Cosmic Cultivator

Good vibrations. K.K. Haspel depends on sun, soil and harnessing otherworldly forces.

Good vibrations. K.K. Haspel depends on sun, soil and harnessing otherworldly forces.

“Walk through the magic arbor,” K.K. Haspel calls out to a couple as they approach tables overflowing with produce and bouquets of colorful flowers shielded from the sun by equally colorful market umbrellas. The disgruntled looking guy tagging after his flower-buying wife asks: “What happens if I do?” Kathy Keller (who has been known as K.K. since childhood) replies: “You get happy!”

The disgruntled guy looked around and cracked a smile. Maybe it’s the heavenly field of flowers. Or the ubiquitous butterflies, birds and assorted other harmonious components of this nine-year-old agricultural vision. Maybe it’s just K.K. herself. It’s hard not to be happy in this place where nature appears to be at its contented best.

There is something indefinable in the air here, which isn’t surprising since the Farm is one of the epicenters of biodynamic farming on the East End. Developed by Rudolf Steiner more than 100 years ago, biodynamics emphasizes regular composting, mixing like-minded crops, and other hallmarks of ecological farming. But it also depends on the light and heat from otherworldly forces, like how the position of the moon, stars and planets affect each and every seed.

K. K. was first exposed to this approach at the Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York, and by Jeff Frank at the Nature Lyceum School for Environmental Horticulture in Westhampton. Like other biodynamic farmers, she bases her planting and harvesting on the Stella Natura calendar, which assigns roots, flowers and leaves their own special days. For example, when growing radishes the goal is beautiful roots, not leaves or flowers, so a radish is sowed, cultivated and harvested on a “root day.”

To the uninitiated, this may seem unusual, even more cryptic than the Farmers Almanac. Indeed, K.K. says that for some of the people who stop by her stand, the fact that vegetables actually grow in the earth, from seeds, is a revelation. “Just recently, I was trying to explain about open pollination, and how I save seed to plant the following year. I was talking about tomatoes. This woman couldn’t believe it. She kept saying, “You mean you grow these from seeds?” I had to say it four times before she understood.”

One cold and desolate North Fork January day in 1999, K.K., a builder, and her husband, Ira, an architect, were looking for a second home. They wanted “a barn in the woods, something small, private, without a phone,” and their realtor showed them this farm of slightly less than five acres. It had been abandoned for years. Immediately and independently they fell in love with the place and made an offer that day. K.K. started seeding the fields with flowers even before the papers were signed. This was on the advice of the previous owner, who told her: “Don’t let the lawyers stop you from plantin’.” Once there were seeds in the ground they had to be watered, and soon K.K. and Ira made Southold their permanent home. Right from the start, she “had a vision.” In her “mind’s eye” she saw her land as it is today.

Everything on the Farm is grown from organic heritage seed—that is, varieties grown decades before plant breeders started narrowing our pantry down to the biggest or reddest or best travelers or firmest. K.K. estimates she plants about 20 different crops, including tomatoes, spinach, kale, salad greens, leeks, beets, onions, berries, potatoes, sprouts, cabbage, garlic, shallots and melons, with numerous sub-varieties of each. You’ll likely see tomatoes, beets, garlic, beans and berries that you’ve never encountered before. The tomatoes, for example, are in such a wide range of shapes and colors that to fill up a basket with large and small red, yellow, green, ivory, orange and purple fruits is to become an instant still-life artist. About two dozen kinds are available; including Brandywine, Green Zebra, Great White and the beautiful Striped German, which are yellow on the outside and red on the inside. There are four different kinds of garlic and wonderful beets including Chioggia, Golden, and Detroit Dark Reds, and they’ll probably get dug out of the earth while you wait. Depending on when you arrive, you may also find leeks, shallots, berries, fresh-picked salad greens, onions, potatoes, gorgeous Rosa Bianca eggplants, edamame and, if you manage to stop by early enough, thin and tender haricots verts. Four acres are devoted to edible produce, and almost all of the work is done by K.K., Ira, family and friends. Then there are the flowers. An acre is dedicated just to them, yielding irresistible fat bunches of zinnias and sunflowers that, when lined up in buckets on a sunny day, turn a tiny stretch of Route 25 into a Crayola colored garden.

Such diversity also changes the calculus of K.K.’s pest control—or lack thereof. “Most insects are beneficial,” she explains. “When you don’t use pesticides and herbicides, the soil is healthy and the plants are healthy. Weak plants send off a smell; healthy ones don’t send that signal and the pests don’t come. When you have a balanced ecosystem, when things are in balance, everything is healthy.” In other words, plants attract beneficial insects, birds eat the ones that aren’t, local compost enriches the soil, and the soil stays healthy and is preserved for future generations. It is the essence of sustainability. No chemical pesticides or herbicides are used (or, indeed, are necessary), and this lack of chemicals actually strengthens the immune systems of the plants, making them higher in antioxidants and more nutritious.

K.K. is the East End’s unofficial ambassador of biodynamics—her enthusiasm is infectious, and her results are spectacular. Brimming with energy, she is both strong and peaceful—a woman certain she is doing something to heal her portion of the planet. She has neither the time nor the inclination to proselytize, but will gladly give help and advice to fellow growers. “When someone is ready to change, that person will seek advice about how to do it, and that is the right time to teach.”

The Farm is usually crowded with tourists, locals and many weekly customers who stock up on their way to and from the city. K.K. seems to know most of them. She pretty much sells out everyday. There are also the local restaurateurs: North Fork Table, also in Southold, was one of her early supporters (Ira was the architect of their charming restaurant and inn), and you’ll find her produce at the Old Mill Inn in Mattituck.

Those chefs can do wonderful things, but with produce this fresh and flavorful you may just want to scrub some of those freshly dug beets and wrap them in foil, place in a pan, and roast in a 400-degree oven for about an hour (or until a thin-bladed knife easily pierces the foil), cool, and slice over some of the mixed greens, drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Add some local cheese and have a perfect lunch. Even easier—peel and grate those raw beets and toss them with the fresh greens, onions or shallots, and a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. And easier still—just slice a large heritage tomato, sprinkle it with coarse salt, and savor the summer, slowly, in every bite.

Customers might also consider K.K.’s innovative—and convenient—variation on the CSA, which she calls “Gourmet for you and me.” There is no minimum dollar amount, no money paid up front, and you can skip weeks whenever you want. Customers call K.K. the night before, place their order for the following day, and can pick it up until 5 p.m.

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