By Annette Hinkle
Earth Day is April 22 – and has been since its founding in 1970.
But there are 364 other days of the year and any number of ways to protect the environment. So this past Monday, the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons hosted “Beyond Earth Day: What You Can Do Now,” a panel discussion to explore a few of them.
Taking part in the discussion at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton were Scott Chaskey of the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm, Barbara Shinn of Shinn Estate Vineyards on the North Fork, Brian Halweil, editor of Edible East End and Kim Tetrault of Cornell Cooperative Extension.
For Halweil, who has been involved in researching food issues and farming methods around the world, inspiration came long ago in the form of an ecologist who once said “food is the single biggest way in which we touch the planet.”
“How we decide to grow and eat has a massive impact on the landscape,” said Halweil. “Agriculture is responsible for 33 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture consumes 75 percent of the fresh water on the planet.”
Halweil noted the mission of Edible East End is to celebrate the local food and drink community by telling the stories of the farmers, winemakers, fishers and food producers who using environmentally sensitive methods, thereby inspiring people to support the community and those businesses.
“Personal responsibility alone isn’t enough,” added Halweil. “There needs to be broader social and political changes to support the effort. School food a good example. It’s one thing for parents to teach about healthy shopping and eating, but the schools need to support that effort as well. It’s a complement between personal and societal responsibility.”
For Barbara Shinn, changing the world on a local scale has come through the success she and husband David Page have experienced through farming their 20-acre vineyard holistically by developing a sustainable wine growing program.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of wine growing on Long Island, but Shinn notes it’s only in the last 10 years that any dynamic change has occurred in the way in which local vintners approach the process.
“When David and I first planted the vines 13 years ago, none of my fellow growers knew what sustainable wine growing was,” she said. “No offense to Cornell [Cooperative Extension] at all, they were providing us with a recipe of what to spray when. But when David and I planted our vines, we decided we were going to figure out how to do this as organically as possible.”
“We were following our gut and coming up with creative solutions and farming by our heart,” she added. “We didn’t know if what we were doing was right.”
In the end, instinct won out over status quo, and by 2004, Shinn noted she and Page knew what they were doing and knew they could farm their vineyard in a totally different way.
“We knew how to feed vines organically, take care of insects and weeds organically,” she said. “We never made a bad decision and never failed — which means it can be done.”
While Kim Tetrault admits he has no talent for growing anything on land, the bays of the East End are another matter. Head of the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training (SPAT), Tetrault oversees a shellfish growing club on the North Fork in which 250 members contribute 15,000 volunteer hours each year.
“People seem to like oysters and scallops these days,” said Tetrault who recalled how the program began years ago when someone came to him at the shellfish hatchery he was running for Cornell and asked if it was possible to grow oysters off his dock.
“I gave him a cup of baby oysters. He came back five months later with an oyster that was completely edible,” said Tetrault. “I was shocked. I thought I have to do this for more people. Six months later I started the SPAT program.”
“Growing food is a noble cause – whether on land or in the sea — and something we all want to do.”
As a result of their love of the process, Tetrault noted that every day is Earth Day for his SPAT members.
“When we were all teens, we were tree huggers and freaks,” he added. “We were the people who said ‘We’re going to do this.’ People said, ‘You can do that but you won’t make any money.’”
“Now there’s a movement to get our planet back and I’ m feeling really optimistic,” he added. “If you want to grow an oyster – grow the product and you get to eat it. But learning the process teaches you about the planet.”
For Scott Chaskey, who has been farming Quail Hill CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for more than 20 years, a major reason for celebration this Earth Day is the sheer number of young people now getting involved in organic farming.
“It’s wonderful to be a part of that movement,” said Chaskey. “A promising piece for me was a recent NOFA [Northeast Organic Farming Association] conference. There were 1,400 people there and 60 to 70 percent were in their 20s.”
“We’ve been experimenting for 24 years finding techniques to improve the health of the soil and to reach as many people as possible with the message we’re all here to share,” he said. “Now when fifth graders come to the farm and you ask what does locavore means, hands go up.”
“I don’t know how many school gardens have popped up — but that’s a beautiful thing.”