.
Travel has played a large role in the growth of the business. In addition to many years of local commitments to various boards and committees, Phil and Dorothy were also very involved with Bedding Plants International (BPI), a large professional growers association, where Phil eventually served as president. This took them on many a busman’s holiday, to learn how growers in other countries grew plants.
During one such trip to Toronto, a very young Dave and Dan declared when asked if they wanted to go to the planetarium, “No, we don’t want to go because we see plants every day at home.”
The BPI and family trips took the Bartletts to nearly every continent on the globe and they developed many long-lasting, international friendships along with professional relationships they could count
on for support and growing knowledge.
On one particular BPI trip, Phil and Dorothy were
inspired to modify and streamline the greenhousegrowing operation. They figured that a new Dutch greenhouse might be just the upgrade necessary to keep pace with the expanding island population’s demand for plants and produce.
In 1985 the first of two ultra-modern greenhouses was built, with the second one completed just a few years later. They are still in use today, with the first one the primary flower-growing facility, and the second serving as the garden center. The shade garden outside the garden center was added several years later.
The Bartletts have never been afraid to try new things, a key component to the farm’s longevity. It was around the time of the new greenhouse that they hired the first year-round, non-family employees. That’s when my husband’s and my contribution to the farm began.
It was at the same time that they began hiring international students to round out the college students and extended family members they had been hiring up to that point. The international flair at Bartlett’s continues today, with hundreds of temporary foreign workers coming to the farm over the last 30 years. The Communicating for Agricultural Exchange program recruits workers from around the world and helps them get the proper visas to work legally in the United States.
As part of the farm family, these young people bring their desire to learn, and are trained in some aspect of agriculture, often going home with new ideas to help
their own family farms grow. Countless international friendships and even some marriages have resulted from these workers’ time on the farm.
In the early 1990s, Dorothy began to think that the farm should publish a cookbook, and so the first “Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm Cookbook” was produced using family recipes, and recipes collected from employees and enthusiastic customers. In the days before desktop publishing, it was truly a labor of love. It features vegetables grown at Bartlett’s and was the catalyst for opening the farm’s first commercial kitchen in 1995.
Freshly-baked breads and muffins were sold alongside hothouse tomatoes and bedding plants in the greenhouse, but customers began looking for prepared foods to serve at home. In order to do that, there had to be a commercial kitchen. The question of where to create the kitchen was fairly simple to answer: the old dairy barn was not being used anymore and could be rehabbed into a very serviceable kitchen. It already had the cement floors and drainage necessary, so work began and as soon as the final inspection was complete, the first chef was hired to start using farm vegetables to create salads and side dishes for take-out.
Within a few years, the demand for farmmade food outpaced what could be produced in that kitchen and even more importantly, the greenhouse where the food was sold was inadequate. The next step advanced the farm to the facility that stands today. The planning and execution of the market took several years from start to finish, and it serves the island with freshlymade food year-round. It is often the first stop
summer visitors make when they get off the ferry, with scores of serendipitous greetings of old acquaintances.
Change is inevitable, and the Bartletts have found they need to embrace change in order to stay relevant and sustainable in today’s island economy. Adapting to changing times can be a challenge, but the Bartletts trust the island community will continue to support the business even through the changes they’ve had to make. They’ve weathered criticism with aplomb, and they continue to try new things, learning from their mistakes along the way.
In the 1980s, Phil leased some land to a young wind-energy company, and several wind turbines were placed along the southern edge of the farm. An inadequate braking system caused each of them to fail, and they all came down. Fast-forward to 2009, and the family decided to give wind energy another chance with the installation of a larger, single wind turbine.
It went well for a while, but another failure caused that one to be taken down as well. Not to be defeated, John and the family decided to try another energy-production system, and in 2017, the island’s first large solar array was completed in the field behind the market and it produces enough electricity to power the whole farm. You could say the Bartletts are now harvesting the sun.
With a workforce approaching 120 people in the summer, and the island housing situation the way it is, hiring and retaining employees remains a challenge. As tried and true Yankees, though, the Bartletts have been creative through the years. By moving structures that would otherwise be torn down, rescuing houses before they washed into the ocean, and renting large houses within biking distance of the farm, they are able to provide housing for nearly 70 employees.
The building that was formerly the bar called Thirty Acres was moved to the farm in the 1990s and is now dormitory-style housing. A house that was within a few days of going into the drink at Cisco was saved around the same time. Summer visitors often don’t realize that it is not uncommon to see a house moving down the street to a new location at any given time during the off-season.
Generations of Nantucketers and wash-ashores have taken part in the Bartletts’ agricultural endeavors. When I first arrived on the island in 1986, I continually met people who had worked on the farm in the 1970s. Numerous farm alumni have gone on to start their own island businesses, many in landscaping. Plenty of workers have paid for their college educations through saving money earned by hard summer work producing vegetables and flowers, and countless island families have paid rent or mortgages via their work at the farm.
Satisfied by the knowledge that the farm has supported and continues to support island families, the Bartletts continue to make the business work better.
Every Bartlett is proud of the farm and the contributions they as individuals and together as a family have made to the island. They are rewarded by preserving the family tradition of growing food. They are fiercely protective of their Nantucket heritage and hopeful the day will come when the seventh generation begins to assume responsibility for the farm.
They are gratified that they have been able to stay in business through many struggles over 175 years, glad that they have been able to guarantee bucolic views and open space in the future by protecting more than 100 acres of farmland from development, fulfilled by the knowledge that family sticks together through thick and thin and supports each other in difficult times, and optimistic that they can continue to provide a sustainable, ecologically-conscientious and prosperous family farm.
Hilary Newell is a freelance writer who worked for Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm for several decades before retiring this summer. She and her husband plan to relocate to the Pacific Northwest.