A FARMER’S LIFE FOR ME

A couple in North Haven make a go at small-scale farming.

By Chris Gangemi • photographs by Lindsay Morris

The path that leads to Sunset Beach Farm in North Haven has a low-hung, heavy green feel that, with a little imagination, could be the opening to an oversize rabbit’s burrow. After a few steps, it reveals an antique tractor, today a bed for a contented orange cat. Then, a ramshackle structure whose only grace is a handwritten sign that reads, “eggs.”

Chickens are everywhere. You could be in an E.B White book.

Just past a pond and stacks of beehives is the farmed field. An imperfect looking thing, somewhat lumpy and dark, with tamped-down grass walkways. It rests in juxtaposition and as a retort to a mansion that rises just past a deer fence.

It’s in this wild, idyllic and life-full setting that Jon Wagner and Karin Bellemare farm an acre of land, along with another two acres they lease from the Peconic Land Trust in Amagansett. They will be able to support 40 families in this, their second year of operating a CSA.

I ask Jon about a massive pile of leaves. He corrects me, “They’re not leaves, they’re gold.” Later, in the field, he reaches down to pick up a hunk of earth. It is black, and holds its shape in his hands. He applies a little pressure, and it crumbles into tiny nuggets of perfectly structured soil.

Gold. I get it. Wagner and Bellemare have been investing in this land for the last few years, planting soil-enhancing cover crops, bringing in large amounts of organic matter and adding biodynamic preparations. From this rich soil they plan on raising 25 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 3,000 pounds of potatoes, loads of different vegetables, sprouts and herbs. “We plan out what we’re going to plant, what we’re going to mulch and what we’re going to weed based on the calendar,” explains Karin, referring to the Stella Natura calendar widely used in biodynamic farming.

When I ask Jon to tell me about his history and what got him into farming, he shrugs off the question, more like a taciturn Kansan farmer than a guy who grew up in the Hamptons.

“I’m not that interesting,” he says. “All tomatoes and potatoes.”

What is interesting is how Jon and Karin have utterly thrown themselves into farming.

They met at Green Mountain College, where Jon majored in environmental studies and Karin in environmental business. In their senior year, while most of their peers were becoming proficient in beer and pizza studies, Jon and Karin were becoming locavores.

“We were obsessed with food,” says Karin. “We were always making these extravagant meals and going to farmers markets. Vermont really connected us to the local thing.”

They both credit their “foodiness” to childhood experience. Jon’s family owns a 55-thousand-acre ranch in Austrailia, which hasn’t changed ownership in 300 years. A visit to the ranch gave him some real perspective about land and his family history.

“I realized that farming is in my blood,” he says.

As for Karin, her father gave her a tiny plot of land in her backyard to farm when she was five years old. “I only grew carrots,” she says. “I love carrots.”

So there’s the history and a certain amount of romance. But in 2011 can you, say, sustain a family by running a small CSA?

Some back-of-the-napkin math says it would be difficult. If they meet their goal of serving 40 families this year, at $850 a family, they’re grossing $34,000 from the CSA. They are also participating at two separate farmers markets and selling their vegetables to Provisions in Sag Harbor and to Greenies on Shelter Island. If things go incredibly well and they gross another $20,000, things would still be tight.

But so far, refreshingly, they aren’t concerned about the money. Jon says, “After school I was around a lot of people who were all about getting a good job and making a lot of money but, I dunno…I guess I never felt like that was true.”

And maybe if you’re just going to start a farm from scratch, it’s best not to think about money. It might even help to not think about the steep learning curve, the backbreaking labor and the rising at dawn.

But the farming community on eastern Long Island is now so robust, with new farms like “Amber Waves,” the Sylvester Manor CSA and Steve Eaton’s “Bliss Foods” project, that help is never too far away. Scott Chaskey and Quail Hill Farm, whose land adjoins Jon and Karin’s Amagansett acreage, has been a source of inspiration.

Jon says, “It’s like we’re one organization and not little groups going against each other. We’ll have a big mulch day and everyone comes from the different farms and we all mulch. We order shipments together so we can order bulk. Everyone saves money. So we have one umbrella of all of us but under the umbrella we’re all individuals.”

Walking back home through the farm, wondering if this is a sustainable career choice, I see a scarlet tanager flitting around up in a very old oak tree. “What a strange place to see a tanager,” I think. They’re normally found deep in woodlands.

But then I figure this place is magic. The food will grow in the shadows of mansions, the cow-horn tea will fend off insect predators and bad vibes, and Jon and Karin will be filthy rich and farming this land in 30 more years.

At least a Sag Harbor locavore can hope.

Christopher Gangemi writes and ruminates from his home in Sag Harbor.

Newsletter