Farm History

Farm History
History of Bartlett's Farm | Nantucket, MA

Grace and June Bartlett

The Early Years

William Bartlett moved to Nantucket Island in the early 1800’s from Marblehead, Massachusetts. In 1817, he married Lydia Macy, a direct descendent of Nantucket’s first settler, Thomas Macy. Their modest lifestyle of subsistence farmers allowed them to grow enough food to fully sustain their family of five children. Eventually their son, Albert C. Bartlett took over the family farm, using the same method of tilling the land with livestock and growing enough to eat, preserve and store for year-round island living.  At that time, there were over 100 farms on Nantucket.  While the whaling business was booming, and most healthy men were at sea, the women, children and elders worked the farms.

Transition to Animals

It wasn’t until the third generation of farming that the Bartletts took over the family land near Hummock Pond, when John H. Bartlett started a commercial venture in the dairy business. Cows grazed the property toward the ocean and all the way to Hummock Pond.

In the late 30’s and early 40’s, many local dairy farmers gave way to the regional processing of pasteurizing milk.  It was during this time that John H Bartlett, who was getting on in years, decided to retire.  His son John Junior, affectionately known in the community as ‘June,’ continued operating the dairy until 1947 when he chose sheep as an alternate method of farming. He brought a small flock of sheep over on the ferry, not in trucks, but just loose, and herded them up the streets of town and out to the farm.  Eventually, the logistics of getting sheep to market from the island and the uncertainty of the market compounded by disease in the sheep caused the demise of the sheep business.

Growing Vegetables and Going to College

While the fourth generation focused on cows and sheep, young Phil Bartlett, (the fifth generation) started growing tomatoes in his grandmother’s yard at the age of thirteen.  Soon, he began growing other vegetables as well.  Phil, along with his father and his brothers started growing more and more vegetables for commercial harvest on the tract of land where they lived on the shores of Hummock Pond. Called Pocoy, this piece of property is still in agricultural use today. The vegetable business grew to become the main form of farming at Ocean View Farm as the brothers and their father began to sell the veggies they grew from a truck on Main Street. Phil went away to college and then joined the Marines in 1955, and June eventually took over the selling from the truck on Main Street. Phil met Dorothy (Willman) upon his return to Cornell in 1958, and they married in 1959. Coincidentally, Dorothy’s father, John P. Willman, was a professor of animal husbandry at Cornell, and was known as a national authority on sheep. Nearly a decade before Phil and Dorothy met, Professor Willman had advised June on the health of his ailing flock.

Phil and Dorothy (who became a first grade teacher at Nantucket Elementary School) also started growing their family.  When Dorothy discovered her third pregnancy was a set of twins, she retired from teaching to concentrate on the family and to take a leadership role alongside Phil in the family business. Though there had been a few small greenhouses before, it was in 1966 that the Bartletts acquired a glass greenhouse from another property on the island. Dorothy ran the greenhouses for two decades, beginning with growing and selling cut flowers and moving into garden plants.  This brought customers out to the farm earlier in the season, long before the field flowers could be harvested. During these years, they decided to add Black Angus beef cattle to the farm.  Eventually, when the herd reached more than 70 head, the decision was made to use more land for growing and less for grazing. The cattle were sold and the Bartlett’s refocused their energy into further vegetable production.

In 1974 June Bartlett, who had become a fixture selling produce on Main Street for over two decades, passed away. A monument in his honor was placed near the intersection of Federal Street and Main Street, next to where the produce truck was parked every day.

An Early Exercise in Wind Energy

In the early 1980’s, a wind energy company signed a lease to build and operate a series of wind turbines at Bartlett’s Farm.  As the federal tax incentives evaporated, the energy company ceased maintenance and eventually removed the project. But it was an enlightening experience.  The Bartletts saw the potential benefits of harvesting renewable energy for themselves, and would later entertain that idea on their own.

The Farm Evolves

As the island population grew, the 80’s also brought an increase in demand for crops. Increased demand required an increase in growing space and an increase in labor.  In 1985, Phil and Dorothy had the first of two modern Dutch greenhouses shipped piecemeal from The Netherlands. Dutch installers had the massive structure finished in days.  The same year, the Bartletts brought their first international farm workers to the island. Now, through worldwide agricultural exchange programs, there are more than 40 countries that have been represented at the farm. Many of the workers are studying agriculture, or have their own family farm at home and spend the summer at Bartlett’s Farm to learn new farm production techniques.

In 1986 Dorothy met a young couple working at a nursery in Southeastern Massachusetts who was very knowledgeable about growing and marketing plants. She invited them to come to Nantucket and quickly hired the first two non-family members to ever work at the farm in a leadership capacity. Pete Smith and Hilary Newell had met at Penn State while he studied horticulture and she was in agricultural business management. They fit immediately at the farm and in the island lifestyle and raised two children. The demand for high-quality plants grew and landscapers and gardeners discovered that Bartlett’s had become the island’s premier grower of garden plants under their management. Now, a quarter century later, they are integral part of the farm, with Pete as Senior Horticulturist and Hilary as the Manager of Marketing and Greenhouse Production.

The Farm Grows as the Island Population Expands

Through the 90’s, the farm continued to expand its offerings and services. The first Bartlett’s Farm Cookbook was printed in 1994 and its success helped the Bartletts make the decision to build and open a commercial kitchen. And the continued growth of Nantucket population drove the decision to build a full service garden center, where they sell hundreds of varieties of plants including roses, shrubs, trees, annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetables.

Community Service

As a committed life-long Nantucketer, Phil Bartlett has given time and energy to various community organizations. He spent three decades on the town’s Finance Committee and was chairman for about 22 years. In his sixth term, he continues his 26th year serving as a charter member of the Nantucket Land Bank. He was also a member of BPI (Bedding Plants International,) a professional plant growers association, for 30 years, serving as both a director and President of the board.

The Sixth Generation

When Phil and Dorothy’s eldest son, John W. Bartlett, graduated from Cornell in 1987, he returned to the farm and resumed working in the fields. As the oldest of the sixth generation of farmers, he eventually assumed the role as General Manager.  The Bartlett kids were picking parsley by the age of six and learned to drive tractor by the age of nine. The four children now hold key positions in the farm’s daily operations. Cynthia is the farm’s bookkeeper, and John is now President. Daniel and David, while both performing many essential tasks, are both happy to just call themselves ‘Farmers.’
With the new generation came new ideas.  It was becoming increasing clear in the 90’s that with the upward trend in land values and associated taxes, each generation would be less likely to be able to afford to inherit the family farm.  The produce and plant business continued to grow along with a food market in the greenhouse. Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm was incorporated in 1998 and the dream to make the farm more sustainable started to become a reality. At this time, a campaign was put in place to preserve the farm for future generations and in 2004, the Nantucket Land Council purchased a conservation restriction to protect 104 acres from future development. Around the same time, a plan was created for building a full-scale grocery market to supplement the products grown at the farm.  Plans for the 18,000 square foot Farm Market were approved in 2003 and construction was completed in early 2006. The new space allowed for community events and lectures to be hosted in the new Hayloft, and for the addition of a new and expanded commercial kitchen.

Today

Bartlett’s Farm is now the largest and oldest farm on Nantucket with more than 125 acres of cultivated fields, several acres of certified organic fields and an increasing number of organic greenhouses. Bartlett’s vegetables are served in many Nantucket restaurants.  Their farm grown plants and flowers brighten gardens and window boxes island-wide.  Phil and Dorothy spend a good portion of their winters in warmer climes, but have no plans to officially retire any time soon.  They love the farm and being with their family. In summertime, Phil can usually be found on a tractor, plowing or cultivating, and Dorothy enjoys visiting the historic farm and visiting with new and returning customers.

As Bartlett’s Farm continues to evolve with the times, organic farming and renewable energy are current interests. And the seventh generation of Nantucket Bartletts (nine in all) is learning the family business. They’re farm people.