Local Farmers Discuss Trials, Innovation of East End Agriculture at “Small Bites”

Posted on 26 February 2014

Pete Ludlow of the Mecox Bay Dairy Farm with "Cinnamon," one of his milking cows, on February 24. Photo by Michael Heller.

Pete Ludlow of the Mecox Bay Dairy Farm with “Cinnamon,” one of his milking cows, on February 24. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

For over 225 years, the farm on the northeast shore of Mecox Bay grew potatoes. Today, Pete Ludlow, the fifth generation of his family to farm the land, is creating an experimental cheddar/blue cheese hybrid and selling raw milk.

The evolution of East End farms from crops like potatoes, corn and melons to new and innovative products will be discussed by Mr. Ludlow and others this Sunday at “Small Bites,” the first panel discussion in a lecture series presented by the Peconic Land Trust. The series, “Long Island Grown: Food and Beverage Artisans at Work,” is bringing food, wine and beer experts to Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton throughout March and April. Local author, pastry chef, and food editor for The East Hampton Star Laura Donnelly will moderate the discussions.

“All of the people who are on the panels,” said Ms. Donnelly, “they’re really the most important people in our community when it comes to food and wine and fishing and everything. They’re all idols of mine, so I’m very excited that I get to do it.”

On Sunday, panelists David Falkowski of Open Minded Organics in Bridgehampton and Fred Lee of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic will join Mr. Ludlow in a discussion focused on the expansion of Long Island agriculture from potatoes and cauliflower to exotic greens, mushrooms, artisanal cheese and other products.

From the time Mr. Ludlow’s family started the farm in 1875, the focus at Mecox Bay was always potatoes. “I was born out here on the potato farm,” Mr. Ludlow said. In 2001, the Ludlows decided to diversify—and remain in business—by switching to dairy and, specifically, to making cheese.

Cheese, Mr. Ludlow said, “is a way for a small farm to stay profitable.” In transforming the farm into Mecox Bay Dairy, the Ludlow family made every effort to use the equipment and facilities they already had, converting an old potato barn into a space for cheese making and cow milking.

By focusing on cheese first, which has more value than other dairy products, the Ludlows were able to buy time to develop other products. The farm recently received a permit to sell raw milk and hopes to experiment with ice cream and yogurt production. The Ludlows are also looking to develop a retail business to sell their products, which include pork and beef, on the farm.

On the North Fork, Sang Lee Farms cultivates Asian greens, vegetables, herbs and flowers, dressings and condiments. The family owned and operated certified-organic farm grows over 100 varieties of specialty vegetables and herbs. They produce two kinds of bok choy, edamame, kale and 16 varieties of tomatoes, to name a few.

“He’s a second generation farmer,” Ms. Donnelly said of Mr. Lee, “and he has all kinds of degrees—he’s studied clinical psychology and business. He’s probably doing the hardest thing he could possibly do, but with people’s interest in good food and exotic greens, I’d like to think Sang Lee Farms Is doing well. But they rely on climate and the economy and the weather and, you know, disease outbreak could come along and destroy crops—so it’s not easy.”

In addition to the standard struggles experienced on any farm, East End farmers have another obstacle to contend with when they try to expand their business—the ever-shrinking availability of farmland.

Open Minded Organics started as a small business in David Falkowski’s backyard. Now in his 11th year, Mr. Falkowski is growing over 200 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs, as well as raising chickens, on his 5-acre farm in Bridgehampton. After finding success in mushrooms, Mr. Falkowski diversified the farm about five years ago and continues adding more products every year—but his expansion is limited by the lack of available farmland.

“I’m at that crux right now and land is very difficult to find. Forget the expense part, which is part of it, but even finding it is very difficult,” said Mr. Falkowski. “What’s happening is these lands that are preserved for low crops or agricultural reserve very often—and I would say more often than not—are no longer producing food.”

Although local governments can’t correct past mistakes that turned historic farmland into scenic vistas on private estates and horse farms, Mr. Falkowski is hopeful they will make better decisions moving forward.

Ms. Donnelly, in turn, is hopeful Mr. Falkowski’s political take on the state of local agriculture—and his proposed solution—will come up during Sunday’s discussion.

“By all means say what you want, it makes it more interesting,” Ms. Donnelly said she told Mr. Falkowski in a pre-interview, adding, “You don’t want people sitting around for an hour and a half saying, ‘I agree, I agree, I agree,’ so I’m hoping there will be some sparks.”

“Small Bites” is Sunday, March 2, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Bridge Gardens, 36 Mitchell Lane in Bridgehampton. Reservations are required and refreshments will follow. Tickets are $20 for members and $25 for non-members. Tickets for the entire lecture series are $70 for members and $90 for non-members. For reservations, call 283-3195, ext. 19 or email events@peconiclandtrust.org.

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