The beauty of the Wickham farm, which sits handsomely between two salt creeks, is on full display on a warm May afternoon.
From the peach and apple orchards at its south end, to the abundant tomato crop planted on rich soil just east of the farmhouse or the freshly picked fruit and vegetables sold at the iconic farm stand on Main Road, the Wickham farm is all things North Fork, and all things Cutchogue.
It is also North Fork history in all its richness. The house, which sits behind the farm stand, was built in the early 1700s. The house and farm have been owned and lived in by generations of Wickhams since the mid-1850s, when James and Frances Wickham, who were childless, bought the property at an auction from the Albertson family.
But theirs was not the first Wickham farm in Cutchogue. In 1699, Joseph Wickham bought hundreds of acres of rich farmland just east of the current farm and built a house that still stands; his family held that land until the end of the American Revolution when it was confiscated by New York State. The original deed to that land is framed on a wall of the current farmhouse, a reminder of one family’s rich history in Cutchogue.
“We’ve been here a very long time, and we have made this farm work well, generation after generation,” said Tom Wickham as he and a reporter toured the 19th-century barns.
Wickham is 81 and shows no signs of slowing down. He’s been in charge of the farm since he returned to Cutchogue in the mid-1990s after a career working for nonprofits in Asia. He begins each day meeting with his workers to discuss their assignments across the broad, 250-acre farm.
On a recent Saturday, he showed a visitor the barns back by Wickham Creek, explaining that decades ago one barn housed a seed operation that was the largest in the region. The old machinery still sits on the second floor, a museum-quality relic of farm life long ago.
“The farm changed a great deal as the years went by,” he said as he pointed out the pegs in the hand-hewn rafters in the big barn behind the house. “My father’s brother, Parker, saw it as a livestock farm. That was what he wanted. When Parker died my dad [John Wickham] grew potatoes like the other farmers here, but then made a bold switch to fruit. He had a different vision for what would work on this land and what people would buy. In my family, we still think of our farm stand as the ‘peach stand.’ ”
Asked what the farm is growing this spring, he proudly ticks off the bounty: rhubarb, asparagus, greenhouse tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, field tomatoes, sweet corn, peaches, apples (several varieties), nectarines, cherries, peas, plums, pumpkins. To name a few.
“We are always adding and subtracting fruit trees,” Wickham said, sitting in his crowded office inside the farmhouse. “Plus, tastes change and we want to keep up with our customers at the stand.”
The walls in the parlor and in the hallway are decorated with the paintings of Julia Wickham, his great aunt, who was born in and grew up in the house and became one of the prominent members of the Peconic artists’ colony that thrived in the 19th and early 20th century.
This farm holds the biographies of all the Wickhams who have lived here — from James Wickham in the 1850s, to his brother, William, to his son, James, to his widow, Cora Billard Wickham, to her son, Parker, to Parker’s brother, John, and to John’s son, Tom.
The essence of the farm, and the change in crops required to keep it going, is on full display at the family farm stand, perhaps the most iconic and historic on the North Fork, with roots reaching well back into the 1930s and 1940s, when Tom’s parents, John and Ann Wickham, parked a truck on the side of the road and sold what they grew out of the back of it. By all accounts, theirs was among the first farm stands in the area.
“That changed into a shed they used to tow up there during the season,” he said.
A permanent structure was built in the 1950s. Today, thanks to some smart adaptations, that structure, houses both the stand and a bakery where scones and pies are made.
“One of the most longstanding features of our farm stand is that it still has the open-air quality that it had when we first built it in the 1950s, with large overhead doors and ample parking,” said Jon Wickham, Tom’s son. “Now, in 2020, that mid-20th-century design enables our customers to shop in the open air instead of in a more enclosed space.”
On a recent Saturday morning, stand manager Laurie McBride — who grew up in a North Fork farm family herself — gave a tour to a reporter, proudly showing the bakery and the abundance of freshly picked items on sale, from hot-house tomatoes to bright green stalks of just-cut asparagus.
Soon, there would be strawberries for sale and different varieties of apples. The farm is a master class in diverse agriculture, the stand its showcase.
McBride, who has worked at the stand for four years, speaks about the bounty on display the way a proud parent talks about a child who has grown into a successful adult. In the bakery, she points out the fresh-from-the-oven rhubarb scones and doughnuts. Out front, stalks of asparagus reflect the richness of spring on this land.
“We are always evolving,” she said. “We move things around to meet the changing tastes of our customers. They drive what we grow and pick. We have seen, for example, that they like the sweeter varieties” of apples.
“So that means we are planting five to seven years ahead,” she explained. “We do a higher density orchard, more trees on less acreage. Here, there is tremendous adaptation and that’s how farms survive.”
How does she enjoy being a farm stand manager?
“This is my world,” she said happily. “You have to be a planner. Plus a shipper. We are doing two farmer’s markets now, Northport and East Hampton, two days a week. Whatever we have, we send to those markets.
“I get here at 7 in the morning,” she added. “We make the scones, get the doughnuts going.”
As McBride prepared the stand for the day ahead, Wickham puttered about.
He has little to worry about, though; she has it under control. As customers began to arrive, she said it was a good day.
“I love it,” she said.