ON GOOD LAND: The Poet, Grounded

A pioneering community farmer in Amagansett speaks for the land.

Planting Garlic

It was lunchtime in a little café in Amagansett, New York, a few years back and the actor Alec Baldwin, now a star of 30 Rock, was sitting across from organic farmer Scott Chaskey. A woman hesitantly approached the two men in the booth, recognition lighting her face. She looked from the actor with the contagious smile to the bearded farmer then breathed, “Aren’t you…Scott Chaskey?” That’s how a very close friend of Scott’s tells the story.

Chaskey, the director of Quail Hill Farm, one of the oldest community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription services in the country, is almost instantly identifiable by his bushy, flaxensoft white beard. Driving along Deep Lane by the farm you often see the beard and lean-framed Chaskey silhouetted against the light, driving his tractor along the top of the hill.

You easily spot him among the thousand attending the January Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference in upstate New York. He’s board president of the 1,700-member group. He’s everywhere: mentoring growers on organic farms, coaching five farm apprentices, teaching in local elementary schools then guiding children’s hands as they learn to seed, touring graduate students over Quail Hill fields. At last July’s potluck supper in the apple orchard,
yes, there was the soft-spoken, bearded farmer reading one of his poems, for as his passport indicates his profession is “farmer-poet.”

While he may look like he stepped out of a 19th-century daguerreotype, Chaskey personifies the new breed of highly educated, highly motivated farmers who are leading America’s CSA movement. “Farming is my passion,” says Chaskey, who received a master’s degree in writing from Antioch University and studied for two years at Oxford University. “My wife has never seen me without the beard,” he grins. When Megan and Scott-—both studying abroad-—met in London in 1978, the beard was red.

Soon he was tutored by an old Cornish farmer in an ancient understanding of organics and soil. In the early 1980s, Scott and Megan married and moved to Mousehole in Cornwall on the English Coast. There he heard of the Cliff Meadows on the south-facing slope, known locally as “the earliest ground in Britain,” which once grew the first new potatoes, and first daffodils sent to Covent Garden. It fits Scott’s persona that he managed to rent Cliff Meadow
land to farm, bought an acre he still owns and single-handedly built a frame house. The Cornishman visited daily. Scott learned.

With Megan (an accomplished flutist) and the first of their three children, he returned to Amagansett in 1989 for an extended visit. There they attended a meeting of a CSA to which Megan’s parents belonged. Unexpectedly, Chaskey found himself planting the first crops for Quail Hill Farm, which would open as a CSA project of Peconic Land Trust in the spring of 1990.

In Amagansett, his passion for protecting the soil—its structure, its health, the life that thrives in it—grew. It took him several years to nurture the land back to vitality. He began to teach everyone who would listen—CSA members, schoolchildren, chefs, other farmers—about the critical need to save diversified organic seeds and the need to farm sustainably. “I don’t think anyone realizes how central education is to what we do,” he says.

There is his other passion: writing and poetry. His second book of nonfiction, Seed Time, its title from a Wordsworth poem, is about the relationship between farming and writing. “It follows a seed from its development until it blossoms and goes back to seed, just as a writer needs seed time,” says his literary agent, former editor Paul Bresnick. A charter member of Quail Hill, Bresnick says, “I’d always admired the letters Scott wrote to farm members, which always began with some beautiful writing about nature, about land, about wildlife.” Some six years ago, now in a new career as a literary agent, Bresnick persuaded Scott to write a book inspired by the newsletters, This Common Ground—Seasons on an Organic Farm.

Though the well-reviewed book speaks of nature, 58-year-old Chaskey doesn’t view himself primarily as a nature poet, though he supposes many do. His real subject: “the mystery of self and others in relationship to the world. The big picture.”

Chaskey reflects back on his time at Oxford. “I had a reader’s card at the Bodlean Library, the Bodlean,” he says, his voice still rising in amazement. “It’s an unusual thing to stay active as a writer and to teach without being an academic. So while I’ve done some teaching, I’ve been lucky enough to have a whole different profession, working out-of-doors…. Writing a poem requires a lot of space, more space for me than writing prose.”

“Space from people?” a visitor questions.

“Space-—whatever space means. It also involves silence, and more time than I’ve had available for years.” Then, “The solitude of the back field…that can be a very inspirational place, the back field, alone seeding in the earth.”

While the 5-foot-9 poet may run short of time, time reshaped is one of the bonuses the more than 200 harvest-share members receive along with produce. As you head down the sandy path to the little farm stall your intention is to fill several sacks with vegetables—in August, onions, peppers, red fingerlings, fennel—quickly harvest some jade beans and eggplant in the fields and dash off. But you only take a few steps past the wild blackberry bushes and milkweed when you feel your breath let go as the mystique of the oasis Chaskey has nurtured in the midst of prime Hamptons real estate takes hold.

“When you walk into Quail Hill, you walk out of a 9-to-5 business time frame into seasonal time,” says Kristi Hood, chefowner of the nearby Springs General Store. Like many members, she has contributed recipes to two editions of Quail Hill’s cookbook. It is a sophisticated primer on preparing the diverse variety of vegetables a CSA grows. Says Hood, “Scott is very much in sync with the land. He extends his love into the land, his love into what he grows. He is a lovely, spacey, delightful man.” You sense this personality in his cookbook introduction. Nineteen years ago, Chaskey was intent on nourishing his beloved soil, not a social community. It quickly became obvious that a very social community was growing alongside the vegetables, over the vegetables as recipes flew, and in winter when land lay
silent under ground cover, its friendships deepened. “The extraordinary thing about this community-supported agriculture movement,” says Chaskey, “is that it came out of a need that many people had to re-create community. It’s reached so many. I never had any calculation in the beginning of trying to create something like this. But it’s how it’s spun out basically.” Twice monthly, Chaskey broadcasts his thoughts on this “broad community—of the soils, of people, of animals” on WLIU, the local NPR station.

Those Chaskey touches support his community as it interacts with the outside community. There are occasional classes, perhaps on canning or bees. In the apple orchard there is a community pancake breakfast and a gala fund-raising dinner with 150 sitting at a single long, candlelit, white-clothed table. It’s prepared by top local chefs volunteering their time clearly with enthusiasm.

Chaskey is a singular man. There is a palpable chemistry that draws others to him, perhaps because he is so soft-spoken and seems accessible, perhaps because his passions are so visible. It is one reason why he connects as a teacher.

He often arrives in East End classrooms with packets of seeds, soil mix, compost, worm casings. He’s visited most classrooms. He has just seeded the new Springs School greenhouse with lettuces, green and herbs. At East Hampton’s private Ross School, students receive a hands-on understanding of the importance of nature’s cycles. After meals, students walk into a narrow passageway and scrape their plates into compost bins. Twice a week these scraps are carted to Quail Hill’s compost heap. “When the Ross kids come out to plant in the spring they see their compost is part of nourishing the soil,” Chaskey says. “Then they help plant the crops that they eat at school. So it’s the whole cycle.”

In addition to farming more than 275 varieties of produce, herbs and flowers on six acres for the CSA, the farm grows crops on another 24 for schools and restaurants, and shepherds 120 more for Quail Hill’s Preserve.

Chaskey has inspired many with his local, seasonal message. Joe Realmuto, executive chef at top East Hampton restaurant Nick and Toni’s, says, “Fifteen years ago, Scott gave us gardening lessons on what to grow, when to grow. He’s an artist so in touch with the earth.” Chaskey set up tents for inner-city children from Camp Erutan (nature spelled backwards) on nearby land preserved by the Land Trust to camp overlooking Gardiners Bay and learn to finger Quail Hill soil. Says Chaskey, “Start-up CSAs come here—one a year for 10 years—with their list of questions. They help us seed; we give or sell them the transplants.” When Scott arrived he found only one other organic farm, the Green Thumb, on Long Island’s South Fork. There are now several dozen on Long Island’s East End. Chaskey has mentored most.

“There is something very grounding and centered about Scott’s perspective on the world around us,” says Fred Lee, North Fork organic grower and owner of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic. “His poetry dovetails and complements his farming. There are times I think, ‘I can’t do this.’ Seeing how stable and competent Scott seems to be adds to my confidence. [And I realize,] yes, it can be done!”

Chaskey’s influence, passion and efforts to teach both growers and consumers about saving diverse organic seeds and expanding sustainable agriculture to rebuild soil extends across the Northeast.

He’s been on the NOFA board for 10 years, its president for two. Board member Elizabeth Henderson, of Peacework Farm in the Finger Lakes, speaks of the power of Chaskey’s soft-spoken delivery and how he overcame former animus, “Under Scott’s leadership there’s cooperation and negotiation rather than hidden agendas and secret plotting against each other.” He’s also a board member of Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities.

Despite his deep roots in the organic community, Chaskey is a questioning soul. “What is my view of current organic standards?” he asks. “I guess you can tell because we’re not certified, although Quail Hill grows organically. We’re choosing at Quail Hill not to be certified, even though I’m on the board of NOFA New York, which is a certifier. What I don’t support is the attempts at manipulation by big business.” What he strongly supports: certification for the many dairy farmers whom NOFA is helping transition to organic operation, and teaching consumers about the virtues of organic milk.

For Chaskey the bottom line for agriculture across the land and in the solitude of the back field is sustainability. “It takes nature 700 years to build one inch of topsoil. The world’s six-inch layer of topsoil upon which all agriculture depends is endangered by intensive industrial farming.” He hopes to revive an “effective NOFA organic seed program that connected farmers and consumers with the importance of maintaining a viable diverse organic seed supply.”

Tomatoes illustrate what Chaskey means about diversity. He once actively disliked tomatoes—until the mid-’90s, when a farm member insisted he plant seeds she had saved from an amazing tomato she’d tasted in New Jersey.

He is asked: “Hated tomatoes. Why?”

“Because I had never tasted a tomato,” he said.

He knew only bland, industrial impersonators. Chaskey grew out Terri Stein’s seeds, barely believing their flavor. He plunged into tomatoes, scores of varieties. Soon a popular tomato tasting was drawing several hundred adults and children annually to vote on bite-sized samples of the 40-plus varieties at Quail Hill: Matt’s Wild Cherry, Pruden’s Purple, Brandywines, Jaune Flammee, Green Zebras.

Disaster and the late blight struck Quail Hill’s tomato crops this season, and for the first time its tomato tasting was canceled. Seven thousand blighted tomato plants were pulled up, 3,000 eggplant plants fell to Mexican potato beetles and the deer munched many crops on the hill fields to bare ground. Losses in fruit easily ran $50,000.

Chaskey says, “Every year is so different, so unpredictable, that’s part of the game. This year we had these significant losses, but also had other beautiful crops. That’s why we believe in diversity.”

Some CSA members grumbled about failed crops, but most rallied round, for Chaskey’s manner inspires confidence. “He has a certain calmness and self-assurance, that by taking your time something can and will be done in a simple way,” says Sydney Albertini. Chaskey has created a prototype of community-supported agriculture whose most significant harvest may be in how it inspires members to interact as a community, spending thousands of personal
hours supporting the farm and its projects even in adversity. Those touched by Chaskey and the farm tend to stay committed.

Albertini—–whose husband, Jerome, a professional photographer, is working this year as an apprentice on the farm after the couple spent the previous three years as harvest-share members–—says, “It’s hard to take your time these days to do anything just for the joy of it. The farm is pure joy.” To express what she calls “homage to the farm” this artist and mother of three young children spent 55 hours sewing a quilt of Quail Hill—, of the hill, the valley and the
stand. She then donated it to be auctioned at Quail Hill’s August fund-raiser, the At the Common Table dinner in the apple orchard.

The winning bid of $2,750 came from a man with a contagious smile. “This is going to hang on my wall,” 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin said with obvious delight to the diners near him.

Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk where she is completing a book about flavor.

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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.