By Annette Hinkle
In recent years, the number of organic farms that have cropped up on the East End has increased dramatically. While these new farmers have offered an ever widening range of crops to please local palates, wheat hasn’t been one of them.
At Amber Waves Farm, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that sits on some eight acres behind the Amagansett Farmer’s Market, in addition to the hens and rows of garlic and kale, tomatoes and lettuce, there currently grows a small field of waving grain that is lush, tall and, after nine months nearly ready for harvest.
Granted, this small winter wheat crop represents just a fraction of the diverse number of crops grown at Amber Waves — but the farm’s owners, Amanda Merrow and Katie Baldwin, see it as the beginning of bigger things to come.
“We really got excited about this concept of wheat,” explains Merrow. “We have such a diverse food shed out here. Meat and potatoes, dairy, fish, honey, beer and wine. But the grain component was largely missing.”
Neither Merrow, a Vermont native, nor Baldwin, who hails from Texas and California, come from farming families. Both young women spent the summer of 2008 as apprentices for farmer Scott Chaskey at nearby Quail Hill Farm. They are passionate about food and where it comes from, and at the end of the apprenticeship, realized they were both interested in pursuing farming, not as a hobby, but as an occupation.
In fall of 2008, a curious confluence of events gave Merrow and Baldwin the opportunity to live out that dream. When the owners of the Amagansett Farmer’s Market sold the business and the farm field behind it, the Peconic Land Trust was given the task of leasing the land and put out an RFP (request for proposal) to interested farmers. Merrow and Baldwin jumped at the opportunity.
By early 2009, they had officially become the East End’s newest farmers. They established the Amber Waves Farm Project as a 501-C 3 non-profit, and came up with three major pillars to their operation.
Number one is the Amagansett Wheat Project and a partnership with the Northeast Organic Farming Association to revive local grain production. With a $25,000 grant from the Baker Foundation, Merrow and Baldwin bought equipment and seeds, and they are now researching milling options for grain distribution.
“We’re planning a broad spectrum of things — including a mobile pizza oven we can maybe take to the schools,” says Baldwin, who notes that the second component of the farm is educational. The farm has already hosted area students for school field trips.
The third component of Amber Waves is the CSA. On Fridays from late spring through late fall, Merrow and Baldwin harvest a basket for each of 40 shares, including two baguettes baked at the Amagansett Farmer’s Market. If all goes as planned, those baguettes will soon be made from grain grown in their field.
With their first real crop ready to harvest, Merrow and Baldwin are ready to celebrate the fruits of their labor. Next Wednesday, evening Amber Waves Farm hosts “Wheat Three Ways: Bread, Beer and Berries” a field day with farmers, bakers and brewers who will explain how to grow and mill flour, bake bread and brew beer. Tastings of bread, beer and whole grain salads will be offered.
“We want to celebrate that we have wheat and it’s growing and the different things we can do with it,” says Baldwin, who acknowledges that it’s the beer, which was inspired by a friend who recently got into home brewing, that people find most intriguing. While Merrow and Baldwin don’t have a commercial brewery, they do have about five gallons of home brewed beer ready for Wednesdays event.
“It’s just a taste — a tease,” says Baldwin who dreams of crafting a summer ale in years to come that is infused with flavors of local strawberries, honey or rosemary.
When it comes to wheat production, it would appear that these two young farmers are trail blazers. But Merrow notes that wheat was probably first planted in this country on Long Island and was grown on the East End as recently as the 1950s.
“We learned that through census data,” she explains. “When we asked older farmers about it, they said there was not a market for it. But now that there’s a revival of interest in local food we thought the times have changed and there will be a market for it.”
But Merrow and Baldwin admit that much of what they’ve discovered about growing wheat has come through trial and error.
“Wheat reminds us that when the knowledge is lost, it’s hard to find it again,” says Merrow. “We’re doing research and going to workshops, picking older farmers brains. The difference between what we know now to a year ago is incredible.”
But wheat was obviously once a crop that grew well here — as evidenced by the many windmills that populate the East End. Baldwin notes they weren’t always there to serve as quaint tourist attractions.
“One of our project goals is to work with a historical society to see if we can get one of the mills functional,” she explains. “If we could get it running we could get other farmers to pool wheat and grind it.”
While they are hoping to inspire a cottage wheat industry on the East End, neither woman has delusions about the work involved.
“It’s a project of passion,” says Baldwin.
“We don’t do it for the money and we don’t do it for the hours,” adds Merrow. “We do it because we love it so much. One day you have bug trouble, the next day you’re wrestling with the tractor for 45 minutes. It’s constantly changing.”
“Wheat Three Ways: Bread, Beer and Berries” is from 5 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 30 at Amber Waves Farm (375 Main Street in Amagansett). A $10 donation is suggested.
Top: Kate Baldwin and Amanda Merrow in their field of wheat.