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As a chilly November breeze sweeps over the seven acres of land owned by Share the Harvest Farm in East Hampton, coordinator Jess Tonn bursts open the door to the greenhouse.
She quickly rubs her hands together. It’s 30 degrees warmer in the greenhouse, where spinach, broccoli, carrots, beets and other herbs reside comfortably. Tonn bends down on her knees next to a bed of spinach and inspects a tiny leaf.
“Almost ready,” she whispers, and rises to her feet.
The farm, founded back in 2008 on just a quarter-acre of land, prides itself on a no-waste policy: All fruits and veggies must be given away for consumption.
John Malafronte, one of the farm’s founders, helped form the nonprofit after co-founder Peter Garnham was inspired by a conversation with an executive of a local food pantry.
“She was lamenting about how difficult it is to raise money for fresh veggies, especially in the winter,” Malafronte recalled.
Vegetables like spinach, garlic and kale do grow well in winter, but most produce only flourishes in warm, sunny months, or within a temperature-controlled greenhouse, which Tonn said is an expense the farm just can’t afford.
“We don’t have the proper lights, so we can’t grow summer crops now,” she said. “For the plants, it’s not just a temperature thing, they also need a certain amount of daylight. And if they don’t get it, they won’t grow.”
For this reason, most of the farm becomes obsolete in cooler months, and Tonn and other staff are dependent on growing viable crops in the farm’s one small greenhouse.
But this is just one difficulty the farm faces in winter. Even when the harvest season is over and the farm stand closes in September, the staff is busy preparing vegetables for 11 food donation sites on the East End.
This year, the farm has been working with Amagansett Food Institute (AFI), an organization that aims to support, promote, and advocate for food producers and providers on the East End to help preserve its year-round offerings. Tonn said the farm has brought AFI over 3,000 pounds of vegetables this year.
“We’ve been bringing them surplus over the summer,” she said. “So anything that either the food pantries don’t need, or we can’t sell — those weeks when we have 2,000 pounds of zucchini, when everyone is like, ‘Too much zucchini!’ — we’ll bring it to AFI.”
AFI uses a cryovac machine to freeze the farm’s produce, making it last longer, so it’s ready to be sold or donated in the winter. The farm’s communication with other pantries, she said, determines what is given to AFI for freezing.
“If we have tomatoes that have spots on them, and we can’t donate them and we can’t sell them, we will bring them to AFI and they will freeze them until February, when we’ll give them out and people can make tomato sauce,” Tonn explained.
The quantity of the product determines which food bank receives the produce, Tonn said.
“We try to use every inch, as much as we can,” she said. “Because we feed over 450 families.”
During the winter, Malafronte said, the farm only donates to two food pantries because they have less produce. This season, the farm is harvesting for Heart of the Hamptons in Southampton and the Springs Food Pantry in East Hampton.
But winter is when food pantries have the greatest demand, Malafronte said. So a constant cycle of growing, caring and harvesting needs to be done year-round.
Regardless of seasonal struggles, Tonn said the farm’s collaboration with AFI has helped it donate more than in year’s past.
“It’s hard when we only have a small amount space [in the winter] to grow enough food for the pantries,” she said. “But the fact that we’re doing this frozen meals project is really going to help with that.”
Malafronte said he and Garnham check in on the farm daily. Opening the farm, he said, was one of “the most rewarding decisions” he’s made.
“I decided when I retired, that I wanted to do volunteer work,” he said. “This is the most joyful. Knowing that we have nutritional vegetables that we’re giving to families, even in the winter, keeps us going.”