So much about Martin Sidor’s history in Mattituck can be seen in front of his family farmhouse at the west end of Oregon Road. Parked in a long row, as if placed there for a museum exhibit dedicated to a disappearing tradition, are a dozen potato trucks.
They are old; some are rusting away. All have seen better days. They are relics of a bygone era, when the North Fork was a different kind of place, when they were all put to good use harvesting acres of potatoes, which would be piled into the trucks’ V-shaped beds and transported to barns where they were washed, bagged and shipped to market.
“Those days are over,” Sidor said one summer morning, part of which he spent atop his tractor, digging potatoes out of a field south of the farmhouse.
He is seated at the farmhouse’s kitchen table. The room is filled with soft light. Dark clouds in the western sky threaten a late afternoon storm. His wife, Carol, ducks in to say hello to a visitor.
The kitchen has the warm feel of a family gathering place. Here is where conversations that matter take place, where important decisions are made. It is home to family mementos. Land records dating to the early 20th century fill a cabinet; family photographs decorate a wall.
Looking through old records, he finds a fading piece of legal paper that shows his grandfather, a Polish immigrant who came to America in search of a better life, bought the family’s first acreage in Mattituck in 1910. That was the beginning of the Sidor family’s journey on the North Fork.
“It lasted down to me, but so much is nearly gone now,” he said.
What is nearly gone is the acreage on the East End once dedicated to potatoes. In the 1950s, an estimated 75,000 acres of potatoes were grown on Long Island, about 15,000 of them in Nassau County. With the post-war development of Levittown, that farmland was swallowed up by miles of subdivisions that slowly spread east.
The North and South forks were home to hundreds of acres of potatoes well into the mid-1980s, when market prices fell so low many farmers called it quits. Old-timers talk about the sad spectacle of regularly occurring farm auctions, comparing them to funerals where a family said goodbye to a loved one.
Rapid transformation of the landscape turned the South Fork into a wealthy, Page Six playground. Farmhouses where generations were raised were remodeled into lavish summer homes; old potato barns were repurposed or torn down. Super-sized mansions sprawled across old farmland.
“You didn’t know the date, but you saw families get out of it and it was clear what was coming. I realized we were on borrowed time.”Martin Sidor, Sidor Farms
While the South Fork transformed, the North Fork’s potato industry held on for dear life. But in recent years, that has all changed. The Long Island Farm Bureau’s Rob Carpenter said no group keeps an up-to-date running total of who is still harvesting potatoes on the North Fork. What information he has is entirely anecdotal.
Carpenter and Sandra Menasha, a vegetable and potato specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, tick off the names of longtime and legacy North Fork farmers, often with Polish surnames, who have given up on potatoes.
This one is out; that one is no longer doing potatoes and is growing sod. They cite two or three others who gave up on acreage and now grow only small amounts to sell at farm stands. Both agree the number might — might — be six legacy potato growers still planting in Riverhead and Southold, with one more in Eastport and one in Bridgehampton. If they are undercounting, it is only by one or two.
“I would guess the total acreage still in potatoes on the North Fork is about 1,000,” Carpenter said, adding that Sidor is likely the last in all of Southold Town. “Marty might be doing 70 to 80 acres. It’s amazing there are any left.
“There are some bright and upcoming people in agriculture who are taking over existing farms and doing good things,” he added. “But the legacy potato farmers are really gone. We’ve done a good job saving 20,000 acres of farmland, but it does no good if we don’t have farmers to use it. We want to continue farming. That’s the battle we face.”
Bill Sanok, a longtime employee at CCE who retired in 2003, said he watched as potato acreage fell year after year. “There was once a hundred duck farms on the East End, now there is one,” he said. “Change comes. For potatoes, it’s down to a handful and I don’t know how they hang on.”
Menasha replaced Sanok at Cornell. “In my time here, we used to provide services to the growers and walk their fields to determine what diseases or insects might be present,” she said. “That was once my entire schedule. Now I might go to three growers each week as part of my job here.”
David Steele began working on John Tuthill’s Mattituck potato farm when he was 12 years old. “I moved [irrigation] pipe, did a little tractor work,” he remembered. “It was all potatoes, a little cauliflower, from the North Road [County Road 48] to Main Road.”
Sidor now dedicates half of his 75 acres of potato fields towards becoming potato chips. (Photography by David Benthal)
He sits in the workshop on old Tuthill land along Elijah’s Lane in Mattituck. Tools and various pieces of equipment fill the space. Outside, the heat of early August has begun to fade.
In the big barn adjacent to the workshop, hay bales are stacked nearly to the ceiling. The dusty air in the barn smells sweetly of freshly cut hay. Swallows dart in and out through the big open doors. A truck backs up and a woman climbs atop the mountain of bales and throws some down to her truck. The hay is destined for horse farms.
Steele gave up potatoes in 2019 when COVID-19 laid him out, sending him to the hospital for weeks when his survival was in question. He recalls days when he received his last rites. He pushed back.
Today, he grows hay and, with his son, Kyle, has planted some of the land once used for potatoes with sod. “You do what you have to do to keep going,” Steele said. “But everything has changed — nothing is the same.”
The evolution away from potatoes is best seen on Sidor’s farm. The potato trucks parked along the road, and the old equipment in the field on the east side of the house, represent a time capsule of what once was. He reels off the names of growers who worked nearby when he was a young man. He is now 72, and looking toward his and his family’s future on this land. All are now gone. There’s a vineyard west of the farm. To the south another vineyard is planted on what had been for generations the Ruland farm.
As Sidor pointed out, the Polish community was so tight along Oregon Road, and elsewhere in Cutchogue, that they built their own church, Our Lady of Ostrabrama, on Depot Lane. The church still holds a Mass in Polish.
“You could see the changes coming,” he said as he sits at the kitchen table.
His attachment to this place, and to Sidor family history, can be seen in his eyes and be heard in his voice as he talks about his grandparents, uncles and parents. There is strong pride in his voice, but also a tinge of sadness, of inevitability. What will come after him?
“You didn’t know the date, but you saw families get out of it and it was clear what was coming. I realized we were on borrowed time,” he said.
A decade ago, Sidor saw the handwriting on the wall and took a bold step by going into the potato chip business. It was a way to remain in potato farming while avoiding the economic forces that all but ruined it.
“Carol and I talked about it,” he said. “One guy who had been in the chips business had equipment we could get. Carol said, ‘Let’s do something different.’ ”
Today, he has a total of 75 acres in potatoes. Half become chips, half are bagged and sent to market. When told he is the last legacy potato grower in all of Southold Town, he nods. And sighs. But he’s not surprised.
For Eric Wells, the change brought by the decline of the potato farmers on the North Fork could not be more dramatic.
Northern Maine, with its thick woods that go on forever and rich farmland, is an 11-hour drive — at least — from where Wells grew up in Aquebogue. His family has farmed on the North Fork since 1661, and it took a great deal of gumption for Wells to uproot his wife and five kids and move earlier this year to Aroostook County, Maine.
The county is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, but its population is roughly the same as Riverhead and Southold. “There seem to be more moose and bears than people here,” Wells said.
The Sidor family has been farming potatoes on their Mattituck land since 1910. Martin Sidor is one of the last potato farmers who remain farming on the East End. (Photography by David Benthal)
Wells respected his family’s long history in Aquebogue — 362 years in one place. But economically, and looking toward his future as a farmer, he knew his days on the North Fork had come and passed.
“It was sad to move, for sure,” he said, speaking on the phone from his new home. “We’d been in Aquebogue for so long. But we could no longer be viable with potatoes on our family land. It wasn’t working, and it had not been working for a long time. We had our last potato crop last fall and this year we bought 1,000 acres in Maine to start over. We can be potato farmers here.”
While not discussing the price of those 1,000 acres, Wells made this point, which in so many ways sums up everything about the North Fork in 2023: The price of the land in Maine was less than the cost of 100 acres on the North Fork — if the development rights had been sold, that is. If the development rights were intact, and thus more valuable, that same dollar amount in Maine would buy only 10 acres on the North Fork.
The Wells’ exodus compares to the story of the baymen in East Hampton, who had lived and fished there for three centuries. The Bonackers, as they were called, quit the business entirely, while others decamped to North Carolina in the 1990s to continue fishing.
They gave up because the South Fork had become far too expensive, the roads too crowded and the fishery regulations too onerous. Economic forces and the new exorbitantly wealthy residents, many of whom were ignorant of the area’s rich fishing tradition and history, simply pushed them out.
That story is being repeated on the North Fork. Of his 1,000 acres in Maine, Wells will plant about half — 450 acres or so — in potatoes and leave the rest open for future crop rotation. That number is startling in that it represents about half of the remaining acres planted in potatoes on the North Fork. By Wells’ calculation, there are only about 800 acres of potatoes still on the North Fork.
“The island is now for the rich and famous,” he said. “We still have 300 acres in Aquebogue. My dad is harvesting grains there. But I am in Maine full-time. For most of our history, it was potatoes. Long Island for years was the number one potato producing area in the country. Now there are more potatoes on one farm in Maine than the whole Island.
“It’s heartbreaking to leave, but at the same time it is liberating,” he said. “After being here in Maine a few months, I can say it’s home. Long Island is not agriculture-based anymore, unless it’s agritainment. We didn’t think our kids could do that. Here, they have a chance.”