Our new series takes you to the homes and neighborhoods of notable North Forkers. This week, Denise Markut, who retired this spring from her role as senior manager of stewardship at the Peconic Land Trust, talks about her life blazing trails in Cutchogue — sometimes literally.
“I’ve been in this house since 1984. It was owned before me by old-time farm families, the Simchicks and then Cotty and Hallock Tuthill, a great couple who were very community minded as well. On one side, they grew potatoes and on the other, mixed vegetables. The Tuthills had all lived here at some point in their lives as children or as grandchildren, and by the time I met them they were in their 80s and 90s. So I knew the history and it was nice because it had that feeling. It needed a family.
I’m from Connecticut and came to Long Island for a job after studying animal science in school. It probably is the last place I ever wanted to live in my life! I wanted to be in the West. But my husband wanted to stay here and when we were ready to buy a house, we started looking around the North Fork, and I really liked it here. There was open space and clean water. And I had always wanted to be a farmer myself.
It’s a small town, and people are down to earth and honest.
The house was a rundown mess, but of course it’s what we could afford. We were young and ambitious and went to work. You just look at what it needs: You put a roof on, you put a floor in the basement, you put new shingles on the sidings, new windows. We added the porch and redid the whole kitchen: It’s supposed to be the heart of the house, and we decided to add that heart. We had time to grow with it. Then about 10 or 12 years down the line, we got divorced, and the rest has been history for me. I have three sons and they grew up here in Cutchogue — a great place to grow up. They have a lot of good friends still that they’ve known since kindergarten. It’s a small town, and people are down to earth and honest.
I started the North Fork’s first CSA in 1995. The philosophy of community supported agriculture back then was, you have the community come to you and get them engaged in farming and gardening and it’s formative for them. And so shareholders had work requirements, and we’d also have community parties. People decided to take a chance; I was new at it and it was a new model. People thought organic farming was hippy voodoo stuff.
It’s an interesting dynamic coming into an old farming community and bringing new ideas. My neighbor Wesley Tuthill, the synthetic potato farmer who grew up in this house, was in his eighties at that time, and his wife and son had both died of lung cancer, and they’d been exposed in their farm fields to those chemicals and sprays. He would bring over his old farm buddies and say: ‘Look, she doesn’t have one bug on her potato plant! Who can believe it?’ I’m happy it’s really taken off. I wish it would’ve happened a little earlier! I ended up having to get out of business because I couldn’t make enough money. But it’s OK, because enter the Peconic Land Trust.
The land trust is right down the road. To be a mile and a half from work all these years? It was ideal. I worked in stewardship, which means my job was monitoring properties, maintaining properties, blazing trails, working with volunteers, running community gardens and teaching school kids about the environment and farming. I worked on all six of the trails that Southold Town has open and had 60 community gardeners. I have had a lot of fun teaching a lot of people how to grow food.
I have two acres here, and I grow all kinds of fruit and vegetables in raised beds — right now I have kohlrabi, eggplants, peppers, herbs, garlic, beets. I want people to know that sense of success and joy that you get when you grow your own food. The North Fork has sandy loam, so things drain really well. We have the perfect soil to grow anything. I mean, literally to grow anything!
This porch has seen hundreds of people gather over the years between children’s friends, CSA members, volunteers, and girls’ groups — I have a yoga group, a singing group, a dancing group. It’s been a good community place. This year is kind of like a year off from all events, which I don’t mind. It’s sort of a forced moment of de-escalation. I mean, couples are working and running all day long. They pay for this beautiful home, but they never get to spend time in it. I’ve been on the treadmill of working and family and children and schools and everything else for all these years. So it couldn’t have been a more perfect time for me to retire and actually have no interruptions but this place, and be able to enjoy it finally, after all these years that I’ve been here.”