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Ryan Lertora, farm manager and partner at Jamesport Farmstead, weeds a row of crops along with staff members (Credit: Felicia LaLomia).

Driving into Jamesport Farmstead just off Main Road next to Jamesport Vineyards, a few things stick out. One, the land where the crops are growing looks small, much too small to be a farm. And two, everyone is working with their hands, no heavy machinery in sight, planting little tufts of green into the damp earth. In fact, the farm seems more like a community garden than a place that produces enough crops to be a business.

But the reduced acreage and literal hands-on approach is done with purpose. Jamesport Farmstead is a certified organic, no-till farm, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a huge tractor going in between the rows and rows of crops, staff members of the farm do everything by hand.

“We are human powered,” said partner and farm manager Ryan Lertora. “There is no heavy equipment, and it allows us to grow more heads of lettuce.” Lertora, who grew up in the Northport area, joined forces with Kim Frank and Jeffrey Brown last year to bring their no-till dreams to life. Frank and Brown, who owned the land where Jamesport Farmstead is now, brought Lertora aboard to incorporate the no-till methods.

“The idea is to maintain the carbon that you are putting into the soil,” said Lertora, who learned about no-till from a farm he worked on in Maine. “That way the microbiome of the soil is healthy, forcing a symbiotic relationship between the fungus, microbes and the plants themselves. This relationship produces a more nutrient dense food.”

There are no petroleum-burning tractors running over the food or cultivating and compacting the soil. That’s a way for us to keep our soil as healthy as possible.

Ryan Lertora, farm manager and partner, Jamesport Farmstead

Because everything at the farm is done by hand and no space for a tiller is needed between each row of crops, more crops can be grown in a smaller area.

“We are growing roughly 1.4 acres of food, which a conventional farmer would say, ‘Oh, I can only get x number of bunches of kale out of that,’” Lertora said. “Because we are not driving a tractor, we can grow more in a smaller area, and that facilitates a greater yield for us and helps us build our soil structure.”

In fact, in every bed of crops, more than just one type of crop can be grown. Just a few inches over from the trellis growing cherry tomatoes is a row of beets. And nestled in between the eggplant is a row of radishes. Every bed of almost every plant growing has a companion plant, a crop that will grow successfully next to it and come into harvest at different times. This is called companion planting, something a no-till farm can do because they grow densely.

A row of cherry tomatoes grows alongside a row of radishes in something called companion planting (credit: Felicia LaLomia).

“It’s rather like a large garden,” he said. “We only walk using wheelbarrows. There are no petroleum-burning tractors running over the food or cultivating and compacting the soil. That’s a way for us to keep our soil as healthy as possible.”

A closer look at the beds of crops and the life cycle of a plant can be observed. To the far left are the biggest, greenest plants that look ready for harvest, while moving towards the right they grow smaller, as if just planted. 

“We do successional planting,” Lertora said. “Each week, we plant a bed of lettuce heads and three full beds of salad greens — arugula, spinach and lettuce mix. With that system in place, our customers are getting these products at their peak.” 

In other words, each week throughout the season, one bed of those crops are at their peak ready to be harvested, while others are just starting to grow. “The idea for us is to have fresh prime produce ready each week of the growing season,” Lertora said. 

The no-till growing method is also one that helps the plants retain moisture and keep weeds at bay. Instead of a machine that gets rid of the weeds, staff use wooden poles with a metal triangle on the end to dig under the weed and loosen it. 

Right now, Jamesport Farmstead has 56 acres, but only five of that is in cultivation.

“Our plan in the near future, say two or three growing seasons, is to grow into a 10=acre production farm and beyond,” Lertora said. The farm started officially selling its produce last week through its website, and it will also have a CSA in June. The partners are currently awaiting a permit from the Town of Riverhead to operate the farm stand.

“We’re hoping to make a splash in this new sort of environment that we’re all living with,” Lertora said. “It’ll be interesting to see how we can reach out to potential customers using only online methods.”