The Mushroom Man, Redux

A Bridgehampton farmer’s business thrives as his community grows.

In late August, at the final Amagansett Food Institute fundraiser of the season, a party at Amber Waves Farm that features a “farmers fare” of simple, impressive dishes (salted-in-the-husk roasted corn from Quail Hill, an herb-topped egg custard served in an eggshell from Sunset Beach Farm, assorted tomato crostinis), Bridgehampton farmer David Falkowski cradles a Southampton Publick House beer and oozes with enthusiasm. He nods his head as institute director Jennifer Desmond describes, for the crowd of 200 attendees, the vision for an educational center, kitchen incubator and general home planned for the good-food movement on the East End—think of it as Stone Barns East.

“If they do acquire a space large enough, and they are going to, there will be a processing place for farmers,” says Falkowski, who has brought roasted potatoes, zucchini and oyster mushrooms— the mycological crop that launched his farming career. “That is huge. If I have extra product and I can bring it somewhere where there is a chef and kitchen to turn it into a shelf-stable product, that’s product that I don’t have to waste and that I can sell.”

Falkowski claps loudly at the end of Desmond’s speech. A crew of fire jugglers warms the crowd in anticipation of a final act from Samba Boom. But Falkowski isn’t done talking. The nascent institute, he notes, has already helped install EBT machines at three local farmers markets, enabling customers with food-assistance credits, as well as people without cash, to shop more easily—and delivering a boost to spending at those markets. The institute is working on a grant for a mobile slaughterhouse for Suffolk County, and has assembled an advisory board that includes several high-profile locals, from actor Alec Baldwin to Grace Foundation president and Montauk resident, Scott Cullen. (Falkowski has also recently been asked to join the board.)

“This is a community-building organization,” Falkowski continues. “You have farmer organizations and churches and other charitable organizations, but I sometimes think there is a lack of cohesiveness among them. But, here, with food, there’s potential for a lot of opportunities for lots of people to benefit,” he says. “AFI exists in this nexus.”

Such big thinking may not be typical for a 30-something farmer, or a farmer of any age. But Falkowski isn’t your typical Bridgehampton farmer. There is the scruffy beard and dreadlocked hair that places him more in Berkeley than on Butter Lane, where he has his greenhouse and farm fields on land that has been in his family for over 150 years.

And although Falkowski might have the appearance of an outsider, he is more local than most of the people he sells next to at local farmers markets. Along with Wesnofskes, Musnickis and Babinskis, the Falkowskis were among the first Polish families to start farming potatoes and Brassicas on the South Fork in the mid- 19th century. Although parts of the family, including Falkowski’s father, John, have decamped for upstate New York, his uncle, Tom Falkowski, still grows legendary melons and cauliflower for the popular Country Gardens farm stand at the intersection of Scuttle Hole Road and Mitchell Lane. David’s grandfather was locally known as the “pickle man” for his envious cucumber crops.

When the Sag Harbor farmers market’s permit was revoked for a week by a failure to keep paperwork up to date, it was Falkowski that the market vendors sent to apologize to the Village Board. And when Hurricane Irene put large chunks of upstate New York underwater, it was Falkowski who mounted an aid campaign.

“David’s got a strong sense of what farmers and producers need in order to be more successful with their businesses,” says Desmond, not- ing that conversations she had this past summer with Falkowski during farmers market duties have helped shape her organization’s mission of becoming a working food hub. “David is a great leader in this area.”

Falkowski’s path to leadership in the local farming community wasn’t always a straight one. His father had grown up on a farm but became a builder in his 20s, and although as a child and teenager, Falkowski was called on to do farm chores and help in the family garden, he doesn’t remember it as one of his favorite activities.

“David definitely did his own thing. It’s not as though he was riding the tractor as a young child,” says David’s mother, Lynn Falkowski. “But it is in his genes. It’s in his blood. I do believe the roots are there. It was almost the universe saying, ‘Come, David, this is where you want to be.’” As a boy, he was active in 4-H (Lynn was a parent-leader) and the Boy Scouts. In college, he got a degree in early childhood education, and then struck out on the road. He followed the band Phish around the country for a spell, picking up sales chops while hawking water and beer in concert parking lots. On the road, Falkowski started to absorb more and more information on ecological living, and found himself being drawn to farming, at least in a peripheral way. “My interest was bigger,” he recalls.

When I first met Falkowski in 2004, he had just returned from a permaculture conference where he studied with Paul Stamets, the international mushroom expert and guru. He was compelled by Stamets’s assertion that mushrooms could save the world—by helping to remediate toxic waste sites, by priming soils to absorb more green- house gases, by staving off cancer. “I did briefly have a “Kiss me, I’m saving the world,” sticker on my van,” he says of the GMC conversion van that he lived in for a little while. “No one ever kissed me.”

That conference had been the final push for Falkowski, at around the same age that his father left farming, to launch an edible mushroom business. He built a spore lab in his home and started experimenting with growing mushrooms—on wood chips, logs and straw bags. His first blooms were a success. And as word got out of a steady source of local gourmet mushrooms, demand quickly outstripped supply. Falkowski’s mushrooms showed up in champignons mélange au beurre at the American Hotel and in risotto specials at Nick & Toni’s. It was a flourish of agricultural entrepreneurship the likes of which are still rare on the East End. Local chefs dubbed Falkowski the “mushroom man.”

And when farmers markets started popping up in towns along the South Fork, Falkowski was among the first farmers asked to bring his wares. Along with Mecox Bay dairy cheeses and Horman’s Pickles, Falkowski’s mushrooms were an East End market fixture. In fact, he went from counting restaurants as his main customers to selling almost all his product direct to consumers at eight weekly farmers markets.

“It’s a retail price,” he says of this shift in business model. “It’s cash in hand. That I don’t need to chase people down for.” Falkowski won’t take much credit for this successful shift that has been nearly a decade in the making. “Does a guy that young have that sort of foresight?” he asks rhetorically.

His restaurant accounts now include a more selective list: the Living Room at the Maidstone, Stuart’s Seafood, the Green Thumb, and Il Capuccino restaurant in Sag Harbor, where the mushrooms and vegetables are used in weekly specials and elsewhere throughout the menu.

But his bread and butter is farmers market customers, who seek still the only source of gourmet mushrooms on the East End, but also an expanding array of vegetables, fruit and other edibles Falkowski brings to market. He’s now cultivating three acres around his original greenhouse. He’s built a new vegetable transplant green- house, and he recently invested in a waterwheel transplanter that will allow him to do one week’s worth of transplanting in two hours. He is well versed in the costs and benefits of various mulching mate- rials—he favors 50/50 biotello, a biodegradable plastic mulch.

He has a flock of 200 chickens, a favorite egg source for many households, and does a steady business in selling live chickens to aspiring poultry keepers or cooks. “We’ve integrated them into the farm,” he says, with chicken tractors and movable fencing that allows him to move the birds through his garden beds, partly inspired by his readings of Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer famous for his complicated animal-grazing rotations. Falkowski notes that Salatin uses multiple species, while Falkowski only has chickens so far. “I’m just using the chickens more acutely. I really like the weed-control benefits.” He’s seen reduced blooms of some weeds, although he’s also noticed that “when you change the cultural conditions and eliminate some weeds,” other weeds tend to pop up. “They eat weed seeds, break up thatch, improve the soil. The grazing also supplements their diets. My mother says, “’It’s the bugs that make the free-range chicken eggs so good.’”

“The mushrooms I kinda got dialed in,” says Falkowski. “So now the veggies, the chicken.” His expanding crop offerings now feed a farm stand on Butter Lane, and it might eventually feed a CSA. “The CSA model in general is something I’d like to work toward,” Falkowski says. “It will be the most stable model for farmers and con- sumers to interact. It’s a shared burden. It’s economically constant, it’s not going to fluctuate with weather. It’s like cash on the barrel.”

Selling at farmers markets hasn’t just been good business for Falkowski, it’s given him an outlet for discussion. “I like to touch people,” he says of getting to chat with customers about local or global matters, whether it’s trends in the local building trade or the evolving nature of organic agriculture. His mushroom business was certified organic for five years, but he recently stopped seeking certification because of what he described as inconsistency in the standards. (Specifically there is a product that used to be allowable under the standards, and that Falkowski uses, that was recently taken off the approved list with little explanation.) “I’m an adamant believer that small- and medium- scale organic agriculture can feed the world,” he says. “It’s something I believe in, but I’m really questioning things right now.”

Having concluded that even organic standards can be clouded by politics, lately he’s been telling customers that more important than organic certification are four related questions he encourages everyone to ask their farmer: 1) Is your seed GMO? 2) What kind of fertilizer do you use? 3) What do you spray? 4) Do you use compost, and if you make your own, what goes into it? These questions inevitability lead to a conversation, allowing Falkowski to hone his own pitch and practices. For instance, his compost contains only his own farm-grown organic matter and cuttings from three local nurseries.

Such constant inquiring seems to be an integral part of Falkowski’s personality—not so much to challenge authority, but to refine his farm operation. He likes discussing such matters with Larry and Bill Halsey of the Green Thumb in Water Mill, as well as with Steve Storch, of Natural Science Organics. Falkowski, who has made his own compost since he launched the mushroom-growing business (which generates some very compost-worthy straw), recently added a Storch compost tea stirrer to his stock of equipment. And Falkowski notes clear influence from his uncle who farms just up the road. “My uncle runs a tight ship,” he says.

But Falkowski also draws information from farm conferences he regularly attends in the off-season—the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, Northeast Organic Farmers As- socation, the Young Farmers conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
And, perhaps most important, he leans on his contemporaries. (“The older, more traditional farmers are pretty head-to-the- ground and keep to themselves.”) This network of next-generation, mostly 30-something farmers regularly communes at the weekly rotation of East End farmers markets, and it’s here that Falkowski most relishes talking shop.

Ian Calder-Piedmonte, who runs Balsam Farms in Amagansett with Alex Balsam, regularly sees Falkowski at the handful of farmers markets where they both sell. The two have carpooled to assorted farming conferences throughout the Northeast, and Balsam Farms has lent Falkowski equipment as his own farming has grown and evolved. “It’s been a two-way road,” says Calder- Piedmonte, “with Dave quick to help us out by lending his trailer, or informing us of something pertinent to our operation—land for lease, equipment for sale, et cetera.”

Like Falkowski, Calder-Piedmonte sees neighboring farmers as allies more than competition, even if they both might sell tomatoes or melons. “I appreciate that Dave, like Alex and I, is trying to make his living in this way—in this place—knowing that our road probably won’t lead to riches but might lead to fulfillment.”

Amanda Merrow and Katie Baldwin of Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett also sell at several of the same farmers markets as Falkowski. “In getting to know Dave over the last few years I have come to greatly appreciate his commitment to his work,” says Merrow. “He does not do anything halfway.” She notes the “beautiful, high-quality produce” he brings to market, “especially his Fairy Tale mini eggplant.” Like Desmond, Merrow and Baldwin, also co- founders of the Amagansett Food Institute, appreciate Falkowski’s big-picture thinking about farmer viability. “An important piece of Dave’s farmers market and farming mantra is his consideration of fairness,” says Merrow.“Whether in determining produce pricing or discussing any number of issues that affect the farming community,Dave is committed to fairness. He is consistently talking about how we can make things better for ourselves as a community.”

This interest in community has recently extended beyond the twin forks. After Hurricane Irene dropped enough rain to flood large sections of upstate New York, where his father and some other family and neighbors have moved in recent years, Falkowski sent an e-mail to local chefs, Slow Food leaders, winemakers and oth- ers asking for help. It quickly went viral. “Several of our families (Falkowski, Guyers and others) from Bridgehampton, have moved upstate New York, into Schoharie County. From what they are tell- ing us, entire towns, businesses, farms, homes, stores…you name it, have been flooded off the face of the map…. Well, as they say, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ My father, John Falkowski, and I, with the help of some local contacts, some family, some friends, are organizing a drive for those hit so unbelievably hard.” He packed a trailer in his driveway full of donated provisions and sent it upstate along with $16,000 in cash raised at a fund-raiser at Bay Burger.

At the final Hayground Farmers market of the season, Falkowski is distracted. The spotty, late-season weather means a poor customer turnout, and Falkowski’s phone is buzzing with calls related to his flood-relief efforts.

Still, his table display points at the evolution of his farm. There are red and golden Marconi peppers, an heirloom Italian pepper. “No spray,” he notes. And he has some impressive specimen of pineapple tomato: “They had good resistance to late blight. They were the only ones that really survived.” There were bunches of kale and broccoli rabe, which have been selling very well this year, fingerling potatoes and triple-washed greens. (“They’ll keep a week or longer in the fridge, if you need them to.”) Earlier in the season he had his own lacto-fermented pickles, as well as “no spray” mel- ons. And, next to his scale, there were three boxes of mushrooms, including yellow and gray oyster mushrooms, and shiitake.

Although his business has morphed, Falkowski has clearly found a groove and a calling, one that fills him with joy even when it challenges. While tidying his produce display, he spies something and winces. The stem end of a nearly perfect tomato has a small, deep hole with a worm at the bottom of it. Falkowski holds the fruit close to scold the silent caterpillar. “I hope you’re happy in there!” he shouts. And then, as he tosses the damaged tomato into a plastic bin, he smiles, trusting in the ecological cycles that surround him. “He’ll be happy when the chickens get him tonight.”