Every year on the North Fork, autumn arrives with the lighting of a huge jack-o’-lantern on the side of Krupski’s barn on the Main Road in Peconic. Just after sunset on certain cloudless nights, if you park a bit west of the farm stand, you can watch the moon rising over the pumpkin patch next to the glowing, grinning face. Pick the right night and you’ll see the fat, orange harvest moon itself. It’s quite a sight.
Taking the kids to Krupski’s Farm for pumpkins is an annual ritual of ours. By September, a small vanguard of gourds arrive, and soon the ranks swell into the hundreds, if not thousands—big, little, round and fat, skinny and tall—occupying the field behind the stand. It’s an irresistible urge, to run off into the pumpkins.
“We like to keep the spirit of Halloween and the harvest alive,” says Al Krupski Jr., who is the fourth generation of his family to farm on the North Fork. He works 70 acres alongside his mom and dad, Helen and Al Sr., his wife, Mary, and their kids, Nick, Colleen and Kim. Al grew up watching his grandfather struggle with potatoes, a crop that had one risky annual harvest, and tricky storage issues; it had to be brought into New York City to be sold at wholesale and was sometimes just outright stolen by thieves. Al had a “pumpkin epiphany” while still in high school and planted the first gourds in 1976. “I had a bad taste in my mouth with the potatoes,” he says. “They were trouble. I knew we had to diversify and sell retail. But also, I just really like pumpkins.”
As soon as we get to Krupski’s, my kids tumble into the hay pit, a shallow ditch strewn with a thick layer of soft, sweet-smelling, slippery hay. It’s a sun-trap, warm and still, even on a blustery October day. Kids pile up at the bottom like a litter of puppies, and little golden flakes of hay float in the air. It’s simple, timeless fun and a great way to expend energy before getting down to the serious business of the day: picking out the perfect pumpkin.
Every kid has his or her own criteria. My daughter is picky and wanders about for ages, rolling this one, sitting on that one, before choosing a Charlie Brown specimen too misshapen to stand on end. My son is less exacting; as long as it’s the biggest pumpkin ever, it will do just fine. When it comes to the ceremonial weighing, he’s been known to lean on the scale. Fortunately, as we have to pay by the pound, Krupski’s hasn’t yet taken to growing the monsters that make news at agricultural fairs.
I always get mesmerized by the wooden carts piled high with ornamental gourds, choosing a dozen or so of the jewel-like beauties that will go into a big old wooden bowl on the dining room table. They come in so many shapes, colors and sizes that it’s hard to stop. There’s green, orange, white, yellow, gray, multicolored, speckled, stripy, lumpy, fluted, shaped like eggs, goosenecks, discs, rattles and so on. And of course we need a bunch of bigger ones, including a ghost pumpkin, to arrange in an attractive yet totally uncontrived heap on the front porch. Then there’s the supply of winter squash to be bought—acorn, spaghetti, Hubbard, Turk’s turban, and the perfect-for-pie cheese pumpkins. They keep for so long, especially if one has a root cellar, aka cobwebby dirt basement, as we do.
Our pilgrimage concludes with a bumpy hayride. The tractor and hay cart, usually driven by a gorilla, first goes through the haunted barn where Al Krupski Sr., in a warty old-man mask, sits whittling, big scary knife in hand. It then careens off toward the horizon, past fields of Brussels sprouts and such and back around by a small chicken coop. We haven’t done the haunted corn maze yet, because it looks too scary, but the bigger kids seem to live in it.
Pumpkin palaver aside, Krupski’s Farm has always been a year-round part of our North Fork life. “We start with peas and lettuce in the spring, through the summer months of corn and tomatoes, then pumpkins of course, and end up with broccoli and cauliflower right up until Christmas,” says Al. The corn was planted 14 times this season, beans 6. It’s all about timing, balance and the cycle of the seasons, with Mother Nature always having the upper hand. By diversifying, daily hand-picking and with a small-scale poultry/egg production, the Krupskis are also reinterpreting some of the old ways. The repertoire now includes fancier fare like heirloom tomatoes. Krupski’s does not aim to become certified organic, but doesn’t spray many of the crops, and unsprayed produce is clearly labeled as such. “Our focus is on keeping quality high and the supply consistent,” says Al. There’s the farm’s own line of pickles, salad dressings and preserves. A flock of pasture-fed broilers and 50 layers scratch under bushes and vines, and retire to a coop for an evening repast of corn kernels, after which they are secured for the night. Predators abound on the North Fork, and a loose chicken is fast food for a fox or hawk.
The Krupskis have seen the North Fork change from a quiet agricultural backwater to a destination for countless visitors, which is perfect for their labor-intensive retail model. Yet their success story is also a legacy from the days when hardworking Polish immigrants were the backbone of the industry, toiling over thousands of acres of potatoes and other row crops. The Krupskis survived the Great Depression and the crash in potato prices in the mid-20th century that put so many local farms out of business, and now lead the way for North Fork agriculture into the 21st century.
And every year brings something new. “This season was the best for tomatoes I’ve ever seen,” Al says. In early September, I stopped by and bought a quart of wonderfully ripe field tomatoes, a pint of candy-like cherry tomatoes, two huge sweet onions, three cucumbers, a jalapeño pepper, a bell pepper and a large zucchini for about $11. That’s another big reason we keep coming back to Krupski’s; they don’t charge “gourmet stand” prices. I made a hand-chopped (very therapeutic) gazpacho with the diced hot pepper on the side so as to not scorch the children. It was a small, yummy celebration of the end of a beautiful summer. Daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 6 p.m. on weekends, April through October.
Krupski’s Farm, 38030 Route 25, Peconic (opposite Lenz Winery); 631.734.6847