North Fork organic grape grower says it’s all about Biodynamics

Rex Farr at his Calverton farm on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

It’s a mid-August morning at The Farrm in Calverton, which means the cows and burros must be fed and the tomatoes and peppers inspected for ripeness. But it’s also a fruit day, according to the biodynamic calendar, which means the not-yet-ripe grapes are about to get some attention.

So first, farmer Rex Farr has to create a vortex.

He’s using a biodynamic stirring machine to brew a concoction made with manure, silica, clay, sea minerals and horsetail grass — and stinking to high heaven — to “prep” his grape crop, which includes red Bordeaux varietals like merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. He will soon load the mixture into his 100-gallon tractor-driven sprayer and apply it to his nine-acre vineyard.

“This is proven,” he told us of the biodynamic approach to agriculture. “But if we were talking about this stuff in the 1600s we’d all be burned at the stake. It’s that weird.”

Biodynamic farming is not mainstream, and some of the methods involved are unorthodox. Other preparations, for example, include burying a cow horn filled with manure and harvesting according to the astrological calendar. Biodynamics has an independent, worldwide certification system managed an organization called Demeter, and in the United States, it uses the USDA organic standards plus additional requirements, like leaving a certain amount of wild or uncultivated land to help foster biodiversity, and using the biodynamic preparations mentioned above.

As whacky as they sound, Farr contends they work. Their success is evidenced by the fact that Farr is, so far, Long Island’s only certified organic grape grower — a difficult feat in a maritime region with humid, sometimes rainy, summers.

The vortex brewer. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

“I’m 100 percent convinced I’m able to do my organic production because I’m ‘setting the table’ with this procedure,” he said.

Farr is a student of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, whose spiritual-ethical-ecological principles of the early 1920s were the foundation of Biodynamics. Steiner, who died in 1925, was one of the first to warn of the danger synthetic pesticides posed to the earth and advocate for a holistic approach to farming.

“I’m not taking credit for any of the methods,” Farr said. “I’m just stubborn enough to say the damn thing works.”

Most of the vineyard work is done by Farr and his assistant Vincente Vonilla. His methods were learned through trial and error and with the help of another East End farmer. He has called Steve Storch, of the organic and Demeter-certified biodynamic Green Thumb farm in Water Mill, to talk biodynamics since the early 1990s. Storch is the inventor and seller of the trademarked Vortex Brewer, the machine used by Farr. He admits he was skeptical that Farr, who did not grow up in a farm family and who he described as a “Southampton blue blood,” would be able to master organic farming. But Farr’s persistence, which Storch mused stems from a sixties idealistic passion, has paid off.

“Of all the farmers I’ve met and worked with, I would have thought he would be the least likely to be successful at getting certified organic grape juice in a wine bottle,” he said. “But he’s done it. Rex has been very persistent. And I think at this point he knows more than he gives himself credit for.”

Farr’s East End ties go back to childhood summers spent at the family’s home on Dune Road, in Southampton. He grew up in New York City — “I was raised white, on Park Ave.,” he said of his upbringing — and studied his freshman year at Rollins College, in Florida.

Rex Farr sprays a the mixture in the vineyard. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

But in 1966 he received a subway token from Uncle Sam in the mail. He soon found himself in South Vietnam as a member of the 25th Infantry Division, in part helping to keep supply routes open.

After his return, Farr spent nearly two decades working as a jazz producer, and along with his wife, Connie, he purchased the 55-acre Calverton property in 1984. The Farrm was certified organic in 1990 by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, and while Connie commuted to an executive job in the New York City fabric industry, Rex tended heirloom tomatoes, gourmet lettuces and more to sell to restaurants and King Kullen grocery stores.

Today, although Farr still grows for Farm Country Kitchen restaurant in Riverhead and the artisanal food company Taste of the North Fork, his operation has evolved over the years, shifting its focus from produce to wine grapes. He planted his first vines in 2005 and harvested his first grape crop in 2011. The pivot to wine grapes allowed him to avoid the Greenmarket farmers markets in New York City and selling wholesale.

“There were times Connie and I would be there at 4 a.m. with the headlights on, harvesting,” he said. “Shoot me.”

Farr makes a limited number of cases of a red blend and a rosé under The Farrm label (available online and at the Rocky Point Farmer’s Market in season). He’s appreciative as well of what a handful of North Fork winemakers have done with his grapes.

Regan Meador, owner and winemaker at Southold Farm + Cellar, a North Fork winery that recently moved to Texas, was the first to use Farr’s grapes to make wine. His 2014 Illegitimi Non Carborundum—a red blend made with cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot grown at The Farrm— received a score of 93 (signifying “excellent”) from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Farr feeds a pair of cows. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Meador credits Farr for growing the acclaimed wine. He also added Farr is a character he is thankful he got to know during his years on Long Island.

“He’s one of my favorite people in the world,” Meador said. “He has a clear sense of who he is and what he believes in and sticks to that. That’s a rare thing.”

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And at Anthony Nappa Wines, in Peconic, you’ll find “Bordo Antico,” a bottle made with 100 percent organic cabernet franc grapes from The Farrm. Released earlier this year, it’s New York’s only “certified wine made with organic grapes.”

At 70 years old, Farr said he has no plans to retire, largely because he loves his job so much — something he admits he had to work at when he first traded in wrangling musicians to wrangling cows.

“I’m at peace when I’m out there,” he said. “It’s simple.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2017 edition of Long Island Wine Press.