In decades gone by, the North Fork was a quiet, rural area, where farmers grew potatoes and other crops for the market. The farmer’s wife would often set up a small stand in front of the house to sell vegetables. It is pretty amazing how the little farm stand has evolved since that time.
When I came to town and opened my restaurant in 1973, farmers were gradually adding more (and different) vegetables to the farm stand and reducing their acreage of wholesale crops. As people (from the city and locally) became more concerned about the safety, wholesomeness and freshness of food, they responded by stopping more frequently at these beautiful little stands. The stands grew in number, complexity and quality, adding new varieties of old standards like tomatoes, apples and squash.
Gradually, over time, the farmers realized that families weren’t just looking for fruits and vegetables, they were looking for an “experience,” especially for their children. They were also looking for ready-to-eat foods. The little roadside stands grew, along with the wineries, into major attractions.
More recently, entrepreneurs have added fresh meat from livestock grown responsibly on the North Fork for people to enjoy along with our abundant seafood.
Even though there have been lots of growing pains (and unwanted traffic), these agricultural (and agritainment) ventures are a very good thing for our neighborhood. The hard work and vision of these new (and old) farmers and winemakers have turned the North Fork into a culinary destination of the first order.
Recently I was asked to be a tour guide for a busload of people from Sachem Public Library who were interested in the North Fork food scene. The places we visited (some very old and some very new) represent the revolution in food that we have experienced in the past generation.
(Note: The places that I have described are only a sampling of what is available on the North Fork; I wish that we could have visited many more.)
Wickham’s Fruit Farm
Tom Wickham and his family farm some of the oldest continually farmed land in the country, yet they constantly add new varieties of fruits and vegetables. We visited their cider press, with which they are making fresh apple cider with no preservatives or added sugar. We also picked Jonagold apples, a hybrid formed from Jonathan and golden delicious apples. In many ways this farm seems like a museum of farming in generations past, but they have also responded to the demand for pies, cheese, doughnuts and other local products, along with tours and U-pick experiences.
8 Hands Farm
Tom Geppel, Carol Festa and family are on a very ambitious journey to raise pastured livestock on their 28-acre Cutchogue farm. They are raising heritage breeds of chickens, sheep and pigs. Much of their product is then converted into a whole range of charcuterie in their state-of-the-art kitchen by Julian, their executive chef. The recent addition of a food truck operated by chefs Jonathan and Carly has made this farm into a truly “farm to table” experience.
They raise their poultry and animals in the very old-fashioned manner of pasturing (versus confined grain feeding). What is new is the ability to move the habitats around the property to let the pasture grow. Moveable electric fence is now used to protect the animals from predators. The result is delicious, flavorful meat and poultry along with some very happy livestock.
Sang Lee Farm
Fred and Karen Lee are second-generation farmers who have made the (sometimes difficult) transition from wholesale Asian vegetables to a full line of certified organic produce that are sold from their Peconic farm stand, at farmers markets and from their CSA (community supported agriculture) operation.
Fred and Karen have a passion for producing healthy, delicious fruits and vegetables that are pesticide-free and free of the many chemicals used in commercial production. They have also catered to the demand for ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat products with their bags of mixed stir-fry vegetables, dressings and salads. And they give tours, provide assistance to gardeners and have a “farmers camp” for children.
Catapano Dairy Farm
Karen and Dr. Michael Catapano, along with manager Debbie, have taken goat cheese to new levels of taste and quality. After winning an award for the best goat cheese in America from the American Cheese Society in 2005, they have continued to add both volume and new products to their inventory.
They are now breeding, pasturing and milking over 60 goats and then converting the milk into soft cheese, hard cheese, yogurt and beauty products. Many people enjoy visiting the Peconic farm, where they can see the goats, watch them being milked and even learn to milk a goat themselves.
Southold Fish Market
Charlie Manwaring has experienced the entire spectrum of a fisherman’s life in the past 25 years. Coming from a family in which his grandfather and father were commercial fishermen, he has fished many species, dug clams and harvested scallops, lobsters and oysters. He is now using his expertise to operate a retail seafood market that features takeout and eat-in options.
On our tour we sampled Manhattan clam chowder, seafood “stuffies” and house-smoked bluefish, swordfish and salmon. Charlie navigates a complicated world of wild and farmed seafood from around the world, but is very focused on the local market and is always informative and honest on the origin and freshness of his products.
Pipes Cove Oyster Farm
Ed Jurczenia grows oysters naturally in the waters in front of the Silver Sands Motel in Greenport. The location works so well because of the natural flow of clean water that contains the microscopic algae that is so important for oyster growth. We sampled two-year-old oysters by grilling them over charcoal until they popped open, then seasoning them with herb butter.
Ed and his wife, Darlene Duffy, began their oyster farm in 2000 with about 1,500 baby oysters from the Cornell marine center in Southold. They are now sold to many restaurants, including the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan. Pipes Cove and many other oyster farms, through aquaculture, have revived an old business that used to be one of the largest industries in Greenport.
This sampling of farms on the North Fork is a reminder to me of how these entrepreneurs are transforming the face of farming for future generations and providing our present consumers with healthy, delicious food. I am very proud to have been a chef who supported our local farmers.