Redefining Farming: The Fosters Find Creative Ways to Make Their Land Pay

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Dean and Marilee Foster at their family farm in Sagaponack. Michael Heller photos

On a recent rainy morning, Dean Foster would have been happier if he were in the field planting potatoes.

His earliest memories are of the dirt — the dust, the grit, the smell, even the taste. He couldn’t get away from it, and he’s never wanted to.

There was hardly a question that Foster would go into the family business. It is farming tradition spanning six generations, one that began with potatoes at Foster Farm and has recently evolved into the Sagaponack Farm Distillery — a necessary, but sometimes painstaking, shift into a new era in order to keep the farm afloat, and in the hands of the Fosters.

“As far as I’m concerned, the land is what the gold is in your pocket,” Foster said. “It’s not the cash.”

During the 17thcentury, Thomas and Christopher Foster first arrived in what is now Franklin Square, but was then known as Fosters Meadow. They used the western tip of the Hempstead Plains as a sheep pasture, and by the 19thcentury, the surrounding area would be populated by descendants of Dutch and English immigrants, who established a vibrant farming community.

But by that time, the pioneers themselves had already migrated east — first to Quogue, and then to Sagaponack by the late 19thcentury, Foster said.

“They were grazing cattle, which spawned into some farming,” Foster said. “Because, of course, that’s all part of it. Once you have animals, you gotta learn how to feed them.”

The land in Sagaponack represents four generations alone — Josiah Foster, who began the farm in 1870 with 40 acres of land, who passed it down to Clifford J. Foster, then Clifford H. Foster and finally to Dean, who works alongside his sister, Marilee.

“I remember my dad scooping me up as a little kid and I actually got, I guess you could say, belted into an old garbage can that my grandfather had built for me, on the side of a tractor fender,” Foster said. “So I would be out there all bundled up as a toddler, riding on the tractor with my dad, as he was digging potatoes or planting potatoes.

“I was right there, in the middle of it,” he continued. “My eyes were always watching what exactly was going on, and probably was mesmerized by all of it — and part of the reason I had to dive into it myself.”

By age 6, he was driving a tractor himself. He learned how to keep his eyes open, and to stay safe around machinery — “This occupation is probably one of the most dangerous ones you could ever get involved with,” he said — and found himself enthralled by the freedom it afforded him.

Dean Foster seeds a field in back of his property at the Foster Farm in Sagaponack.

“There is freedom in learning how to grow food, and work the land, and run around in the dirt, and play with dirt balls, and throw rocks, and all the things that kids would just love to do. I was so fortunate to have that at my doorstep,” he said. “I tell ya. I reflect, of course, on my childhood and I say it’s the best childhood that one could ever think about having because what was in front of you — visually and in your hands — you can’t make it up.”

That isn’t to say there wasn’t a fair share of struggle, he said. With the fond memories came times of peril — sick animals, horses that needed burying, rampant displays of life and death. They were times that forced him to understand reality, he said.

So when he noticed the farm starting to falter — and saw the writing on the wall when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994 — he was prepared. And knew he needed to speak up.

One night at the dinner table, he said, “Dad, we’re done. The family farms are done. We’re not gonna be able to compete with the other countries where it’s cheaper.”

Cliff Foster looked at his son and shook his head. “No, boy. We’re gonna keep farming here. We know how to do this,” he had responded. “It’s about growing big yields and good-quality produce. We live in America; this is the safest food in the world.”

Dean Foster groaned slightly at the memory. “He gave me the litany of what he expected and what he thought about this Free Trade thing,” he said. “But I was, in the back of my mind, really worried that, ‘No, that’s not the way it’s gonna work.’ And I must tell you, it didn’t.”

Thirty years ago, the farm’s biggest export was to Puerto Rico, sending out five 50,000-pound trailers a day, five days a week. Seemingly overnight, that trade agreement was gone, with lower prices from Canada swooping in underneath them.

Foster watched farmers left and right selling out, as they experimented with new avenues to make ends meet. They cut down potato production — from working 800 acres in their heyday to about 200 acres present day — and even tried their hand at asparagus.

But nothing was working — and with land valued at more than $100 million, the prospect of selling loomed like a dark, heavy cloud.

“We never wanted to sell. I think that’s one thing we just really reflected on as a family, and that this is beautiful land,” Foster said. “I constantly had that nagging, kind of pinching feeling that, ‘Dean, this is about this beautiful land. You need to do something in order to keep houses off this beautiful land, and the only way you’re gonna do that is to create an entity that’s profitable.’

“I had to protect this beautiful land,” he said. “To me, that was paramount.”

In late 2014, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo passed the New York Craft Act, which eased regulations on small-batch craft-beverage producers. The answer was clear.

The answer was vodka.

Dean Foster and brewmaster Matt Beamer sample a barrel-aged potato spirit at the distillery at Foster Farm in Sagaponack.

Foster teamed up with business partner and brewer Matt Beamer, and “off to the races we went,” he said.

“I had to really come to grips with where I live — and where I live is a real special place regarding the way people see and understand this industry,” Foster said. “So I had to jump off my horse and jump on the other one, and dry my eyes and open my eyes, and say, ‘Okay, I need to go in the way that the people that surround me here want me to go.’”

He sighed.

“So, yeah, it’s definitely difficult,” he continued. “I’m not out there farming as much acreage, I’m not doing what I’ve been doing all my life — not that I’m an old man, but I am 49, so I’m gettin’ there. This transition, I want to say, is probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to deal with. Teaching an old dog new tricks.”

By May 2015, they opened their research and development distillery, and installed their large copper still a year later. The farm fields reflect that — now home to six- and-two row barleys, malting wheat and rye, various oats and, of course, potatoes.

“I’m really now zeroing in on more of the crops that really reflect this distillery running and promoting the seed-to-glass essence of this whole operation. It’s pretty unique, I’ll tell you that,” Foster said, noting that all growing, harvesting, washing, peeling and grinding for distillation is done on site. “We are definitely taking it to the next level, by sourcing all our ingredients from the farm. You will know that you are having a spirit that is from Sagaponack, period.”

Soon, every bottle of spirit with the signature Sagaponack terroir will be stamped with latitude-longitude coordinates, “so you can go to Google Earth and see the field that bottle came from,” Foster said.

“Our vodka has a little more nuance than your big vodkas, which is basically just rubbing alcohol with no taste. You can’t even put these together,” he said. “This is a craft distillery. It really is about crafting new spirits. We’re giving the public something new to sip on. It’s like the whole craft beer world. They’re drinking something that has a lot more taste to it, and is a lot more pleasing to the palate.

“I feel this ground that we work here in Sagaponack is really ground like no other,” he added. “It’s really the stewardship of the land and, also, this great land that was just put here for us. I think as long as we take care of it, we will always yield very, very special products off of them.”

Sidelined by the rain on this particular morning, Foster would spend his day at the distillery — keeping up with maintenance and making sure the operation is running smoothly. He still feels conflicted at times, he said, fighting his muscle memory to attend to hundreds of acres of potatoes.

But this is the future, he said. And, most importantly, the farm is safe.

“It’s all about looking way down the road,” he said. “And I like where we’re headed.”

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