Working the Land with the Next Generation of East End Farmers
By Rachel Bosworth
Autumn marks a time of sweater weather-filled weekends complete with wine tasting, apple picking, and everything pumpkin. There will not be a slowdown of traffic on the East End post Labor Day with harvest season being one of the most coveted times of year for city dwellers and locals alike. Over the course of just a few short months, an influx of pumpkin pickers will come and go with their bounty of fresh produce and farm stand selfies unaware, but not unappreciative, of the generations of farming families that work tirelessly to cultivate the crops essential to the farm-to-table movement. With “buy local” a common mantra among today’s consumers, the next generation of farmers are taking over the East End ready to meet every foodie’s demands.
“People today have a growing appreciation for fresh food,” says Suffolk County legislator and fourth generation farmer Al Krupski, Jr. “They value the flavor and nutrition.” His 62-acre North Fork farm began as many others on Long Island did with potatoes as the sole crop. Krupski’s great grandfather immigrated from Poland in the 1890’s and began his farm, which has since transitioned from potatoes to cauliflower and cabbage, then to pumpkins and vegetables. “With the climate and soil here, it’s amazing what you can grow,” Krupski continues. “But farms are tourist-based now, and you have to grow what you can sell.”
Krupski knew he wanted to be a farmer and live on the North Fork from the time he began working on the family farm as a high school student in 1972, and through college where he studied plant science at the University of Delaware. He has experienced a number of changes in agriculture as the farm made many transitions. “It’s a totally different business now,” he explains. “We went from wholesale to retail, and it keeps changing.” As a Suffolk County Legislator, he has advocated for land preservation, environmental protection, and also is a strong ally to other local businesses. Krupski recognizes that agriculture is always evolving, and farming is now both a business and a lifestyle.
The evolution of a wholesale business into a retail business is a change many multi-generation farming families have experienced, and one that has been crucial to their survival. “Farming is a very important element of our family’s history, so we feel as though we are continuing a legacy of hard work and appreciation for the land that began here many decades ago,” says Steven Niggles of Round Swamp Farm in Bridgehampton and East Hampton. “The change in demands, however, has influenced the variety of produce we farm as compared to our ancestors. They farmed for sustenance for their families, which meant everything from livestock, dairy animals, fruits and vegetables. Now, we farm for the sustenance of many families focusing entirely on plantings.”
Recognized as a National Bicentennial Farm, the generations of the Round Swamp Farm family include the Snyders, Schaffers, and Niggles, and extend back nearly three centuries. With the ninth generation now at the helm of the original 11-acre homestead parcel, their business is a South Fork staple. Offering fresh produce like heirloom tomatoes, corn, root vegetables, herbs, and greens, the farm stand where their own food is sold is also home to a number of homemade baked goods, jams and jellies, and prepared meals. Baymen Charlie Niggles and Harold Snyder play a key role in offering locally caught fish and shellfish, much of which is dropped off to the farm stand the same day.
With a number of moving parts and an extended family, there is a lot to learn about the benefits of buying local. “Ask questions and take advantage of any opportunity to learn from a farmer, especially an older farmer, who has spent decades perfecting his work,” says Charlie Niggles. “Farming is a science and an art, one that benefits from standing on the shoulders of your ancestors and learning from their ‘mistakes’ or discoveries. I think most farmers would agree that there is something very satisfying about watching the miracle of life in a plant sprouting up from the soil. It’s beautiful.”
As one of the first farming families on Long Island, the Halseys of Water Mill can also agree that the landscape of agriculture has indeed changed. “Everyone who lived here was a farmer,” says 11th generation farmer John Halsey as he recalls a time when most of the East End was primarily farmland, a time before second homes and Hamptons getaways were a societal norm.
Halsey’s father was the first in this long line of family farmers to make the shift into commercial farming, with potatoes as the primary commodity. But like many others, it was a risky business as the market for potatoes went up and down, and the need to enter the retail world offered a completely different farming experience.
With The Milk Pail Fresh Market and U-Pick right off Montauk Highway in Water Mill, Halsey’s farm now caterers to the growing demand of those looking for the ultimate harvest season experience. A delicious variety of apples on the tree and pumpkins on the vine are available for picking. You can pick up these goodies already picked, and some peaches too, along with baked goods and local gifts at their farm stand. Still, farming is a life Halsey thoroughly enjoys. “I don’t look at farming as work,” he says as he and his daughter Jennifer prepare for planting cover crop. “It’s a very good life. Few people want to farm. You’re born to be a farmer, not necessarily born into it.”
A lot of what you learn about farming you learn by hand, literally. Matthew Schmitt has been working on his family’s farm his whole life, and is of the fourth generation. After school and on the weekends he would work, learning the trade at an early age. Just now in his early 30’s, Schmitt has witnessed first-hand the same changes of many of his fellow veteran farmers. “From when I was young and working here, the prices of produce haven’t changed much,” he says. “But your expenses have gotten higher, and certain crops are harder to farm with restrictions on pesticides.”
With 225 acres farmed, the Schmitt family makes good use of the land by double cropping about 300 acres annually. This means some plots are planted, farmed, and harvested in the spring, and then used again to plant a different crop that grows in another season. This has allowed their business to grow without actually having to buy more land. Other farms were not as fortunate, with many struggling and losing money, and eventually disappearing. But for Schmitt Family Farms, their methods have proven successful. They offer a number of leafy greens, root vegetables, sweet corn, herbs, sunflowers, and other plants at their farm stand on Sound Avenue in Riverhead, accommodating those near and far in search of fresh, healthy, and quality food. “When you go directly to someone’s farm you know someone actually grew the food,” says Schmitt. “You can talk to the farmer and learn how it was all done.”
Having to now be a farmer and a businessman, Schmitt helped brand his family’s produce. The family always grew horseradish and sold the harvested roots wholesale. They had prepared the spicy condiment for family and friends; a little farm secret that became increasingly popular through word of mouth. In 2010, Schmitt decided to market the horseradish and sell it at the farm stand in Riverhead. “Holy Schmitt’s Horseradish” is now available in several varieties, including beet, hot pepper, and cranberry. “We never used to do retail,” he says of the family’s production. “Now people like the brand and begin to look for it.”
A unique aspect about these family-orientated businesses is that multiple generations are working together. Al Krupski, Jr. for instance still works the land with his 88-year-old father, and also his three children, Nick, Colleen, and Kim, who are of the fifth generation. John Halsey’s daughters Amy and Jennifer are now the owners of Milk Pail, with Jennifer’s young son beginning to learn the ropes with his family, potentially becoming the 13th generation farmer in the family’s rich history. You’ll find Debra Schmitt at the farm stand in Riverhead while her son Matthew works in the fields. Their family history extends back over 150 years as they first began in Farmingdale before making the move to the East End in the 1970’s. Children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins all have a hand in the Round Swamp Farm business; a true family affair that encompasses everything fresh we love about the East End.
It is these next generation farmers that are taking a centuries-old tradition into the modern day. It’s not just about understanding nature and how things grow in our unique climate; the need to adapt as their ancestors did as agriculture on the East End changes is now just another element these farmers have learned to brave. Most of these farm stands can now be found online and on social media, which makes the ability to share, tag, and check-in for those that are savvy even more intriguing.
As you stroll through the fields in search of the perfect pumpkin this season, be sure to chat it up with your local farmer and learn the stories behind the food on your plate. These experiences are just another reason to love the East End, and something to give thanks for all year long.