By Tessa Raebeck
As a student in England struggling to support himself, Scott Chaskey found a job as a gardener. Several farms and many successful seasons later, Chaskey will be honored as Farmer of the Year at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s Winter Conference. Chaskey will also give one of the keynote addresses at the conference, which will be held in Saratoga Springs January 24 through January 27.
“I fell in love with using the spade and turning the soil over,” recalls Chaskey, now the farm director at the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett. Chaskey returned to the United States in 1989. His homecoming coincided with the national emergence of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a locally based socioeconomic structure of food distribution that intends to narrow the gap between families and farmers.
In 1990, Quail Hill became the first CSA farm in New York state. At the time, there was only one other organic farm on the East End, the Green Thumb in Water Mill.
“They were wonderful to us,” says Chaskey, recalling how the farmers there helped Quail Hill get its start. The Green Thumb supplied the young farm with transplants for its inaugural season, which Quail Hill then grew and harvested.
In addition to supplying locally grown, organic food, CSA hopes to build community through education and support long-term sustainability efforts by connecting consumers to their food source. CSA farms sell shares of produce for an annual fee, offering consumers both awareness of where their food is coming from and involvement in its cultivation.
“I just loved the idea of not only growing food organically, but also building community,” says Chaskey, “My actual farming career has been entirely involved with building this community up at the same time that we were growing the soil to grow good food.”
For the past 23 years, Chaskey has helped to build community here on the East End through his work at Quail Hill. Education is fundamental to CSA, and Chaskey said he is dedicated to teaching the next generation of farmers.
“Besides providing food,“ Chaskey explains, “we’re also running programs to educate people about what we’re doing and about sustainable agriculture. Lots of different things, that’s what a community farm is about.”
Organic farming on the East End has come a long way since the only farms were the Green Thumb and Quail Hill. Through many successful harvests, Chaskey has had over 100 apprentices. Students can volunteer for a day or stay for a year, and many go on to start CSA farms themselves.
Former apprentices Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow founded Amber Waves Farm, also in Amagansett, with the guidance and support of Chaskey and Quail Hill, as well as The Peconic Land Trust, which leases land to both Amber Waves Farm and Quail Hill.Chaskey’s influence on the careers of Baldwin and Merrow is apparent in their commitment to education, sustainability and community building.
Through Peconic Land Trust’s Incubator Program, young farmers like Baldwin and Merrow are encouraged and supported to venture out on their own. In the model of a homestead program, new farmers are leased land to cultivate.
“The whole existence of NOFA is to educate not only farmers, but consumers to be aware of the importance of organic farming,” saysChaskey, ”Those years of educating, I think we’re starting to harvest the fruit of it now.”
Due to growing awareness of the health concerns of processed, unnatural foods, there has been a striking increase in the national demand for organic produce. That demand is especially prevalent here on the East End, where excellent soil and preserved land have not only allowed for the survival of the rich farming tradition, but enabled it to thrive in recent years.
“From that one farm, it’s amazing how it’s spread in the last 20 years,” says Chaskey. The NOFA Conference, he recalls, “used to be attended by a couple hundred people and now it’s almost 1,500 — and well over half of them are in their twenties.”
The influx of youth into organic farming has reinvigorated the business and heartened proponents of natural food.
“It’s very encouraging to see how many young people are interested in getting involved,” Chaskey says with excitement, “It’s amazing — the quality of people who have graduated with this or that degree and want to do some sort of meaningful work. And that’s happening not only here, but all over the country.”
Chaskey is optimistic about the future of organic farming, hoping to see the higher demand translate to higher acreage and larger scale farms. If the past 23 years of success are any indication, Chaskey’s optimism could be right on point.