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Photography by David Benthal

There are many firsts in life: first home, first job, first love. But for North Fork farmers and growers, there’s also a first harvest. One can be involved in the fields or on the water; working in a lab or at a farm stand. Everyone plays a role in harvest. Months before harvest, planting or seeding is an exciting time for farmers whether they grow traditional vegetable crops, grapes, hops or even oysters. It’s part research, part science and part hope. The harvest can be fruitful or riddled with a diseased crop. But as the growers we talked to have assured us, there’s always something to learn from it.

Ian Van Bourgondien of North Fork Brewing Co. laughs when recalling his first experience harvesting hops in 2013 with his cousin’s company, Farm to Pint. Given that it was the family’s first, many friends and family came to help with harvest that year. 

“It was so sticky and so time-consuming. [They] would harvest as many hops [by hand] as possible then dry them on screens in the greenhouse,” he said. He notes that the process was “painstakingly slow” but that it gave him a strong appreciation for the hop farmers that came “centuries before in England and Germany.” 

Having learned that timing is everything, and to watch as different varieties mature at different times, Van Bourgondien now has his sights set on trying to use some of their hops in traditional English styles that Farm to Pint hasn’t brewed before. Since that first harvest, and after building a successful business, Van Bourgondien says he and business partner/cousin Peter Barraud now use a “mechanical hop harvester and have improved drying and processing techniques as well,” leading to a better yield and more beer for all of us.

Although a relative newcomer, Breitenbach Farms has emerged from a family history of farming that goes back nearly 35 years. Emil Breitenbach Jr. recounts that his first harvest was “zucchini in the late spring.” Having a beautiful first crop was “certainly motivating,” he says, but each year is a new opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. 

“Our first year, our tomato harvest was almost a complete loss,” Breitenbach says. “We had so much difficulty with them but we were able to test the soil and learned there wasn’t enough calcium, which tomatoes need for optimal growing. Since then, we’ve been able to increase the nutrients in the soil and now tomatoes are one of our biggest sellers.” 

That first year, the farm team at Breitenbach also transplanted everything to the field by hand. “We had no resources and transplanting by hand was solely an economic decision,” he says.”It wouldn’t be as funny today if we hadn’t bought the transplanter.” 

Their biggest takeaway from the first year? 

“There isn’t just one right way of getting things done. We’ve used spare parts from one item to make it into a different tool and then put back together as needed,” Breitenbach says. Looking ahead with sustainability in mind, he aims to expand with additional greenhouses for hydroponic growing, which will be “an exciting step for the farm and the environment since hydroponic growing requires just a fraction of the water used for traditional field-grown crops.” An additional benefit of these greenhouses, he says, is that “the crops will be less susceptible to pests and disease [therefore] reducing the need for pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.” If all goes as planned, this would allow Breitenbach Farms to offer their produce to the North Fork throughout the year, which is something we can all be excited for.

Just east of Breitenbach Farms in Aquebogue is an iconic North Fork farm stand, Bayview Farms. Its large red barn and ever-rotating giant decor (be it corn, strawberry, cauliflower) let you know you are surely in farm country. The Reeve family has been farming in Aquebogue for seven generations but it was in 2002 that Brad and Lorraine Reeve opened their current farm stand/market. On a gorgeous summer day, I was able to chat with Katie Reeve, wife of farmer Paul Reeve, who’s been involved at the farm since 2010. Katie’s focus on the market allows her to connect with customers more so than being out in the field. 

It was in 2010 that Katie experienced her first harvest and she remembers it fondly.

She recalls seeding cauliflower beds in June and transplanting them to a larger field in August. “We had 50 acres of cauliflower alone,” Katie said. The weather cooperated and come fall, it was time for the harvest.

She recalls the “really special moment seeing the giant trucks loaded up with our product pull out to head to the Hunts Point Market,” and also learning that harvest takes both hard work and determination. “It’s early mornings and late days.”

This year, Katie and Paul are concerned with transplanting in a drought. “The drought means the irrigation system will constantly be in motion this season. It’s many moving parts and once we’re done with a field it’s right back to the beginning of the field to start the process all over again,” she explains. 

Still, Katie has a special place in her heart for her first cauliflower harvest: “It was truly a wow moment. The heads of cauliflower are so large and you just can’t compare the taste to cauliflower from the grocery store.” 

With the North Fork’s rich history in aquaculture, it’s no wonder Karen Rivara of Peconic Pearls in Southold reflects fondly on the years she spent learning how to seed oysters, first with the Shinnecock Tribe Oyster Project and then in Connecticut, where the rules were originally more favorable to shellfish farming than New York. On a recent afternoon, Rivara looked back to one of her first harvests, back in 1996, when she was farming with Jim Markow in Connecticut. Throughout the winter, they had admired the gorgeous oysters and looked forward to what they thought would be an incredible harvest. Once harvest arrived, however, they quickly learned something was wrong. Disease had struck their oyster beds and “what were once healthy and thriving oysters were now oozing from their shells,” she says. Through much trial and error, she and her current business partner, Melanie Douglass, have learned what it takes to create an excellent product in the shellfish industry. Their company, Aeros Cultured Oyster Co., produces some of the best Long Island oysters, branded as Peconic Pearls. They’ve been on the menus of some of the finest restaurants in New York, including the Grand Central Oyster Bar, as far back as 1999. 

One of Rivara’s biggest lessons has been to “have patience.” With oysters, like many other crops, the warming climate has become an issue. Diseases that affect shellfish “are worse in warming waters,” forcing Rivara, Douglass and many other oyster farmers to adjust their plans and expectations. Douglass agrees, reminding us that “some days are beautiful, where everything goes your way and some days are not. Rolling with the punches is essential.” Beyond warming waters, the increasing number of recreational boaters also poses a risk to the oyster beds. It’s easy to see why Rivara wants us all to “remember there’s more to the water than just the surface. There’s so much [life] underneath.”

Alie Shaper remembers her first-ever harvest ever in 2006, when she was a lab assistant for her current business partner, Robin Epperson-McCarthy, at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck. Given that so much about farming is based in science, Shaper was tasked with assisting the analysis of “berry samples for the winemakers so they could zero in on the harvest date for their grapes.” She recalls her days as a “cellar rat” doing tons of grunt work that was vital to the creation of the new wines of the vintage. Whether it’s “dragging hoses to connect pumps to tanks … sanitizing fermentation equipment or moving juice and wine around,” Shaper has been a part of it all. 

Premium Wine Group makes wine using a variety of grapes from different vineyards, giving Shaper a unique challenge with each harvest. “[I have]more than one winemaking philosophy and methodology,” she says, adding that this exposure “accelerated” her own winemaking skills and helped develop her personal style. 

“There is an audience for each painter and the same is true for wine,” Shaper said, reflecting on that first harvest season at Premium.

Additionally, listening to Mother Nature has become a focus for her. The variable growing seasons on Long Island mean each winemaker must make important decisions about what to highlight with each vintage. In 2015, with a strong following for her own brand, Chronicle Wines, Shaper stepped into the role of winemaker for Croteaux. Keeping Mother Nature in mind, she recounts traveling to Provence some years ago and coming back “with a core belief that our home by the sea is a prime rosé region.” 

In 2020, Shaper and her Australian husband, Tim, took over his parents’ vineyard in McLaren Vale in South Australia. At this writing, they are preparing to travel there to take out the Lagrein because the plants have a progressing viral disease. Always one to turn lemons into lemonade, Shaper is researching a few warm-climate varietals that can withstand rising temperatures. I, for one, hope some of those wines make it back to the States for us all to enjoy.