For many, it’s hard to imagine a time when fall on the North Fork had little to do with pumpkins.
For Al Krupski, whose family farm was one of the first to place an emphasis on that crop, it isn’t all that difficult.
“We grew mostly potatoes,” he said of the Peconic farm his parents launched in 1950, “some cucumbers, some cauliflower. We didn’t get into pumpkins until 1976.”
Today, the sign on the side of the family’s barn welcomes visitors to Krupski’s Pumpkin Farm, the easternmost of nearly 20 farms in Riverhead and Southold towns that now offer pumpkin-picking.
A fourth-generation farmer, Krupski was merely a high school student back in the mid-1970s, yet he’s the one who gets credit for getting the family into the pumpkin game.
“I was always fascinated by Halloween,” he said. “I love the costumes. I just enjoy the holiday.”
The thought of a costumed Krupski, perhaps best known locally as a Suffolk County legislator, might draw a chuckle from some, but his wife, Mary, son, Nick, and daughter, Kim, assure it’s true that he loves to dress for the holiday.
“One of the best was when he and Mom dressed in punk rock costumes,” Nick recalled. “He had one of Mom’s earrings through his nose.”
Al Krupski said he recognized an opportunity when a neighboring farmer, Al Terry of Southold, stopped growing pumpkins in the ’70s. Little did he know then that pumpkins would soon experience a major boom.
The number of farms selling pumpkins has doubled since the mid-1970s, with planted acreage having grown nearly 400 percent. Much of that growth occurred in the 1980s.
In recent years, pumpkin sales across New York State have eclipsed $30 million, about 20 percent of the nation’s total sales, the USDA reported in 2015. Suffolk County is New York’s top producer of the crop, according to USDA data. In the most recent agricultural census, there were 72 farms harvesting 641 acres of pumpkins across Suffolk, about 10 percent of the state’s overall production.
With the bulk of those farms located in Riverhead Town, the Krupskis have carved out a special niche on Main Road in Peconic, removed from the heavier traffic that clogs the main arteries to the west. Yet their farm still has all the attractions the others offer, from U-pick to hayrides, a corn maze and a haunted barn.
Kim, youngest of the Krupski children (elder sibling Colleen works as an audiologist in Riverhead), said setup for the fall season really begins in August. That’s also when the earliest pumpkins start to appear. The Krupskis intentionally grow those in the field across the street from the farm stand so customers don’t see them.
“They get angry when we put them out at Labor Day,” Mary said of all the visitors who don’t want to admit summer is coming to a close.
Born in Brooklyn, Mary was far from a farm girl growing up, but the family is quick to point out that she’s the hardest worker in the bunch — even as Nick, a Southold Town Trustee, and Al hold down second jobs as elected public servants.
“She’s here seven days a week,” Al says of his wife, who works the farm stand, manages the books and handles scheduling.
“The only thing I’ve never done is ride the tractor,” said Mary, whose family of eight moved from Flatbush to Orient when she was a teenager. “I promised my mom I wouldn’t.”
She hasn’t had to worry about that one, as she’s had the good fortune of working for decades around generations of Krupski men and was trained for the work she does by her mother-in-law, Helen. It’s always been a true family effort.
Nick recalls his grandfather plowing the fields until he was 85 years old.
The farm known today as Krupski Farms was founded by Al Sr. and Helen, both of whom passed away last year after 67 years of marriage. The land across the street, which once included what is now Lenz Winery, was farmed by Al Sr.’s parents, Nettie and Julius Krupski.
The first Krupski farm in Peconic was established in 1909 by Al Sr.’s grandfather, Joe, on the land that is now Pindar Vineyards. Joe had come to the U.S. from Poland about a decade earlier and chose farming on Long Island over mining in Pennsylvania, the route many of his relatives took.
Joe Krupski almost didn’t stay in America, but just one day after returning to Poland, which was controlled by Russia at the time, he realized he’d made a mistake.
“He left for one night and came back to Peconic,” Al said.
Joe Krupski would end up building a legacy that has been carried on by generations of Krupskis in Peconic, Cutchogue and Mattituck.
While Al, who said he never liked dealing in potatoes, changed his farm’s focus, Nick and Kim say they’d like to see less emphasis placed on pumpkins and the farm as a fall destination. Marketing it as such, Nick said, has made them an afterthought for some during the summer. The reality is they open each year by the Fourth of July and still grow tomatoes, corn and other summertime favorites.
“We’re trying to use Krupski Farms more in our branding,” Nick said of losing the word pumpkin.
But this month, those concerns will be put to rest until winter and will be replaced by prayers for good weather. The family needs five weekends of dry weather to fulfill expectations for the season. More than one or two rainy days and the margins really get out of whack, Al cautioned.
Things begin to wind down for Krupski Farms after Halloween and they close for the year at Thanksgiving.
While the seasonal nature of the business allows for maximum family time around the holidays, for the Krupskis, it’s truly a family affair all year long.
“And that’s pretty cool,” Mary said.