The Questions: Sam Slosek

by: Brian Bushard

The 23 acres of farmland off Polpis Road have been in Sam Slosek’s family since 1954, when his grandfather, Stan Slosek, bought the property and started a dairy operation called Moors End farm. By the time Sam started working there as a boy, it had been converted into the produce farm it is today.

In 2002, after spending a few years at an information-technology job outside Washington, D.C., Slosek decided to come back to Nantucket and work full-time on the farm. There’s something about working alongside your family on a piece of land that dates back three generations that he doesn’t want to leave.

We recently caught up with him to ask about his experience growing up on the farm and the importance of both family and local agriculture.

Q. When did you first start farming at Moors End?

A. “I grew up here on the farm, moved back and forth from West Glover, Vt., where my mom’s family is from, for most of junior high and high school. I attended RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), graduating in 1998, worked in Fairfax, Va. until 2002, and moved back here to farm full-time.”

Q. Did you always think you would find yourself farming with your family when you were growing up?

A. “No, I but I never thought much about where I would end up. I guess I always felt like it was an option. My parents gave me every opportunity and encouragement to go and be whatever I wanted to become.”

Q. Your family has been on the property since the 1950s. Is there something comforting in farming with your family that keeps you there? Or is there a sense of obligation to maintaining an agricultural tradition in your family?

A. “It’s comforting, absolutely. We’re a very tight family, almost to a fault if you ask my wife. But even she – having grown up an only child – has come to embrace all that a close family has to offer. It’s also a great environment to raise our three children, though sometimes I feel like kids raised working on farms can’t wait to leave, envisioning ‘easy money’ and a more comfortable lifestyle.

But to me, farming isn’t a lifestyle, it’s more a way of life. My dad taught me that. Sometimes I am overcome with a sense of obligation to my family, to the island community, to that kind of ‘could have been great, if only’ kind of feeling. But those are mostly my off-days when stuff is breaking, drying out, those kinds of days everyone has. I’ve come a long way in accepting my role on the farm, as a husband to my amazing wife, and a father to my incredible kids.

Agriculture is a tradition on both sides of my family. The Houstons from Vermont have farmed up there since the glacier spit them out on top of the hill in Walden, Vt. The Sloseks as well, came over from Poland on cattle freighters. So it’s in me. As traditional a way of life as farming seems to most people, it is an ever-evolving science.”

Q. Where do you typically find yourself on the farm? Is there a specific area or specific task you’re in charge of?

A. “The back 40 (acres), back of the house, the weeds, the dirt. Call it whatever you want. Mostly, I manage the field crew during the season, as well as day-to-day irrigation, mechanics, pest control, cultivating – the list goes on. In the off-season I put on my carpentry, electrician and plumbing hats to put it all back together and get ready for the next season.”

Q. Why is it important to support local agriculture?

A. “Support for local agriculture is important for a number of reasons. It’s part of our society’s foundation, and those skills are precious and dwindling with each successive generation. When small local farms are lost, as they are every year across the country, so is part of our country’s food security. Kids don’t learn where food comes from, open space is lost, the land is deteriorated and houses are going up. Our reliance on big agriculture is strengthened. And once (small farms) are gone, they’re not coming back – not very easily, anyway.”

Q. Do you think a sense of appreciation for local or sustainable agriculture has been lost on Nantucket? Is there still a place for small family farms?

A. “I can only really speak about my own experience and that is that local farms here are strongly supported and appreciated. But we’re a pretty educated and outward-looking group here on Nantucket. Sadly, I don’t feel like it’s the same across most of America. People just go to the store and assume everything they want is going to be there in quantity. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Maybe they just have other important things on their minds.”

Q. What are the challenges of farming on the island? Do the harsh winters, wind or salt spray make it more difficult than it would be on the mainland?

A. “The challenges of farming on Nantucket are pretty similar to those of most small businesses here – labor, housing, insurance – a short market season, material shipping and associated markups, minimal support from state agencies and resources, that sort of stuff.

The growing climate is not much different from the rest of New England. I feel like long, cool springs make getting early marketable produce to the public a challenge. Then we have the long, moderate fall on the other end. It is what it is. Salt spray is not really an issue. Wind in general can be a challenge, but it keeps us cool in the heat of the summer. It’s all in balance.

All the farms here are doing more with high tunnel growing and various row coverings to help get plants going earlier in the spring. In the fall it’s a different story after the exodus. We have to balance the cost of those techniques and what we’re actually able to sell.”

Q. Are there any vegetables in particular or recipes you can make with them you’re particularly fond of?

A. “It’s tough. I love to cook and be in the kitchen, but in the height of the summer it’s all I can do to drag my tired ass home and help with the kids. The fall is the time, with big, fat, juicy tomatoes, the finest sweet corn and all the ‘lesser’ vegetables combined with all the bounty the island offers with fish I have time to go out for, venison when I used to hunt, scallops, berries picked during the season, honey from all the bee folks, quahogs and steamers I dig, oysters from my oysterfarmer friends, plus our pigs’ meat and chickens are processed. It’s good eating around here.”

Q. What are your hopes for the future of the farm?

A. “All any farmer can hope for his farm is to leave it debt-free and in a condition their kids may want to do something with or to pass it along to someone else. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing with new wrinkles here and there. I just hope it’s a viable opportunity for someone down the road.”

Q. If you could have dinner with any six people, alive or dead, who would you choose?

A. “Oprah Winfrey, Captain James Cook, Bob Dylan, John McCain, Jackie Kennedy and Emeril Lagasse.”

Q. What book are you currently reading?

A. “‘Beneath a Scarlet Sky’ by Mark Sullivan.”

Brian Bushard is a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. He frequently writes about conservation and the environment.