In the 1960s, Southold Town was home to approximately 100 farmers, most of them focused on growing potatoes.
Now the only potato farmer left in Peconic, Gene Wesnofske is celebrating his 50th year in business at Wesnofske Farms.
“I’m happy that we’ve lasted this long,” he said. “This is a tough business. When we moved out here in ’67, there was probably, in Southold Town, there might have been like 100 farmers … now we’re down to a handful from the Mattituck line to Orient … So to survive 50 years is a great accomplishment and to have my family behind me and helping out is even greater.”
Wesnofske, who works with his family — his wife, Cheryl, their five children and some of their grandchildren — began farming at age 7 on other family farms in Melville. As the years went by, he decided he wanted his own land and, at 20 years old, purchased 10 acres of farmland at the Route 48 location.
The property he purchased, adjacent to land owned by his parents, came with a house and one building, he said. Over the years, the family operation, which also includes his twin brother, Ernie, expanded to more than 300 acres, of which nearly 200 were used to grow potatoes that were sold wholesale to numerous businesses, including some in France and Puerto Rico. Other vegetables were grown on the remaining 100 acres.
However, after a “terrible year” in the early 1980s, Wesnofske, now 70, said he left the wholesale potato business and sold that acreage. Today, he has only 50 acres in cultivation, five of them in potatoes and the rest in other crops, which are sold at their iconic yellow and green farm stand.
He now wakes at 3 a.m. each morning and spends over 12 hours a day tending to nearly 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables. These include their primary crops, corn and tomatoes, as well as eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, peaches, raspberries and blueberries.
The Wesnofskes have also expanded to include farmers markets, selling plants and produce to customers throughout the year at eight different markets on Long Island.
“I’ve seen my father’s passion for farming and I see that he actually loves doing it,” said 32-year-old Jason Wesnofske, the third of Wesnofske’s five children.
He said he and his siblings grew up on the farm, where his parents would drop them off in the morning with a list of tasks that needed to be done. The young Wesnofkes would get on a tractor and begin their chores, which often included picking squash and cutting cabbage. They could only go home once their tasks were completed.
Now, he said, his nieces and nephews are doing that work and he hopes his own children, Grace, 2, and Thomas, 5 months, will be able to participate as they get older.
“We did have a lot of fun,” Jason, now a teacher at Southold High School, said. “Growing up on a farm makes you realize how hard it is — and how good a work ethic you have.”
Not only has Gene Wesnofske instilled a good work ethic in his children, who all have their own non-farming jobs, but all five of them continue to work on the farm in their spare time. He has taught them the importance of giving back through his own charitable efforts.
When the farm has extra produce, the Wesnofskes often give it to those in need in the community. And for the last three years, the family farm has held an annual gleaning.
Students from Southold High School visit the Peconic farm to participate in the gleaning, described in the Old Testament as the practice of leaving produce on vines along the edges of fields for the poor. At Wesnofske Farms, the students pick over 500 pounds of produce, which is then donated.
For the last 15 or so years, the family has also given produce to local churches that reach out on behalf of those in need, Gene Wesnofske said.
In addition to Wesnofske children, the farm has had help from people outside the family, including Reggie Barron, a friend of Gene’s son Ryan. Barron offered to fill in around the farm when needed. A decade later, he’s still at it.
“It’s the fact that they treat you like family,” Barron said. “And this is one of the most traditional farm stands you could ever work at. I mean, it’s no frills, but the produce and the people that you work with speak for themselves. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”