Nassau County’s nexus of nourishment.
OLD BETHPAGE—These dirt-digging hands, these soil-tipped fingernails, these farmer’s tans, these humanities degrees. This unlikely place.
Yet, here it is, a few hundred yards from the rumbling ruckus that is Route 110 in Melville, across the road from the cleaned- up Old Bethpage landfill, a surprising collection of growers and eaters, digging, planting, raising livestock—yes, dedicating their lives to organic farming—in the middle of New York State’s most densely populated county outside the five boroughs.
What started in 2007 as a Nassau County initiative to preserve a bit of farmland has become a vibrant, diverse, community experi- ment, clucking with chickens, bristling with newly planted fig trees and grapevines, dotted with dahlias and populated with volunteers.
The center of this activity is Restoration Farm, a NOFA- certified organic CSA on seven acres at Old Bethpage Restora- tion Village in Old Bethpage. In between the gabled and shingled buildings of a re-created 19th-century Long Island village, growers Caroline Fanning and Daniel Holmes and a dedicated band of assistants, interns and volunteers tend to rows of delicate greens, fronds of asparagus, feathery carrot tops, pea-laden vines, fat tomatoes, dense berry bushes and other seasonal crops, sold through their CSA and a Saturday farm stand.
Since 2007, the couple, who married by the woodburning stove in the Old Bethpage chapel in 2009 and have two children, have been cultivating, not just vegetables, but opportunities for farm neophytes to get their hands dirty and try their own agricultural projects.
“It’s a creative situation,” says Holmes, at the end of a long har- vest and distribution day. “It’s exhausting, but I don’t think there’s another model like this. I work for the benefits and then here I can have family around, and we’ve built a corps of volunteers and we have all these relationships.”
The Fanning-Holmes are unlikely farmers. Native Long Islanders on the academic path, they met farming in Poughkeepsie. Holmes, 35, from Bay Shore, had a degree in English from SUNY Stony Brook. “He thought he was going to teach English, but felt he was not mature enough,” says Fanning, 29, from Amityville. “He followed a girl who he was dating upstate and found an Ameri- corps internship at a garden next to the Poughkeepsie Farm Project.”
The PFP was a 10-acre CSA at Vassar College, where Fanning was studying liberal arts. She spent the summer of 2000 at PFP as a farm educator, learning about agriculture and developing programs to reach at-risk youth, “but I enjoyed the slave labor in the fields the best.” In the meantime, Holmes’s relationship didn’t work out, but he had found his calling on the farm.
Fanning and Holmes met there, but it wasn’t until Holmes had returned to Long Island in 2004 to become head grower at Sophia Garden CSA in Amityville, and Fanning, unsatisfied with her post-graduate city life, came by for a visit, that the sparks ig- nited. “I’m gonna marry that Farmer Dan guy,” Fanning predict- ed to her friends. They fell in love over seedlings and manure.
In 2007, after three years at Sophia Garden, they were ready to strike out on their own. Nassau County invited proposals for the land at Old Bethpage, and the couple won a six-year lease for seven acres, with 5 percent of gross sales going to the county. They fran- tically planted seeds in Holmes’s father’s greenhouse and put them in the ground through their first, abbreviated planting season. Holmes continued work as a maintenance man at the Dominican Sisters of Amityville Convent in Amityville for the benefits, and bartending, while Caroline waitressed.
Fortunately, family, friends and foodies pitched in.
“Dan has always been gregarious,” says Fanning, with four- month-old Kobi in her arms during a recent evening at the farm when members came to pick up their CSA share. Daughter Ava is three. “He takes all these volunteers with different skill sets and has really brought people onto the farm who care. I don’t know if the vision was to be this farm of different projects, but his vision and his welcoming nature naturally led to this.”
“This” is what you will find sweating in the fields or chatting around the communal outdoor lunch table on a Tuesday, Thurs- day or Saturday. “This” is dozens of families bringing covered dishes and setting up at picnic tables by an old barn for a solstice celebration. “This” is a crew of Whole Foods employees weeding and harvesting as part of a team-building day.
These folks of different ages and backgrounds have been led to the farm by a passion for growing things or an enthusiasm for food. They stay because they find community. Some are paid, some are working for simple satisfaction, others want to cultivate their own land one day. But they are all following a dream.
“A Jewish girl from Great Neck doesn’t farm,” says Lesly Steinman, who thanks to Restoration Farm has, at 50, fulfilled a life- long dream to become a Jewish girl from Great Neck who farms. After years of professional cooking, gardening and developing school garden projects, she says, “I realized I had a lot to learn. I found [Restoration Farm] in 2009 and e-mailed. They said they’d be absolutely willing to teach me. I walked up the path and said, ‘This is what I want to be.’”
Today she is employed here as a part-time grower. “At 50 it has shown me that you should follow your passion,” she says. “I never thought four years ago that someone would actually be paying me to do this. Every time I drive to work I feel lucky.”
Trish Hardgrove, 25 and from Farmingdale, graduated from Adelphi a few years ago. She majored in political science, but was drawn to agriculture. She found the Restoration Farm stand in 2009 and got an internship. Today she is assistant grower, she’s started three beehives in the berry fields and this year started a pas- tured chicken project in which CSA members can get a share for chickens she raises and processes right at the farm. “I really want to stay on Long Island, but it’s intimidating for young farmers who don’t have a trust fund,” she says. “But there are people working to make it happen. Hopefully this will continue to evolve.”
Individual evolution also brings them. Steve Cecchini of Hauppauge, 50, is a retired automobile mechanic whose interest in better food led to gardening, then CSA. During a season as interim farmer at Sophia Garden CSA in Amityville, “I got serious about it,” he says. “I was introduced, finally, to people who felt the same way I did. Before, I felt like I was alone on an island. Now I realize commu- nity exists.” He has now completed the Cornell Cooperative Exten- sion’s Master Gardener program and volunteers several times a week at Restoration, “until I find land to grow on,” he says, and has used his mechanical skills to convert one of the tractors to electrical power.
“We’re here today as part of a community service component, but it’s also fun,” says Rick White, specialty team leader at the Whole Foods Market in Manhasset. White has visited Restoration Farm on several occasions with Whole Foods employees as part of its regular team-building activities, and he notes how convenient it is to have a working farm just a short distance from one of the company’s suburban markets. “Whole Foods supports community farming whenever possible and provides support in whatever way we can. Aside from getting a tour of the farm, we picked cherry tomatoes, did some weeding and cleaned up the flower beds.”
Farming also changes the way members view nature. The woman in the sleeveless T-shirt and boots rolling the big red chicken coop is Donna Sinetar, 55, a backyard gardener from Woodbury. She has be- come “The Chicken Lady” since she brought a brood of hens to live at Restoration Farm. The 30 birds in her flock do pest control, pecking at the insects and weeds. “I used to see foxes or hawks and say, ‘How beautiful,’” Sinetar says. “Now I say, ‘Oh shit!’” Sinetar is at the farm every day, volunteering in the fields, tending to her birds and, impor- tantly, introducing children to her chickens.
The children are a major part of this community, and also include my four-year-old son and the many other kids who volunteer with their parents. He now plants (and eats!) his own peas, because he learned to harvest them and eat them off the vine from (Farmer Steve) Cecchini. He loves to dig for potatoes and ride in the farm pickup. He visits with Sinetar’s hens and feeds them rejected tomatoes he’s picked off the ground. He follows Caroline’s grandfather, George Garbarini, 84, around the rows and talks to him about plants. He likes knowing where his chicken dinner came from. He even recognizes the value of horseshit; we’ve gone from “That’s stinky horse poop” to “Hey, Mom, that’s compost! That’s good stuff!” Many of the 110 member families have the same experience; we might not have the time or land to grow our own vegetables, but we can still participate in growing food.
The transformation from farmer to eater has even happened to the growers. “Wendell Berry says that eating is an agricultural act,” says Holmes, referring to the seminal agricultural essayist. “The first couple of years, we were eating pizza every night; we had to stop that. Now I make it a point to harvest something for the meal.”
In the future, Fanning and Holmes would like to live on their own farm—they now live in Amityville and do a fair bit of tag- teaming on parenting duties. Fanning talks about homesteading, Holmes about simplifying. Regardless of their path, it seems likely their efforts will stick with the community. “We are currently pleased with the work that is being done by the organic farm at OBVR, in the event that the current users discontinue their use, we would actively seek another entity to farm at this location,” states Carnell T. Foskey, the commissioner of Nassau County De- partment of Parks, Recreation and Museums.
Four years into this project, Fanning and Holmes are committed to what is evolving into a mission. Most of all, for the couple, the farm delivers a psychic bonus, aligning values and lifestyle. “The greatest thing for me is being able to hang out with like-minded people in a beautiful place, doing beautiful work,” says Holmes.