By Annette Hinkle
A few decades ago, it appeared all but certain that farming was on its way out on the East End. After decades of growing acre upon acre of potatoes and other crops for the wholesale market, farming families were finding that the younger generation was largely abandoning the way of life and pursuing other professions.
And who could blame them? It was often easier and more lucrative to sell off farmland for development than it was to grow crops with an ever shrinking profit margin. As a result, the number of active farms in the area dwindled and houses grew faster than vegetables.
But in case you haven’t noticed, farming is back on the East End. In recent years, a new movement has taken hold — one that has given rise to farmers’ markets and organic CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) offering a much wider range of crops than had ever been grown here in the past. The movement has not only brought back the produce, but also the young people — and they’re coming to the East End with a passion for working the land and educating the public on the need for small, local farms.
Josh Levine was one such young farmer. He grew up just outside New York City, but knew the area from time spent at his family’s second home in Sag Harbor. After a series of successful business ventures, Levine discovered a passion for farming and in 2008, joined Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm as a volunteer. In 2009, he became a summer apprentice at the farm and loved it so much, he decided to stay on. Levine became a full-time staff member in the spring of 2010 and he and his wife Ann settled in North Haven. As Quail Hill’s market manager, his was a familiar face at the weekly summer farmers’ market in Sag Harbor.
But then in late November, Levine’s life was cut short when he was tragically killed in a tractor accident at the farm. He was 35 years old, and in the wake of his death, there has been a huge outpouring of emotion in the community and numerous tributes honoring Levine. In addition, a trust has been set up for the benefit of Levine’s two small children, Willa, 3, and Ezra who is less than a year old.
Now Slow Food East End has come up with a way to honor Levine’s legacy by ensuring that young people with a passion for farming will continue to pursue their dreams just as he did. Beginning this summer, a new internship stipend will be offered by Slow Food East End to a student pursuing farming in the area.
“This is kind of a new format for us,” says chef Bryan Futerman, owner of Foody’s, a Slow Food East End leader and chairman of the group’s education committee. “One of our members has been acting as a liaison with the Levines. We want to structure this as a farming internship.”
“The main obstacle for interns is the prohibitive cost of housing,” explains Futerman. “I don’t know how interns foot the bill for housing or whatever else they need. That’s probably the biggest challenge.”
The idea for the farming internship in Levine’s memory was first proposed by Tom Allnoch, general manager of The American Hotel, and it quickly took root. Tonight, Thursday, March 31, the hotel will host a Slow Food dinner and is donating all its services — which means 100 percent of the proceeds will go to this year’s inaugural intern. The idea is for the dinner to become an annual Slow Food event with whatever proceeds raised becoming the stipend for that season’s intern.
Keeping young farmers in the community is important, because their enthusiasm can go a long way toward inspiring the next generation. It wasn’t just Levine’s love for farming that makes this internship program an appropriate way to honor him — it was the fact that Levine was also very motivated by the prospect of getting children involved in gardening.
“Our chapter of Slow Food is on the older end of the spectrum,” says president Kate Plumb who notes that through the Edible Schoolyard program and installation of greenhouses at schools throughout the East End, the group is reaching a younger audience. “We now have a greenhouse in Springs with Project Most and the Hayground School. We’ve also supported the greenhouse at Bridgehampton School, which had it’s ribbon cutting last Saturday, and now there’s one in Greenport. That’s the way we do it. For someone from our generation, it’s too late. But the children — that’s the group that has to grab onto it.”
And it’s young farmers like Josh Levine who inspire those children. In fact, Futerman notes that it was through the Edible Schoolyard program that he first got to know Levine.
“He was a wonderful guy,” recalls Futerman. “I met Josh through The Springs Seedlings program and he was instrumental in building the greenhouse at Springs School. He and other volunteers from Quail Hill were all there and we had a beautiful day with a light wind. It was the day we had to put up the plastic on the greenhouse. It’s a huge step, because it covers the whole thing.”
“Josh had this great height. I’m a short guy. We worked side by side,” adds Futerman. “Then I saw him at a farmer’s market. We struck up a friendship. He gave seeds to every single Edible Schoolyard program out there. Through him, there’s a connection.”
Though the details of exactly how the farming internship will work are still being hammered out, Futerman expects the money will most likely go to an intern from outside the area who comes here for a season to work at places like Quail Hill Farm or Amber Waves CSA, both in Amagansett, or at the newly created Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island.
There are also ample opportunities for interns to lend a hand, as Levine did, at one of the schools that now have greenhouses on their property. Futerman notes, however, if a local student wants to pursue a farming internship outside the area, he would not be opposed to that idea.
“We’re a volunteer organization,” says Futerman. “We’re not looking to hire anyone. This is an educational stipend – the money will go to individuals to gain an educational experience. We will have to have some feedback after the fact — basically what their experience was, what they did and how it helped them and how relates to slow food.”
“Myron Levine [Josh’s father] has been generous with linking this with Slow Food,” he adds. “Josh was such a huge part of the local food movement and we wanted to do something to honor him in this organization.”
The Slow Food East End dinner in honor of Josh Levine will be held tonight, Thursday, March 31 at 6:30 p.m. at The American Hotel, Main Street, Sag Harbor. The cost is a $100 donation per person, all inclusive. To reserve, call 725-3535. Those who would like to make a donation to the trust which has been set up for the Levine children, can send checks made payable to: “Trust for the Benefit of Willa and Ezra Levine” to Kenneth Gliedman, Trustee, c/o Lichter Gliedman Offenkrantz, 551 Fifth Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10176.
Top: Jerome Albertini, Matthew Shapero, Josh Levine, Joe O’Grady and Vivian Stein at Quail Hill Farm in 2009. Jane weissman photo