ON GOOD LAND: The Innovative Ludlow Brothers

ludlow_brothers

What happened when two local boys left potatoes to think about the future.

The metaphorical “Aha!!” moment arrived for the innovative Ludlow brothers in 2000. Consequently, East Enders now treasure award-winning Mecox Bay cheeses and Fairview Farm vegetables, and diners at a 2008 “Whole Hog” Slow Dinner at Cittanuova forked into pastured Fairview pork for every course from appetizer to dessert.

Until a decade ago the Ludlow brothers farmed only potatoes, as had their father before them. They were beautiful potatoes grown in rich Bridgehamptom loam, trucked west off the island toward some ignominious spud fate, perhaps the indignity of a fast-food fryer. The brothers took stock, decided potatoes squandered the potential waiting in such exceptional soil, and created two new and separate businesses, each still “works in progress.”

“We can grow anything here. And we have a market at our back door,” says Art Ludlow of this affluent and knowledgeable customer base. Sitting in the shade of a tree, he sweeps his arm in a half-circle first to take in the house he grew up in, built by his greatgrandfather in the 1870s, strolling chickens, beyond them a cluster of fawn-colored Jersey cows and finally the group of buildings where he produces and ages cheeses. “They exemplify the diversification that is essential to agriculture on Long Island,” says John V. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust who has known the Ludlows his whole life. (Halsey’s father was best man at Art and Harry’s father’s wedding.) Dale Moyer, agricultural program director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, who knows Harry’s operation well, says, “The Ludlows are part of a movement in the Northeast and across America of retailing local produce and adding value.” He pointed out Harbes Farm, Karen and Fred Lee at Sang Lee Farm and Jeri Woodhouse as examples of East Enders who stand out as part of this trend.

Burying potatoes in 2002, Art and his wife, Stacy, eyed milk, tracking down their first Jersey cows and a used milk pasteurizer for $5,000. To this day it stands unused. Tasting the rich, 5 percent fat Jersey milk, they became entranced by the notion of raw-milk artisanal cheeses. By 2003 there was Atlantic Mist, one of their first three, a creamy semi-soft Camembert style that won a Slow Food award as one of the most exciting new products in the country, hooking this writer forever. The other two are tomes, a mold-ripened Shawondasee and a more intensely flavored Mecox Sunrise, which won second place in its category at the 2004 American Cheese Society competition. Art stopped entering contests because he had to send off huge whole cheeses. “I can’t afford that,” he says.

Anyway, his pedigree is secure. Just sample his cheeses. Focusing on six East End farmers markets and restaurants like the American Hotel and c/o the Maidstone, “allows me to sell locally and make more varieties,” he says. Among them are Siget, a complex and flavorful hard Gruyère-style cheese, and a farmhouse cheddar, with an aged Gouda and an exciting blue cheddar in the works. You’ll find them in Lucy’s Whey, Eli’s in Amagansett and the city, Citarella, Cavinola’s, Schiavoni’s IGA, the Green Thumb and Country Garden.

Harry, a Cornell agricultural graduate specializing in vegetables, and his wife, Barbara, have always grown all the produce they eat. In 2001, after working with a consultant to develop a business plan, they launched their farm stand for locals. They also planted their first eight-acre corn maize with paths cut through a 10-foot-high spread of field corn and companion pick-your-own pumpkin patch. Next, two greenhouses jump-started the farm-stand season to open at the end of April, then 4,000 square feet of winter-protected high tunnels, a handsome farm stand linked to phone and power, and tents to cover produce tables heaped with tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, sweet corn, turnips and flowers. Maize traffic produces more sweet-corn sales in the two months after Labor Day than before.

This year they achieved the smaller grower’s dream, a health department- approved kitchen full of sleek stainless steel where Barbara, helped by their daughter, Meredith, turns out everything from garlic dill pickles to hummus, potato salad, veggie-studded quinoa salad and baked goods. The 10-by-40-foot outside kitchen stands behind what was once half the home Ludlow’s great-grandmother grew up in. (It was moved in the early 1900s from its original site in Sagaponack and made whole.) Harry cobbled the kitchen together last winter at restaurant auctions, from eBay and Craigslist, an impossible investment at full price even for a thriving farm stand.

But it’s too soon to say if they are thriving economically. “We are short of our goal, but having a good time,” says Art. Harry notes that without Art’s cheeses they could be in the red. That’s because they are investing so heavily in infrastructure and ploughing back a chunk of their earnings to support their mutual drive to run self-sustaining farms à la Joel Salatin. (The next generation of Ludlows seems even more impassioned about this goal.) “We’re on the cutting edge of an attempted cultural change,” says Harry.

By industrial food standards, both Ludlows excel at inefficiency. It reflects choices that underlie the outstanding quality and flavor of their products. These spring from their respect for treating their farms as self-sustaining units, incorporating animals, producing their own compost, enriching their soils and choosing more expensive inputs. Art says, “I could make it really easy on myself and grow corn, corn silage, fermented feed and all that for my herd. The problem with that is that it will compromise the quality of the milk and consequently the cheese. I’m not going to do that.”

Their roughly 50-acre farms have no economies of scale. But the issue isn’t economy. It’s quality. “The cost of milk production out here is about $12 a gallon,” explains Art. Commercial prices for milk run $15–$18 a hundred weight,” or $1.87 to $2.25 a gallon.

But take a tiny sliver of Sigit or Atlantic Mist made from the milk of a grassfed herd that Art or his son, Peter, extends toward you on a long knife at a farmers market. Let it melt on your tongue. Then reflect upon price. The Ludlow Jerseys feed intensively in small plots daily, moving to a fresh plot the next, returning to the grass nibbled to the earth today only after 30 days when it’s again lush, a program devised to make a farm self-sustaining by Virginia farmer Joel Salitan at his Polyface farm in Virginia.

Art’s son, Peter, a concert pianist and organist committed to Mecox Bay, has designed an eight-year rotation of feed crops, based on Salitan’s vision and requiring 14 extra rented acres. The feed will replace purchased supplements and benefit the milk’s flavor. Solar power may be next. A few steps west, Harry’s son, Nathan, a graduate of Cornell soil science, handles all the tractor and field work and grows crops like rye, which when mowed creates a natural compost. The brothers use chemicals only as a last resort to save a field of corn or an animal.

Both brothers raise hogs. “You can buy a pig,” says Harry. Art calls his whey-eating pigs “a natural for a dairy.” Art produces raw milk and raises chicken, veal calves and grassfed beef for the Ludlows’ table and to share with friends and neighbors as his animals’ manure enriches life in the soil. Art also sells 250 turkeys for the holidays. The brothers’ exchange of mono-cropped potatoes for value-added products thrills food lovers. In the Fairview Farm stand one customer digs into a container of granola; another grabs eight cow pies, intense patties of dark chocolate and nuts. There is Art’s ricotta, which he heats to 180 degrees, inefficiently withholding vinegar or lemon, which prods curd to congeal rapidly. “Mine takes 24 hours, it has a tiny, moist curd. Perhaps it isn’t even ricotta,” muses Art.

“I take whatever ricotta he has,” says Donna McCue, owner of the farmers market staple Fat Ass Fudge, as does chef Joe Realmuto of Nick and Toni’s recently on tasting it. Confides McCue, “I label it ricotta fudge. Sells out in minutes. It’s beyond cheesecake, beyond fudge, beyond heaven.” A customer nods knowingly.

The ricotta’s flavor differs with each batch, reflecting the flavor of the particular cheese producing the whey. Since Art warns it’s not to be squandered on pasta, at a recent dinner I served it with peaches splashed with Grand Marnier. “It’s fantastic, like whipped cream, light, fluffy,” marvels one of my dinner guests. “I’ve never tasted anything like it before.”

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

Mecox Bay Dairy, 855 Mecox Bay Road, Bridgehampton; 631.537.0335

Fairview Farm, 69 Horsemill Lane, Bridgehampton; 631.537.6154

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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.