BACK TO THE GROUND: Golden Earthworm Organic Farm

earthworm

A young couple and a friend make it work.

Jamesport —Home sites on the desirable North Fork of Long Island can sell for a million dollars, making it hard to justify growing potatoes there. Most farmers have cashed in, selling family land that had been in agriculture for generations. But a handful of holdouts remain, which is why Matthew Kurek, Maggie Wood and James Russo could piece together 80 acres of leased land for Golden Earthworm, their organic farm on Peconic Bay in Jamesport.

Among the partners, only James felt called to farming at an early age and took a direct path there—a college degree in plant and soil science, followed by a viticulture job on a Long Island vineyard. Matthew and Maggie, now married, traveled less obvious routes. Maggie, the daughter of music professionals, played classical flute seriously; Matthew studied oboe with an eye on a music career. Both eventually put aside their instruments for other pursuits: architecture for Maggie (she still has a part-time design practice), cooking for Matthew.

After a few years working in Manhattan restaurants and hanging out at the Union Square Greenmarket, Matthew moved back to his childhood home on the North Fork with the vague notion of growing produce for restaurants. “It was a complete experiment,” admits Matthew, who had no farming background. Eliot Coleman’s books on organic farming provided inspiration, and New Age notions of human potential—if you can imagine it, you can do it—gave him confidence.

By 1999 he had a small CSA—perhaps 25 members—and was selling some of his organic produce at the farmers market in Port Washington, on the west end of Long Island. Maggie’s mother, who founded the market, told her daughter about the handsome young vendor.

In 2005, the year the couple married, James joined the farming partnership, disheartened by the chemical spraying that most Long Island wine grapes require. With Maggie handling marketing and communications, the Golden Earthworm CSA has mushroomed to 16 hundred shares, plus a waiting list. The United Way in Queens accounts for a few hundred of those shares, distributing the just-picked produce to soup kitchens.

Matthew and James no longer try to grow the fashionable produce that leading chefs want—”fluffy stuff” Matthew calls it. Harvesting edible flowers for elite diners isn’t nearly as satisfying, in their view, as growing kale, broccoli, beets and tomatoes for regular folks. “You can spend your time on the ‘wow’ factor, or you can give people a lot of good food,” says Matthew.

The farm delivers CSA boxes to numerous sites on Long Island and in Queens, and still participates in farmers markets. A thrice weekly farm stand on the Jamesport property draws neighbors and a few shareholders who pick up their boxes on the farm. Hoping to encourage families to visit, the farmers keep a few rare-breed animals as pets: Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs, Navajo-Churro sheep and Angora goats. Some CSA members turn the wool into sweaters, and local teachers use it in the classroom to demonstrate the technique of carding, or preparing wool for spinning.

Because they don’t own the land they farm, the partners hesitate to invest in infrastructure—the permanent fences, structures and outbuildings that would make their work easier. Purchasing acreage in the area is nothing short of a fantasy, but farming on leased land can keep a grower awake at night.

In the meantime, the partners take pride in running a sustainable organic farm without trust funds, grants or bank loans. They pay employees decently, they say, and still turn a profit. They maintain organic certification only because they would farm organically anyway, says Maggie, and because it’s easier to be certified than to explain to customers why you’re not.

But the work is relentless. Beginning in May, Matthew and James can work seven days a week. “I don’t see my husband again until the end of October,” jokes Maggie. Although the farm operates through the winter—supplying a few hundred customers with produce shares—the pace slows. Maggie and Matthew, who live across the street from the farm, in a home on the beach, spend more time together then. “We do the things other people do during the summer,” says Maggie. “We have lunch together every day; we make fires and read.” And these two music lovers go to the opera in New York City, a world away from digging potatoes on the North Fork.

At a Glance

Farm name: Earthworms are treasured laborers on an organic farm. They aerate the soil, and their castings (droppings) are high in plant nutrients. To farmers trying to operate without chemical fertilizers, earthworms are as good as gold.

Insight: Not everyone is a good CSA member, says Maggie. If you’re not willing to be flexible in the kitchen, shop at a farmers market.

Favorite crops: Hakurei turnip, Primetime tomato, Purple Majesty potato, wild purslane—a weed to some, but to others, “the most coveted crop of the season,” says Maggie. “People have complained about getting tomatoes instead of purslane.”

Kitchen motto: When in doubt, mash it.

Teachable moment: “CSA sounds great. But will I need to cook the vegetables?”

From Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers by Sur La Table and Janet Fletcher (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010).

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