EDIBLE ENTREPRENEURS: Reaping Benefits

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A loaf made from local wheat is only the beginning.

If you listen to conventional wisdom, strawberries—which absorb pesticides like blotting paper—can’t survive the East End’s damp spells without chemicals. Yet a member of the wild strawberry family, Mara de Bois, which will soon yield intensely flavored, tiny, organic berries, marches in defiant rows along a field in the new organic Amber Waves Farm, behind the Amagansett Farmers Market.

“You sure can do it!” says Amanda Merrow, 23, one of two former Quail Hill Farm apprentices who in March won a three-year lease from the Peconic Land Trust to farm 7.7 long-idle acres. “It’s just more labor intensive, the way all organics are. There are no herbicides, no pesticides to lean on. You have to do everything by hand.”

It’s not the only local wisdom Merrow and her partner, 29-year-old Katie Baldwin, are challenging. Behind two acres bursting with the pair’s produce and 31 varieties of tomatoes, wheat is once again growing on Long Island after an absence of almost 60 years. As late as 1953, 2,425 acres of wheat were grown in Suffolk County. Then wheat moved west with Big Ag, which shipped the grain back east.

Now the first stalks of four varieties of wheat, including an ancient grain called Emmer, are forming heads in a trial one-thirdacre planting of spring wheat. Another four acres will be planted in the fall. Baking bread from local East End wheat was a dream of Eli Zabar even before he signed a three-year-lease with the Trust last summer to operate the Amagansett Farmers Market. Now he’s working closely with Amber Waves. Their produce has its own section in his market, and Zabar reflects on the loaves that he hopes will emerge next year from wheat growing in sight of his back
door, and on the farmers nurturing it.

“They have a big educational initiative, and my goal is to support them as much as I can. It would be great if more young people were engaged in the issues that confront agriculture and society today as they are,” says Zabar. The “Amber Wave Girls,” as Zabar calls them, each are logging 80-plus-hour weeks in their fields.

A single adjective, “enthusiastic,” captures the personas of Merrow and Baldwin, but only experience and expertise can produce the results they are getting: fields flush with produce, registering for nonprofit status, a CSA whose weekly basket of produce includes two loaves of Eli’s bread, a stand at the new Montauk farmers market, a lease to operate the Wölffer Vineyard greenhouse in Sagaponack for winter crops, a “locavore” winter CSA share to include local specialty foods, a stand at a hoped-for Sagaponack farmers market, and, this fall, plans for chickens requested by school children across the street. Every class at the Amagansett School has already explored the farm. Reconnecting children (and the community) with the land was part of their winning Peconic Land Trust proposal.

Fifth graders have painted signs for the fields. Three-yearold pre-kindergartners seeded lettuce a few weeks ago. Timidly touching the deep-purple blossoms of Dwarf Grey pea shoots, the 3-year-olds squealed, “You can actually eat this?” “Break it off and eat it?” “It’s deeeelicious!” So much is going on.

Looking ahead, the two hope to work with low-income families in starting their own gardens. Once the wheat is harvested and milled, they plan to sell their whole wheat to the community in two- and five-pound bags. Both women believe this is the time to reintroduce locally grown whole wheat for breads and pastas, “because the interest is there, people will care that their flour is coming from Amagansett, not Kansas,” says Baldwin.

Amber Waves was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the Baker Foundation to bolster the Amagansett wheat project, including community education, milling with the kids and establishing a line of Amagansett baked goods. It turns out the man behind the Baker Foundation, John de Cuevas, a local conservationist and environmentalist,
is also a passionate baker. Forty years ago, he set a bowl of flour and water outside to capture wild airborne
Amagansett yeast, which began bubbling into the sourdough starter he uses today for reportedly extraordinarily flavorful loaves. Once his daughter phoned urgently imploring him to overnight a replacement starter, since her dog had reached her bowl of starter and licked it clean.

What does de Cuevas think of the wheat experiment? “Aside from the fact that it’s a very real thing, that they are
going to grow local produce and use it right on the spot, I think it’s symbolic of the kind of values we wish we had more of in our over-consuming society,” he says. “This represents something of real basic value that we’ve lost sight of.” He is moved by the prospect of “Amagansett wheat and a starter captured from wild Amagansett yeast.”

“Oh,” exhales Baldwin, “If we could get a de Cuevas line of sourdough bread in Amagansett, it would be awesome!”

Geraldine Pluenneke bought some Emmer flour at last January’s Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference in Rochester and found it makes spellbindingly delicious bread.

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Geraldine Pluenneke has written for Newsday, the International Herald Tribune and other publications, and is writing a book on recovering America’s lost flavors and nutrients. She is hooked on Eli’s Health Loaf, toasted and thickly spread with chèvre.