Natural Earth Farm

There are lots of hidden things along River Road in Riverhead and Calverton. Driving, all one sees are homes, but behind the shrubbed roadside are an animal shelter, the Peconic River Herb Farm, a small winery actually called the Hidden Vineyard and then there’s Natural Earth Farms where Anthony Panarello and his wife, Marie, planted their first zucchini in 2008.
The couple found the place on a Sunday drive. The land’s owner was selling some of the antique furniture he collects and stores in the barn on site. The three got talking, and the discussion turned to the 10 unused acres behind the barn. Ringed by trees (which house the deer Anthony would later battle) and with an unusual variety of soils, the land had not been farmed for at least eight years.
What was an overgrown field with sandy spots looked to Anthony like opportunity. The soil had lain fallow for so long that organic farming was possible, the kind of farming he wanted to do. In addition the farm is less than three miles from his home in Manorville. A rental deal was struck.
Anthony’s idea did not come out of the blue. Family members have been in the dairy and beef cow business, and he has worked at farms in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island. He also had a job that gives him the summer off: a carpenter at the Javits Center. The major trade shows (where he met his wife) are in the winter. So he bought a manual on organic farming and got to work.
So far the Panarellos have been lucky to find retail outlets that are willing to buy their produce wholesale. Whole Foods loves his Mountain Fresh slicing tomatoes that take up rows of the farm, which have been stagger planted for an extended supply of ready-to-pick fruit. He’s been successful at farmers markets in Riverhead on Saturdays and in Rocky Point on Sundays. A CSA program is growing by word of mouth. This leads into the Panarellos plan to sell about 80 percent of their produce retail instead of wholesale, as the equation stands now.
The first step toward that was taken early in August when he was able to rent an empty farm stand on Route 111 in Manorville. There Anthony and Marie sell the produce while little Anthony, two, naps behind the counter. The farm stand hopefully will enable him to ease off the farmers markets because he says it takes too much time away from the farm.
While Anthony technically farms organically, he cannot use that label because he has not been certified by the New York chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, which is accredited by the USDA. Anthony was saying his produce was organic but got a call from the USDA telling him to stop. Farmers who make under $5,000 per year can say their food is organic without certification, but above that, the full process is needed.
It’s a step he’s considering, but right now he cannot afford the fees, which would add to the costs already inherent in the methods he uses to organically grow his melons, eggplants and peppers.
“People price shop,” he says, sitting at the farm stand as the traffic roars past, mostly people on their way back to New York City from the Hamptons. “And certification would cost me a couple of thousand a year. Maybe next year.”
NOFA-NY fees are on a sliding scale, based on gross sales. There are also incidental fees for inspections.
In lieu of organic certification, Anthony sought out an organization that sponsors the label “Certified Naturally Grown,” which follows the same guidelines as NOFA but is governed by peers, other farmers, not the USDA. A yearly contribution of $150 to $200 is suggested. However, says Anthony, not many consumers understood what it means to be certified naturally grown.
Other obstacles are the natural predators like woodchucks and deer. Deer can ruin an entire row of melons in an afternoon, says Anthony. “They just go down the row and take a bite of each one.” This year he built his own electric fence and hasn’t had a problem for the first time. His second year farming he lost 1.5 acres of tomatoes to blight.
“Every year it’s something else,” he says.
But it’s also the chef whose jaw dropped when Anthony brought his zucchini to a restaurant’s back door. It’s the shoppers who return to the farm stand saying how good the tomatoes are. It’s the dream of having a tractor like the one at another organic farm that Anthony says came from Europe and must have cost $50,000. Right now he’s working with equipment he secured with a loan.
Thinking back on our conversation, Anthony realizes he may have been talking too much about what’s discouraging about farming. “That’s not the way it is,” he says. “I love it.”