The Icelandic sheep flock at 8 Hands Farm, in Cutchogue, can increase from 80 to 200 animals during lambing season. That’s when dozens of woolly little lambs come not-quite-yet baaing and bleating into the world, sometimes as many as 15 a day.
“The whole month of April, you’re on call,” said Tom Geppel, 51, who owns the farm with his wife, Carol Festa, 49. That requires Geppel to literally roll up his sleeves and help laboring ewes deliver their lambs, which may often be twins or even triplets. “You talk about a learning curve,” Geppel said. “No one can teach you that.”
Certainly no one can, at least, in Geppel’s other life, that of a Manhattan financial executive.
But here he is, along with Festa, running a 28-acre sustainable livestock and produce business on bucolic Cox Lane , offering pasture-raised heritage meats and eggs to the North Fork’s foodie community.
So how did the couple, both with backgrounds in the finance industry and parents of two (Olivia, now 16, and Max, now 12), become farmers?
Long story short, it started with a viewing of the 2008 documentary Food Inc., which examined the environmental, financial and ethical consequences of corporate farming. And it changed the way Geppel and Festa thought about the American food system. “Carol said, ‘why don’t we raise some food for ourselves,” Geppel said, and took that thought one step further.“I said ‘why don’t we do it for other people?’”
There’s not exactly a textbook for a farming education, but a passion for learning helps, and Geppel admits that much is learned through trial and error. They started out by leasing a fallow Mattituck field from Pindar Vineyards, in Peconic. It was covered in the invasive perennial mugwort, which Geppel had to bring under control before creating more diverse pasture and introducing sheep.
“I was out there riding this big Ford tractor. I had never ridden a tractor before, but I did it,” Geppel recalled. The first arrivals were 13 Icelandic sheep, five of which traveled to their new home in the backseat of a Subaru. And why Icelandic sheep? Well, not only are they hardy, docile, and intelligent, they’re considered a “triple-purpose” breed—renowned for meat production, milk production and fiber Geppel said.
The Pindar field had its limitations—Geppel and Festa had to water their animals from coolers—so in 2011, after two lambing seasons, they purchased the 28-acre property on Cox Lane. They’ve since converted a 1940s potato barn into a commercial kitchen and display area for their merchandise, which includes food, jewelry made from sheep horns, and wool blankets. What kept them going while developing the farm was the knowledge that what they were doing would leave the world a slightly better place. “It’s more like a calling,” Geppel said. “It’s definitely the hardest thing we’ve ever done.”
“There’s not many careers that you work with your heart, your head and your hands,” he added.
Most sales are directly to consumers or local restaurants such as Touch of Venice in Cutchogue or Caci North Fork and North Fork Table & Inn, both in Southold..“If I was doing farming and then selling it into the commodities market, that wouldn’t satisfy us,” he said.
The products at 8 Hands are more expensive than what you’ll find in a supermarket, and there are several reasons for that.
The meat birds at 8 Hands, for example, take about 12 weeks to mature, double the time for typical industrially raised chickens. That’s because they’re genuine free-range birds—they hunt and peck on pasture and are also given organic feed, although the farm is intentionally not a USDA-certified organic operation. The location where there are processed is a factor as well. The animals are taken upstate to be slaughtered at Hilltown Pork, in Canaan, New York, a facility approved by the Animal Welfare Institute, which also raises the price tag.
“That’s why our chickens are $8 per pound,” Geppel said. “This is the real cost of food.”
The operation also features the North Fork’s only farm-to-butcher experience. Geppel and Festa recently started offering fresh sausages, bacon, ham and delectable meals out of their farm store in late 2016. All are made by their in-house chef, Julien Shapiro. This spring will bring an on-site food truck serving up a menu relying on the farm’s eggs, meats and vegetables. These innovations will put 8 Hands in the black for the first time this year. “We didn’t go into farming thinking we’d make a million dollars,” Geppel said, adding that he still needs the farm to make money to be sustainable. “But this year  we should be able to make a profit.”
Geppel has been commuting to his accounting job in Manhattan from Mattituck since 2003 — the major tradeoff for this new life. But five hours round-trip on the Hampton Jitney or Long Island Rail Road most days during the week are worth it, he said (he does take some time off during the aforementioned lambing season). “My favorite thing is having my kids here and having a productive day.”
Ironically, Festa’s parents grew up in Monteforte, Italy, as tenant farmers, meaning they gave a large percentage of the food they raised to the landowners. So it was not surprising that they were critical when Festa and her husband announced their plan. “They labored on the farm and in blue collar jobs, and they wanted something very different for their daughter,” she said. “The last thing they wanted for me was to be a farmer, yet here I am.” It’s a choice for Festa and Geppel, though, rather than something forced upon them, and that makes a huge difference. It also stokes a love of learning for all members of the family. Olivia tracks the lineage of the sheep, Max can handle the cash register, and both kids are included in major decisions on the farm. “We do talk about it as a family and we do value their input,” Festa said.
To do this job, above all else, one needs curiosity, Geppel added.“I think that’s imperative. I can see people farming 35 to 40 years, and they are still learning,” he said.
8 HANDS FARM, 4735 Cox Lane ,Cutchogue. (631) 533-2768, 8handsfarm.com.
Farm store open Fri.–Sun., 10 to 5.
What’s available: A wide variety of frozen cuts of lamb and pastured pork (including charcuterie); organic pastured eggs; housemade soups, prix-fixe dinners, and ready-to-eat or simple-to-prepare items such as quiches, fresh pastas, and meatballs); fleece yarn and knitted items; seasonal vegetables from the kitchen garden.
This story originally appeared in the March edition of northforker magazine