Q&A with Tom Hart of Deep Roots Farm

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As a new farmer with only 12 acres, Tom Hart is worried about putting all of his eggs in one basket—literally. If eggs were his only crop, a power loss to his cooler or a few predators in the hen house could be devastating. Instead, Deep Roots Farm in Southold produces a little bit of everything: chicken, pork, vegetables, fruit, and—yes—eggs. We chatted with him about how he balances it all and why diversification is key.

How long have you been farming, and why did you decide to become a farmer?
I don’t have a simple reason for how I ended up farming; it was a bit of a winding road. My mom and I had a community garden plot at Peconic Land Trust’s Charnews Farm in Southold. I met Chris of Browder’s Birds there as he was starting his farm.  I helped him out a bit, and he offered me an apprenticeship the following season. He set it up so I worked half the week with him and the other half with Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamesport. I spent a year working with them and learning about raising organic livestock on pasture and small scale organic vegetable farming. Towards the end of that season I ran into a friend, Jeff Rogers, who had a nursery in Orient with some extra land and a greenhouse. So I took what I learned about chickens and vegetables, threw three pregnant pigs into the mix, and started Deep Roots Farm the following spring. This is the start of our fifth season. We were fortunate enough to get our own farm in Southold three years ago.

So I took what I learned about chickens and vegetables, threw three pregnant pigs into the mix, and started Deep Roots Farm the following spring.

I also work as a roofer. My dad started a small roofing company, Hart Roofing, about 30 years ago, and I’ve been working with him on-and-off since I was 16. It works out pretty well. It gives me weekends and rainy days off to work on projects around the farm, and it allows me to pay my bills and start paying our farm mortgage down while we work on growing the farm. Both businesses depend almost completely on word of mouth, so I’ve gained many farm customers from my roofing clients and vice versa.

What made you decide to produce multiple products rather than specializing, and do you think there are advantages to growing vegetables and animals on the same land?
In my first couple years of farming I was told many times that I needed to find a niche: “Do something different and special, and make a name for yourself.” It was all well meaning advice from supportive people, but it didn’t make sense for me. If our farm had to be labeled, we would call it sustainably minded. I don’t believe a farm can be totally sustainable, but with every major decision we try to get a little closer to sustainability on an ecological, social and financial level. So we made diversification a priority from the start, and it has helped us immeasurably so far. We run the chickens and pigs through the unused vegetable areas, which cuts down on feed costs and produces better-tasting eggs and meat. Our fields get fertilized and tilled up in the process, and the vegetable pests get knocked down, too. It’s a win-win-win-win situation.

From a business perspective, diversification has helped a great deal. I think putting all your eggs in one basket is a risky proposition. I graduated college during the recession, and there weren’t a lot of jobs out there. Things have gotten better, and I’ve never been the paranoid type, but it is comforting to know that no matter what happens beyond my control, I’ll still have the ability to support my family and produce food for my community. We never wanted to get so specialized that we had to depend on wealthy customers. We all know good, clean, humanely raised food costs more than people are used to paying at the grocery store, so we do what we can to keep that premium cost low enough so our friends and neighbors can afford what we grow. My last argument for diversification is the mental benefit. It might be more efficient, but If I had to pick beans for weeks straight or process chickens every-other day, it would really feel like work, and I can’t imagine loving farming as much as I do.

Buying land is often difficult for young farmers. Did you face any challenges, and how did you overcome them?
We were fortunate enough to purchase our farm two-and-a-half years ago. I can’t take much credit for overcoming the challenges. I am lucky enough to have family right here in Southold who believes in this as much as I do. We got financial help purchasing the property and a ton of help fixing it up and working the land. Our property is very small for a farm, and even with all the help we got, I will still be working an off-farm job for many years before I can afford to farm full-time. So I don’t have any good advice on how to buy farmland on the North Fork. The prices are too high for farming, and it’s only going to get worse.

deep roots farm stand

What was your biggest “Aha!” moment on the farm so far—a moment or situation when something finally clicked or when you learned a lesson from something that didn’t go as planned?
I learn from making mistakes. And I make a lot of them.  I learned a great deal in my season as an apprentice, but I learned so much more in my first season on my own. It keeps things interesting for sure. Our biggest current challenge is trying to keep a steady supply of our products available in the farm stand since we only sell what we grow or raise ourselves. It allows our customers to know exactly what they are getting every time, but we can only raise as much as our land, time and regulations will allow. So we’re working on a much better balance over the next few seasons.

Where can people buy your products? And is it possible to visit your farm?
Our farm is at 57685 Main Rd (Rt 25) Southold. There is a wooden Deep Roots Farm sign near the road, and we converted our garage into a farm stand. Our stand is self-serve and is open every day, year round. We have eggs year round, vegetables when they’re in season, baked goods and other products during the busier months. Between May and October we have a small amount of chicken available self serve in the farm stand, but pork and more chicken are available if you call ahead. Since we’re conveniently located right on the main road in the middle of Southold, we tell our customers to stop here first when they head out shopping.

For a tour, we ask that you reach out to us beforehand so we can show you around.