Spend a morning with Eric Sepenoski at his family farm in East Marion and you quickly realize he studied writing and literature in school.
With the refinement of an expert storyteller, the farmer can so clearly describe what it was like growing up on the farm and the history of the area. His dissertation topic at Northeastern University in Boston? Farming on the North Fork.
He can talk endlessly about how his family for generations has farmed on the North Fork, but also how it’s been a life of constant change.
“My grandfather, Antone ‘Tony’ Peter Sepenoski III — his family farmed what we call the ‘home farm’ back behind Lucas Ford on old Main Road in Southold,” he explained. “If you ride back there you can still see all the old potato trucks lined up in the weeds.”
Tony and his wife, Patricia, opened Sep’s in the 1960s with nothing but a wagon in the front. They originally focused on selling produce at Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. Eventually, Tony’s son, Peter, and Peter’s wife, Kathryn, began running the farm.
Their son Eric, who was born in 1983, remembers vividly the summers at his family’s farm, largely staffed by Puerto Rican laborers. “It was quite a different world then,” he recalled. “It was like a Little San Juan. I grew up speaking Spanish with them, learning lots of bad words.” The workers’ families would visit every season and there would be a week of festivities including cooking and dancing. “It was beautiful,” he recalled.
By the time Sepenoski’s grandfather died in 2001, the landscape of
farming on the North Fork had changed — and that trend continues to this day.
“It became more farm stand focused,” said Kathryn, who noted that they could sell more of their product right here on the North Fork. They’ve also scaled back on how much land they cultivate.
Eric, who always had an appreciation for his agricultural roots, ultimately returned home to help run the farm, something he didn’t always foresee.
“This is a beautiful way to grow up, but ultimately you have to get an education and get off the farm [for a time],” he said of the years he spent away.
Since returning, he’s realized the farm is a place of constant change, even if on the surface it’s easiest to see farming as a tradition.
Today, there’s an emphasis on the Sep’s Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which was spearheaded by Eric’s wife, Brenna, who spends a lot of her time with administrative work and applying for grants. They allow customers to pick their own produce from a menu of options each week. They also deliver pre-selected shares to Shelter Island. It’s a far different model from how the older generation made ends meet.
“It’s been about adapting the farm,” Eric said. “[The North Fork] has been impacted by globalization and a booming tourist trade that changes the cultural fabric of the community out here.”
On a walk through the farm, Eric explained how it was once covered in one crop: potatoes. The Sepenoskis have since embraced new varieties of vegetables — much, much more is farmed than the original focus on just potatoes — and thinking about the community around them.
“It’s absolutely necessary to be engaged in public life and local politics,” said Eric, who began serving as a Southold Town Trustee this year. “All farmers want to be out on the field doing their thing on the tractor, but more than ever we have to be part of the public discourse about what farming looks like and how we can keep it going.”
Peter, Eric’s father, said he envisioned a more simple life for himself, farming as he needed to pay the bills and enjoying a quiet life on the North Fork.
“It changed so fast,” he said of the population shift and how the North Fork become a less seasonal place.
“The winters used to be spent repairing machinery, [going] skiing,” Peter said. “Now I can’t get away.”
On the morning of the tour, the Sepenoskis were having an issue with a solar panel system on the property. A gas generator was brought in to cover for it. It was loud and messy, but they found a way to get through yet another day. As they have for decades, they adapted.
Such is life on the farm.