On Saturday morning at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, adults and children alike gathered to pick snow peas from netting that allows the climbing vegetables to flourish or pluck stalks of fragrant fennel from the warm earth.
In the valley below, other farm members took a moment to sample hearty loaves of bread crafted by Carissa Waechter. Waechter, an artisinal baker, uses whole wheat flour cultivated at nearby Amber Waves Farm. Her quiche of Quail Hill chicken eggs, scallions and chives is nestled in the very eggshells she collected to create the creamy delicacy.
The East End of Long Island has historically been a region rooted in the agriculture and fishing industries. Soil from Amagansett to Bridgehampton is celebrated for the fruits and vegetables it produces, while the surrounding waters team with fin fish and shellfish.
In the last five years, a celebratory resurgence has occurred honoring the bounty that East End farmers and fisherman bring to local tables. Farmer’s markets have sprouted up from Montauk to Southampton and have grown each year. They provide not only seafood and produce, but also local vendors selling wine, baked goods, honey, cheese and specialty food like jams.
Recognizing this renaissance, as well as a nationwide trend embracing the Slow Food and organic food movements, a group of East End residents gathered two years ago at an Amagansett home and conceived of The Amagansett Food Institute. The idea is for a not-for-profit food center aimed at promoting local food and its producers while providing culinary and agricultural education to the children of the East End.
Katie Baldwin and Amanda Morrow, the two young farmers who run Amber Waves Farm, as well as Waechter, who used to serve as the baker at the former Amagansett Farmers Market, and conservationist and bread baker John de Cuevas, founded AFI in 2009, although it was not incorporated until last year.
Gary Bradhering and Chris Harris, who own the Wainscott-based company MapEasy, have long been supporters of the local food movement and are also members of the AFI board. Resident and actor Alec Baldwin is also an advisory member of AFI’s board.
The organization spent its efforts last year partnering with farmers, schools and chefs to offer culinary demonstrations and farm tours for adults and children, many of the educational programs funneled through Baldwin and Morrow’s Amber Waves Farm.
It also began a food foraging program, collecting unsold or unharvested produce from local farms and delivering those goods to the Springs Food Pantry.
According to AFI Director Jennifer Desmond, the program kicked off late last year, and delivered about 2,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to the food pantry. This year’s program, which started on Wednesday, is predicted to donate about 10,000 pounds of produce to the pantry.
However, as Desmond noted in an interview on Tuesday, AFI’s primary goal this season is fundraising towards the purchase of a home for the institute. She envisions it as a hub for the local food movement, and would like to make it accessible to everyone on the East End.
The institute is conceived to include a farmers’ market on site, as well as a café, a demonstration kitchen, office and conference spaces. The space would also house a commercial kitchen, which will be state-certified, said Desmond, so that those interested in crafting and selling products derived from local foods have a legal space to do just that.
“The goal is to create something that will help this community, and make local food accessible to everyone,” said Desmond.
Desmond added that AFI would create a center where the producers of local food can share ideas, not just with their consumers, but with each other as well.
“We want to fill a void on every level,” said Desmond. “With the farmers, we want to help them strategize on how to form food co-ops, and take on projects like producing a cookbook, where the proceeds go to helping provide farmers with health insurance. As we all know, health care costs are prohibitive and most of our farmers are not insured.”
While Desmond said she does have short list of potential properties for the institute in mind, the ideal space would back up to an organic farm. For that reason, the board has long had its sights set on the abandoned Pacific East restaurant, a two-acre property on Montauk Highway in Amagansett that backs up to the Amber Waves Farm and has ample parking on-site.
“We would very much like to purchase the Pacific East space and build the institute in the exact footprint of that building, although it would be a gut renovation,” said Desmond.
While Desmond said the institute would gratefully accept the aid of angel donors, she said AFI is focused on using the next 12 weeks to raise awareness and throw events to fundraise toward the $4 million the institute has set as its initial fundraising goal.
This Saturday, AFI is hosting a clambake fundraiser and talk about the institute at Atlantic Beach in Amagansett. Desmond said it is one of several events in the works for the next two months in an effort to promote the organization.
This fall, Desmond, added, she will begin to apply for grants to help fund the institute as well.
“I would like to see a property bought by the end of the year, although I may be naively ambitious,” said Desmond. “But myself and the board do feel like we need to move forward with this as quickly as possible.”
While Desmond’s focus is certainly on finding AFI a home, she is also engaged in the pursuits that make the organization so critical, including running the food foraging program, which she would like to see expanded in coming years.
Farms like Quail Hill, Balsam Farms, Steve Eaton’s Fireplace Farms in Springs and Sunset Beach Farm, which rents space from Quail Hill, already donate goods for the pantry, but Desmond would like to see it grow into an even larger initiative.
“As it progresses, and the level of partners increases, we will partner with other food pantries,” she said. “One of the things we would like to start as early as next year is providing grant monies for farmers, so they can plant crops specifically for the foraging program, including crops like beans and legumes. If we can make it so it doesn’t cost them anything, I think we would find a lot of partners.”
Desmond can be found at the Route 27 Farmers’ Market at the Amagansett American Legion on Wednesday mornings and the East Hampton Farmers’ Market on Friday mornings talking about projects like this. She has found the very industries the institute hopes to support are more than excited at the possibilities AFI could bring to the community at-large by way of educational initiatives, as well as their businesses.
“I don’t want a kid to ever balk at eating a tomato,” said Desmond. “I want it to be as natural as eating an orange, a part of life and living.”
For more information on The Amagansett Food Institute, visit www.amagansettfood.org.