Suzanne Nolter and Scott Comings: Cultivating a Life and a Farm Offshore
BY GREG HERBOWY PHOTOS BY JOLIE APICELLA
First some numbers: 11 years of operation. Two acres of farmland. 100 pounds of garlic per year. Over 100 types of flowers, 30 different lettuces and 40 varieties of tomatoes. Six types of fruit trees. 60 hens, comprising five heritage breeds, laying three dozen eggs per day in the spring and summer months. Two farmers’ markets per week. 25 regular subscribers. Floral arrangements for some 20 weddings a year. Two owners: husband and wife. One farm, about 13 miles from the mainland.
Suzanne Nolter started Blazing Star Farm—named for an endangered local wildflower—during her sixth summer on Block Island, or New Shoreham, the community’s government name. She had first come to the island as an undergraduate at William & Mary College, on the recommendation of a classmate, to take part in “the typical summer worker scene,” Nolter says. “I had a bunch of jobs: I waitressed, I worked in a shop.”
Raised in Virginia and South Carolina, it was the farthest north she’d been. She soon fell in love, both with the place (“it kind of gets ahold of you”) and, after a few greenhouse and landscaping gigs, with horticulture as well.
Gardening, and flowers in particular, had long been a casual interest of Nolter’s but something she’d never considered as a career. Inspired, after a few more summers of work she headed to California, to enroll in University of California Santa Cruz’s ecological horticulture program. There, she studied “hand-scale” farming, apprenticing at the campus’s Alan Chadwick Garden, named for its founder, an actor turned pioneering organic gardener.
Nolter returned to Block Island in 2003, this time for good, and began taking care of people’s yards and gardens, using their extra space to plant the flowers and vegetables that would make up Blazing Star’s first yields.
“At one point,” she says, “I had gardens in six different places.” That year, Nolter went on a nature walk of the island led by Scott Comings, a Marylander who’d spent his childhood summers on Block Island. After studying ornithology at Indiana’s Earlham College he joined his parents, who had retired to New Shoreham yearround, and took a job with the Nature Conservancy. He now leads the organization’s land acquisition, stewardship and education efforts for the state.
Comings and Nolter began dating and, the following year, they planted Blazing Star’s first apple and peach trees, amidst an overgrown, eight-acre swatch of the Comings family property, just inland from the landmark Southeastern Lighthouse. In the years since, they have cleared enough space for two acres of arable terrain, a sizable hoop house and two chicken coops, the residents of which are the pride and joy of Comings, an avid birder. (Watching chickens, he says, is “better than watching TV.”) They’ve also married and built a house and barn on the land, the latter serving as a storehouse and the pickup spot for Blazing Star’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers.
Block Island’s first human residents were American Indians but it was the European settlers who were responsible for its mass deforestation and cultivation. By the 19th century, Nolter says, nearly all the island was pasture and farmland and its inns, popular with vacationers, were home to productive gardens whose surplus was sold on the mainland.
The catastrophic hurricane of 1938, coupled with the effects of the Great Depression, devastated the island’s community and economy. The land has since been largely overtaken by native shrubs, brambles and plenty of “invasive-type things,” Nolter says, all which makes for a wooly, beautiful landscape but a tricky environment in which to farm. Nolter and Comings take care to tread lightly, keeping prized, if unprofitable, crabapple trees (“an insect magnet,” Nolter says) and wild blueberry bushes (“an important food source for birds”) in place. They employ a similarly gentle touch when tending to their diverse selection of crops, which vary each year. “Everything we do,” she says, “is organic and sustainable.”
To fertilize, they use everything from compost to alfalfa meal to fish emulsion, a byproduct of seafood processing. To facilitate pollination, they keep four beehives (which also provide 100 pounds of saleable honey each year). For watering, they favor drip irrigation. To ward off cutworms, they wrap the stem bases of vulnerable plants, like tomatoes and peppers, in aluminum foil. To deter “rascally muskrats,” one of the island’s few mammal nuisances, they try to keep the animals’ preferred foods, such as sunflowers or edamame, bordered by plants they dislike, such as mint or onions.
Even discounting the labors required for small-scale organic farming, running a farm and CSA on Block Island comes with a host of challenges. Foremost among them: the miles of ocean separating Blazing Star from the mainland supply chain. Strong sea winds and their saltwater spray can damage all but the hardiest growth, forcing Nolter to find shelters for her beds of young plants. And though they’re able to employ several full- and part-time workers each season, good help has at times been hard to find, given the higher-wage jobs in the island’s tourism industry.
Still, Block Island does have its advantages. The surrounding Atlantic serves as a climatic buffer, making for milder summers—cool enough to grow lettuce throughout—and warmer winters. “We get frost later and tend to have a very nice fall,” Nolter says.
Also, their plot is particularly well suited for farming. “The area that we have to work with, the soil is incredible. When I’ve talked to farmers in other areas—like New York, Massachusetts, Georgia, California— their percentages [of organic matter in the soil] are often closer to 4%. Here, the soils we’re starting with have 9%.” Maybe most importantly, the community is supportive. “It’s hard to come by fresh organic produce here,” she says. Given New Shoreham’s agricultural past, the year-round residents, “especially people who have been here for a long time,” are enthusiastic about any signs of its resurgence. There’s even something of a locavore movement afoot: Nolter names Joe Sprague, who raises grass-fed cattle and comes from a “long lineage” of Block Islanders; fellow farmer Cathy Payne; and oyster farmers Chris Littlefield (who also runs Littlefield Bee Farm with his wife, Sue) and Chris Warfel as other area businesspeople keeping traditions alive.
In addition to providing weekly shares of fruits, vegetables, flowers, honey and eggs for subscribers, selling at the local farmers’ market from spring to fall and creating arrangements for the ever-busy wedding season, Blazing Star sells produce to a number of Block Island’s busiest restaurants, including The Atlantic, Eli’s and Winfield’s. A few years back, they also started selling their eggs to mainland restaurants through the Farm Fresh Rhode Island Market Mobile. As a result, Blazing Star Farm eggs have been served in restaurants as far away as Boston.
It’s not just eggs that leave the island in the off-season—Nolter tries to carve out a few weeks each year to visit places like Southeast Asia, where she’s collected seeds for things like morning glory, Thai basil and eggplants to try out back home, if only to keep things interesting. “Every year is an opportunity to get things better,” she says. “Every year is an opportunity to try something new.”
Greg Herbowy lives in New York, travels New England and writes for a variety of publications, including Edible Queens. Visit Blazing Star Farm at Block Island’s farmers’ markets: Wednesday mornings at Hotel Manisses and Saturday mornings at Negus Park, mid-June through mid-October. BlazingStarFarm.com