Olivia Rabbitt’s smile is as wide as the sun when she hands her customers a personalized bouquet. But even brighter is the look on the face of the person receiving the flowers.
“I really love the joy someone gets when they give them their flowers. It’s a beautiful way to look after people,” says Olivia.
Olivia is in her second season of growing flowers at Piecemeal Farm, a half-acre farm she established through a private land lease in Edgartown. Although Piecemeal is only two years old, she has spent seven seasons (and off-seasons!) on the island after her initial introduction through cousins who live here year-round. She is fulfilling her childhood determination to be a farmer.
“I love being part of communities that build tangible things,” she explains. “Growing food or flowers is an obvious way to do this. The system of growing food and getting it to people is fascinating to me,” she notes.
Farming in the context of an island’s unique topography is something Olivia is familiar with. She has worked on farms in Costa Rica, New Zealand and Oahu. These experiences were based on her first job working on the same family farm in Seekonk, Mass., where her father worked. Her decision to make the Vineyard her home and farm full-time was based on the community here and how much it made her feel at home.
Olivia learned about growing by working alongside people who pass on the secrets of the land through hands-on, hands-on experience. Her first teacher was Emily, her next-door neighbor in her hometown of Rehoboth, whom Olivia describes as a surrogate grandmother. “Every child should have an Emily that lets you play with her pet parakeets and teach you about gardening,” she says. “I learned a lot from her about growing perennials and planting perennial gardens.” She also cites flower farmer Krishana Collins at Tea Lane Farm as a mentor.
Olivia thinks there are specific Vineyard conditions that growers need to be aware of. “We’re growing in sand and the soil here is pretty acidic,” she notes. “That’s why we have so many blueberries and oak trees growing. The land system is different from other countries. You need to change it with compost. Sand drains well, so you have to make sure you water and make sure what you’re growing has enough nutrients.”
She also advises home gardeners to spend time with their plants every day. “Especially if you’re growing something for the first time,” she advises. “Not only because it’s fun, but also because a quick daily check helps you spot small changes and avoid potential challenges before they become bigger problems.”
Because farming on the island is seasonal, Olivia usually held down two or three jobs simultaneously. While holding down a “day job,” she also cultivated her own plot in the Island Grown Initiative’s community garden for three years. She joined the IGI staff in 2017 and worked there until 2021. Becoming an instructor and coordinator as part of the Island Grown Schools team gave her the opportunity to farm during the summer months and work as an educator during the school year. . The experience of providing island school-aged children with gardening, nutrition education and exposure to local farms was meaningful work that influenced her community experience.
Through the schools raised on the island, she was assigned to Tisbury School. She lights up when she remembers the deed.
“I love that community and I can’t say enough good things about them,” she says. “They were a joy. The teachers are wonderful and supportive. The women in the lunch room were incredible. Everyone really appreciated the program.”
“Kids notice the most amazing things because they’re not used to glossing over them,” she says. “Most children are scientists. We are all natural observers and children have a knack for tapping into that if you give them permission to do so.”
“You can say ‘Today, we’re going out. We’ll lay down under all these different trees and you’ll just be quiet. Tell me what you notice about the trees. How does it sound? What color is it? How do you smell?’”
While Olivia was at Tisbury School, IGI expanded programming, and Olivia is proud of the direction those changes took. “We started teaching food history courses to the older kids,” she recalls. “We did a cooking class that was fun. It wasn’t too different from what FoodCorps is doing. This is part of what is happening across America right now; there are many similar programs to change lunch programs and introduce garden and nutrition education in schools.”
Olivia also co-managed the West Tisbury Farmers Market with Collins Heavener from 2019 to 2020. This experience provided invaluable lessons about working in a community and the challenges of running a small business. She is happy to now be “on the other side of the booth,” as she describes it. A new provision allows smaller vendors to share a space with another vendor so that the cost and effort are manageable. This has enabled Olivia to share a booth with Martha’s Vineyard Mycological. During setup and teardown time, she enjoys talking with other farmers, comparing notes on growing conditions and varieties of flowers and plants.
Her booth is set up so customers can see the flowers she’s brought to market and collaborate on what goes into a bouquet. Some people tell her to surprise them; others know what they want; some gravitate to her booth because they spotted a particular flower from around the market and knew they had to have it. “Part of the fun for me is working with people,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me your vibe or your color scheme. Give me something to grind this bouquet into. Are there any flowers here that speak to your spirit that I missed?’ I’ve never had anyone frown on their flowers.”
Olivia knows how hard it is to start a farm. “Second year is great,” she declares. During the summer, she will lead flower crown making workshops, setting up DIY flower buckets so brides and hosts can create their own event arrangements and create bouquets and special event settings. She has recently enjoyed creating flowers for elopements and weddings.
When the season ends, she will spend more time at her home in Chappaquiddick. She will continue to create garden kits for people who want to plant their own. She works with private clients, tracking them all in Excel spreadsheets and working out of a hotspot on her phone because her home lacks WiFi. The off-season gives her time to research and take long walks during which she can daydream about the varieties she will plant next year!
Elizabeth Bennett is the community editor for the Vineyard Gazette.