Four Farm Fresh: Long Island Grown

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The following is a series of articles I pitched & published for The Independent Newspaper in September of 2018. Read more about #EverythingEastEnd here

Farm land as far as the eye can see. That was once the beauty and bounty of Long Island’s East End. Despite supermarket takeovers, farming is still a prominent profession for many families today. Drive down Sound Avenue or Route 25 on the North Fork and the wide-open spaces of plentiful soil still exist. In addition to freshness, farmstands provide personal contact with consumers, from seeing the land itself to meeting the personnel running them. It’s not only B2C (business to consumer) but F2C (farm to consumer).

WICKHAM’s FRUIT FARM

Wickham’s Fruit Farm is a 13th generation family operation in Cutchogue run by Thomas Wickham, his wife, and son Jon. They began farming full time in 1987. The farm is located on Wickham Creek, which drains into Peconic Bay. The family has owned and operated farmland in Cutchogue since the 1600s.

A day at the farm begins at 7 AM, when most of us are just opening our eyes, and ends at 5 PM with a lunch break in between. Thomas maintains contact with top buyers at his farm, such as Fresh Direct, in addition to spraying during the day. In the evening, he’s in the office catching up on paperwork, while Jon, who has expanded his own operations to Texas, does all of the social media and purchasing of necessary farm equipment. On Sundays, everything shuts down and these tireless efforts reset.

All fruit is picked by hand. “We typically pick a given block of trees four or five times over a 10-day period. Fully ripe peaches have a yellow-red background color, are slightly soft to the touch, and come off the tree easily when they are rotated. If they resist coming off the tree, they’re not ripe,” Thomas Wickham explained. He and his son are both NY DEC-licensed pesticide applicators, spraying fruit that has no effect on those eating it, he said. “The only way to provide a measure of protection against fruit rot after harvest is to spray the fruit with fungicides while it is still on the tree. Some of the materials are analogs of medicines such as streptomycin,” Wickham added.

Wickham’s Farm is comprised of 300 acres, equally divided into natural landscape (woodland, salt marsh, pond, and beach on Peconic Bay) and farm area; 60 acres dedicated to fruit; 25 acres are vegetables; and the rest “in rotating fallow to keep the fertility high,” he said. In April, the season opens with tomatoes, asparagus, and rhubarb. May is prime for strawberries and cherries in late June. July is ideal for peaches, blueberries, blackberries and nectarines, along with sweet corn and melons from the field. Concluding the season, which is where we are now, are the sweet sensations of summer’s end and fall with apples, pears, and pumpkins.

Farmstand manager Laurie McBride says her favorite thing to make in fall season is a turnover. “The flavor base is our fresh apples but we like to keep customers coming back, so we are constantly making new combinations. Right now, we are adding in late summer berries for a great flavor combo.” In addition to delicious fruit, Wickham holds claim to the oldest cider press on Long Island, built in 1902, to go along with its apple cider donuts, made fresh on site.

Fighting modernization and the corporate conglomerate of today, Wickham acknowledges the financial uncertainties he faces year after year but remains optimistic regarding family-run farms on Long Island. “We have an excellent producing environment with sunshine, soil, and water, and a market of over seven million people less than 100 miles away — conditions farmers elsewhere would die for. Farming is still generally respected by the community, and there are a number of government programs supporting agriculture. I see all these positives continuing, and even increasing, as long as we farmers don’t leave the businesses of farming.”

 

SATUR FARMS

If you’ve dined at local eateries such as The Maidstone, Vine Street, Sunset Beach, Moby’s, Bay Kitchen, or EMP Summerhouse, then you’ve likely had a taste of Satur Farms. The farm, located on Alvah’s Lane in Cutchogue, with a cold facility in Calverton, is owned by German native Chef Eberhard Müller and his wife Paulette Satur.

The couple met organically, if you will, at Lutèce, Chef Müller’s former kitchen. Satur was in the wine business, working for an import distributor. “He actually wasn’t interested in an appointment with me,” Satur reminisced. “I took a girlfriend out for dinner for her birthday and when he saw me, he didn’t leave the table.”

Satur grew up on a dairy farm in central Pennsylvania and received a horticulture degree at Pennsylvania State University with a graduate degree in plant physiology from the University of Arizona. Müller was actually searching for farmland before they met and so their love story blossomed into a thriving business when the couple started the farm in 1997. Originally, the plan was to grow produce for Chef Müller’s restaurant but at the request of colleagues eager for their crops, they expanded their business. Responsibility is divided between Müller in the farm field and Satur processing in the cold facility, where the greens are washed and packed.

“The area is reflective of the advancement through the years but there’s more of a food culture here,” Satur noted, comparing farm life of rural Pennsylvania and the North Fork. “The work ethic is the same; it’s year-round. When we started the farm 20 years ago, there was no locally grown food movement, it was very difficult. Luckily, we were both in the industry so it was easier for us to break into the market here. The food culture out here is just fantastic, from the wineries and craft breweries to the goat dairies and fresh vegetables. Not to mention all the seafood.”

Satur Farms grows specialty salad greens, leafy and root vegetables, and herbs, practicing crop rotation to minimize disease, and feeding the soil. The duo also plants cover crops, using custom seed blends of clover, legumes, and grasses that bind nitrogen and prevent toxic runoff. In keeping with the environmentally friendly theme, everything is packaged in 100 percent recyclable material.

At one point, their soil had 60,000 plants of heirloom tomatoes, which require a different temperature than greens in holding and shipping. Rather than trying to grow it all, Satur Farms understands the benefits of specializing in certain crops and sourcing from their neighbors.

It started when they bought sweet corn from Jeff Rottkamp at Fox Hollow Farm in Baiting Hollow and has since expanded to other farmers. In turn, other places buy salad greens from Satur for their stands. “It’s a terrific region for growing. The crops have amazing flavor on Long Island,” said Satur. Though most of their operation moves down to Florida in mid-October through April, growing the same thing, in September and October the greens get greener, making it prime season for spinach, baby spinach, arugula, mesclun, Brussels sprouts, and long white leeks.

What makes this farm especially unique is one of its latest endeavors, mixing hemp with baby kale and selling it as a mix that both looks good and tastes better. JD Farms from Westchester County has been growing hemp for fiber and approached Satur Farms to think of uses for hemp. Using the baby leaf that’s three to four-inches tall, high in fiber and bioflavinoids, hemp is a healthy green. A research project, funded by SUNY Morrisville upstate, allowed for a trial that is continuing at Satur and is still working on the exact growing method.

Satur also lended her efforts to Business for Peace, a not-for-profit organization that pairs small business owners from war torn and economically depressed countries with operations in the U.S.

“We had hosted a woman from Guatemala who was doing something extremely similar to us with leafy greens and we got along really well. Even the BPeace rep commented what a match it was,” said Satur. “It’s a learning experience and it works both ways. They pay particular attention to the match, trying to make it a worthwhile encounter.

 

8 HANDS FARM

In 2008, the documentary Food Inc. was released by Robert Kenner and it shone a dark light on the mass consumerism of modern-day America. The film also exposed large-scale animal processing plants, turning many off from eating meat, and highlighted local farm practices. That’s when Carol Festa, an assets manager at the time, and her husband Thomas Geppel, an accountant, were inspired to do their part in helping change the way Americans eat.

In 2011, with no experience but a deep passion for effecting change, 8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue opened its barn doors with Festa, Geppel and their two children, Olivia (now in college) and Max (now 14 years old). The 28-acre farm began with 13 Icelandic sheep that were brought in from Maine and Virginia and has since grown to include Tamworth pigs and a variety of heritage breed chickens. Though they had no hands-on farm experience, a financial background forged an efficient mentality. Sheep were economically desirable, producing meat, cheese, and fiber products from their biannual sheering for wool and yarn. They also allowed for the couple to differentiate themselves from other farms.

“We never thought much about behind the scenes with animals and production,” Festa said of how Food Inc. influenced her. Wide scale animal production forces the animals to eat products their bodies cannot naturally process, such as grain, in addition to being raised in horribly confined environments. Festa notes that the word organic doesn’t mean enough, as animals are oftentimes still unable to express their basic instincts, like running outside.

At 8 Hands Farm, the sheep are 100 percent grass fed and raised on pastures. Their pigs are outdoors, allowing them to dig their noses into the ground, and are supplemented with organic feed. The hen coops are moved every three days and the birds have complete free range. All of these simple, basic practices allow the “fundamental behavior of the animals” whereas the traditional food economy is “counterintuitive,” Festa opined.

“These animals make the ultimate sacrifice but in the interim they’re not treated well,” said Festa, about the mass market slaughterhouses. Festa, along with the rest of her family, still maintain a carnivorous diet. She takes each animal from 8 Hands Farm to a certified humane facility where they are slaughtered and processed as humanely as possible. She added, “Wouldn’t you rather be able to see them grazing and knowing they’re having a good life? In the end, we enjoy eating meat, and we would rather know they’re being raised well.”

Farm tours are currently based on demand and available on Saturdays at 11 AM. They are approximately 45 minutes to an hour long, allowing people to feel a connection to their food. Festa said, “That’s what we think is so rewarding. We have people who genuinely want to know more than ‘How do I cook this piece of meat?’ They want to understand what the animals consumed, how it was raised, and even how it was slaughtered.”

Next for this family of eight hands is a proposal for a food truck to add value to their business, aiming to add true definition to the term “farm to table,” with food cooked on the truck directly from elements on their farm, on their property.

Festa and Geppel had a dream to start a farm and live a healthier, more environmentally conscious, life for themselves and their children. In turn, Olivia and Max have learned something a school cannot teach: what it’s like to push through adversity and come out successfully, added Festa. Their connection to animals is done through observation, watching the basic behavior and drawing conclusions on what it needs.

It’s all about “having a goal and trying to achieve it in the best way possible,” added Festa.

 

SANG LEE FARMS

For over 30 years, Sang Lee Farms has been a North Fork haven for fresh produce, but its history dates long before their 1987 roots settled in Peconic. A family business since the 1930s, the Lee family serviced the Chinatown market with over 30 varieties of Chinese vegetables. The farm has relocated over the years from Queens, to Huntington, and East Moriches before finally settling into today’s Peconic location. Amid uprooting came expansion, servicing Boston, Philadelphia, and eventually the entire East Coast.

Fred Lee grew up on the East Moriches farm but didn’t originally plan to become a farmer. He attended the University of Vermont before obtaining his master’s in business from Boston University. There, he met his wife, Karen, who was studying to become a nurse. It was during these years that Fred Lee’s father, who ran the farm at the time, got sick and suddenly passed away. As the only son of this Chinese family, Fred left his career aspirations in the dust to fulfill his familial duties of caring for the farm. Karen followed suit.

“I had no idea what it took to grow food and he was a very understated Asian man,” said Karen Lee, co-owner of Sang Lee Farms, of her father-in-law. “So, I jumped in and found out how it really goes. Yes, he chose to farm, but there’s staff, there’s customers, there’s a whole business, you can’t just walk away. This is an issue of a family owned farm.”

The Lees continued the farm’s legacy of selling baby greens to high-end restaurants. In 1999, New York City luxury supermarket Balducci’s began to place their Sang Lee Farms branded bagged mesclun greens. Years later, as Karen and her three children Jenn, Will, and Michael (who were eight, 10, and 11 years old at the time) were selling fresh cut flowers on the side of the road on the North Fork, customers would stop to recognize the name from the city markets.

With family in mind, the Lees’ three children incited change. With the young ones running through the fields on a daily basis, it was a matter of safety for their health to keep an eye on what was being sprayed in the fields. In 2006, Sang Lee Farms applied to become Certified Organic. The Lees continued to grow their Chinese vegetables, but began adding new crops and an indoor greenhouse for summer and off-season. Soon after becoming Certified Organic, they began their community supported agriculture program, in which customers prepay for weekly vegetables early in the farming season, allowing Sang Lee Farms to better allot their finances and plan crops for the upcoming season.

The CSA program has now grown to include a home delivery service. In addition, customers from all across Long Island and the five New York City boroughs can get farm-to-door delivery service. Order by 3 PM, and vegetables will arrive the next day by noon. For the rest of the Tri-State Area, Sang Lee Farms can FedEx any package.

Sang Lee prides itself on the diversity of its staff. “They’re comfortable in this environment where other languages are spoken, where other people don’t look the same,” Lee said, noting a baker is from Ireland and a kitchen staff member is from Thailand. In the world of farming there’s a common denominator to what they all do, she said. “They place great value on fresh food, more than the paycheck.”

Gao Yang, a member of the Sang Lee team for over 30 years, hails from China, where he attended college during the country’s cultural revolution. Yang was sent to work on a farm and was hired by the Chinese government for agricultural research before making his move to the U.S. and to Sang Lee Farms.

With a plethora of organic food at their fingertips, the Lee family keeps to a vegetarian diet 95 percent of the time, “We eat what we grow and therefore, we eat seasonally.” Their son, Will, is a free diver, catching local fish and traveling the world exploring the seas, half the year delivering a real catch of the day.

Right now, fresh off the farm are seasonal favorites of ginger and turmeric, perfect for teas or flavoring rice and soup. Lee recommends their Asian Slaw, made of nappa cabbage, scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds, and carrots.

Farming aside, Fred is a firefighter and EMT with the Southold Fire Department, and Karen utilizes her nursing degree by taking their large St. Bernard/Golden Retriever mix, Molee, as a pet therapy dog to work with Eastern Long Island Hospital patients.

Join Sang Lee Farms for its family harvest day on Saturday, October 13, to harvest, learn, and cook. The farm will also hold an open house on October 27. Guests can partake in medicinal herb classes and “cookshops,” where students can tour the farm and pick what produce they will cook in the class. “It gives a whole different flavor to the class. It’s definitely a farm-to-table experience,” Lee concluded.

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