A global pandemic isn’t exactly how the Breitenbach brothers expected to start their second year in business.
But if their first year farming taught them anything, it’s to not get too comfortable.
So it goes in the life of a farmer.
Every time it feels stable or like we have things figured out, there’s some kind of curveball. We tackle it and keep going forward.Kyle Breitenbach, co-owner of Breitenbach Farms
Kyle, 23, and his brother Emil, 29, gave a historic farm stand along Main Road in Aquebogue a new lease on life when they opened Breitenbach Farms last year. The location has been operating as a farm stand for over 80 years, first as Skelly’s and in more recent years as the Wells Homestead farm.
“We have a lot of customers that were customers of [former proprietor Sue Wells], customers from when it was Skelly’s. People that have just been loyal to this location for a long time,” Kyle said. “They’re happy to see that young guys want to keep it going.”
Spotting the for-rent sign in the fall of 2018 was kismet for Emil, who’s worked on a handful of local farms since graduating from Riverhead High School in 2009. He had been yearning to open his own business. “It was always on the back burner, I just never knew how to execute it,” he said.
It turns out, he didn’t have to look far for guidance.
The idea of starting a business came up in a lot of the brothers’ conversations. Ideas flowed around their dinner table, everything from restaurant concepts to storefronts, but the conversations always circled back to farming.
For the millennial brothers, the farm stand represents a return to the family’s agricultural roots. Over three generations, their great-grandfather, grandfather, and father farmed a plot of land on West Lane in Aquebogue, growing potatoes up until the industry crashed in the mid-1980s. “Potatoes went down the drain,” Emil said. “After losing money a few years in a row, they had to liquidate.”
Their father, Emil Sr., went on to work as a Riverhead police officer for more than 30 years — though he never abandoned farming for good.
“It’s always been my dad’s passion,” Kyle said, recalling memories of tagging along on the tractor as his dad often ran hayrides at Stakey’s Pumpkin Farm, which abuts their family property. “We saw it all year round, from planting to harvest to disking up the field at the end of the year,” he said.
From there, the germinating idea blossomed into a family affair. Enlisting the help of their father and mother, Diane, the family worked to renovate the stand’s flooring, plumbing and electric before completing the project with a fresh coat of red paint before opening for Mother’s Day weekend last year.
While honoring a family legacy, “it kinds of feels like starting something new at the same time,” Emil said.
In New York, farmers are an aging population. State data from 2019 shows the average age of a New York farmer is 57, up from 54 in 2007. Young farmers account for less than 9% of all farmers in the state, facing obstacles that include access to land and capital.
Since their family halted the potato operation in 1980, potato fields have turned to vineyards and in more recent years, experimental hemp crops that both brothers say they’re interested in.
They’re dreaming big, though starting small by farming a 4-acre plot of land at their family’s Aquebogue home. Their homegrown offerings include herbs, peppers, broccoli, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini cucumbers, green beans, onions, spinach, watermelon and sunflowers. Other fruits and vegetables are sourced locally, as are over a dozen flavors of jams, salad dressings and fresh baked goods. The stand is also stocked with fresh flowers grown by Wells Homestead owner Sue Wells.
Their first year brought lessons in humility and learning how to let go of the many things beyond their control.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that took us by surprise,” Emil said with a chuckle. “It was almost everything that took us by surprise,” he said before noting that pests were the biggest problem.
“I must have planted 1,000 broccoli plants. They’d be looking great. One night would go by and they’d all be eaten down to the stem,” he said, now approaching the issue with newfound foresight and shiny new fence.
The ongoing pandemic has kept them busier than ever as they opened the stand weeks earlier than they’d planned in an effort to help people avoid long lines at local grocery stores. They also launched a same-day delivery service for Riverhead residents.
“Because of the current circumstances with COVID, we want folks to feel safe when they’re getting their produce,” Kyle said.
The crisis hasn’t stymied their dreams, either. Their vision for the 2-acre farm property on Main Road includes cultivation, a current challenge since there’s no on-site irrigation, as well as farm animals and picnic tables to encourage visitors to stay, possibly while enjoying a beverage and food truck treat in the growing hamlet.
Kyle, who left college and a stable full-time job managing a music and arts store for the new venture, has poured everything into growing their retail operation. “It was pretty safe. At the end of the day, I always had a paycheck,” he said. “That’s something I miss right now, but it’s worth it for the big picture.”