After growing up on his family’s farm in Ames, Iowa, where Dale Haubrich began his career as an organic farmer in 1978, the world had a dramatically different food culture, with only one state — California — certifying organic produce.
“I took crops to the grocery store in Ames, Iowa and was told it couldn’t be labeled organic because people would think there was something wrong with the other stuff,” said Haubrich. “Now, they knowthere is something wrong with the other stuff.”
For over 30 years since, Haubrich has dedicated his life, professionally and personally, to the organic foods movement, and is viewed on the East End of Long Island as a pioneer in the practice, which is more of a philosophy for Haubrich and Bette Lacina, his partner in business and life.
Haubrich and Lacina have spent the better part of two decades cultivating literal tons of organic produce on their Sag Harbor farm now known as Bette and Dale’s, formerly Under the Willow, just beyond Bay Burger restaurant on the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike.
“The willow died,” explained Lacina.
Standing under a shed amid recycled cardboard produce boxes, just beyond the bright yellow farmstand teeming with tomatoes, squash, onions, peaches, zucchini, eggs and even corn — a notoriously difficult crop to grown organically — Lacina explained that she and Haubrich have strived to create a sustainable farm, not just an organic one.
“I never knew how hard sustainability can be,” said Lacina, while picking through and washing a second cut of the couple’s wildly popular arugula, which due to the heat this summer has a particularly spicy flavor. “Dale grew up this way. It is in his nature.”
“Dale is from the school of not wasting anything,” continued Lacina. “When you grow up on a farm, depending on everything you have, you save everything.”
After growing up on a family farm, Haubrich served in the army for four years and then studied microbiology in college, learning about plants and the diseases that affect them.
“I understand how they are infected in the first place,” he said. “Crop diversity is great, and important, in organic farming.”
After working with the United States Department of Agriculture, Haubrich became disillusioned, realizing his dream was to have a small, family farm. He studied horticulture, and while watching as farmers embraced new chemicals, felt the quick fix was not sustainable and settled into organics.
Following a woman from Queens to New York, Haubrich found himself an organic farmer in Southampton when he crossed paths with Lacina.
Lacina met Haubrich 18 years ago when she reached out to him, having sparked a personal interest in learning how to cultivate food and flowers without using chemicals.
“We met, and afterwards we became friends,” she said, delicately placing squash blossoms in a carton lined with newspaper. “Then he said, work with me. First we were business partners, and then we had a relationship.”
Haubrich and Lacina plant thousands of seedlings each spring, with over 80 varieties of vegetables and fruits between the seedlings and perennials grown on one-and-a-half acres between their Sag Harbor spread and another plot at East Hampton’s EECO Farm.
The couple also started raising chickens six years ago as a protein source for their diet, to create natural fertilizer for their farm and to eat discarded vegetables as not to waste a morsel of their crop.
“Dale’s specialty is making something out of a small piece of land,” said Lacina. “It’s all about rebuilding soil. We’re not damaging it, we are making it better.”
The couple also boasts a 2.5 acre farm south of Tucson, Arizona with Haubrich also working on creating a 40-acre pasture to raise grass fed, organic cattle in the future. They spend December 1 through April 1 in Arizona before returning to Sag Harbor for the remainder of the year.
Technically, Bette and Dale’s is not an organic farm by United States Department of Agriculture standards.
“We were certified organic for eight years, but then we bowed out in the face of industry-favored government standards,” said Lacina. “Instead, we take the Farmers Pledge.”
The Farmers Pledge, of the Northeast Organic Farming Association goes beyond what is required by federal guidelines, addressing labor issues, community values and marketing practices.”
“Our rules are stricter,” said Lacina. “There are no chemicals, no fertilizers. Everything is grown in compost.”
“This year was one of the best fruit seasons we have had,” said Lacina. “We didn’t have to deal with the mold or the fungus that comes with the rain.”
Peaches, she added, have also been particularly wonderful, and all of the crops due to early spring rains followed by intense heat have come into season two weeks early.
However, chimed in Haubrich, the drought has resulted in more difficulty cultivating crops like salad greens, which, along with the fruits, have needed a lot of extra watering this season.
“For some things the drought is good, for others it’s not — Leafy greens, for example,” said Lacina. “But the tomatoes and peppers — warm weather crops — are thriving.”
Bette and Dale’s farm is the only one that Haubrich and Lacina know of that grows organic corn, many organic farmers opting not to grow the crop at all or allowing minimal spraying to avoid the inevitable horn ear worm that will find its way into each ear of corn.
As Haubrich explained, the worm is not a dirty worm, “the only thing it has ever eaten is corn,” and the worm only eats a small portion of kernels at the top of the ear, leaving 90 percent of the vegetable untouched.
While they sell the corn in husk at their farmstand, Haubrich said they shuck the husk of the corn and cut off the top for sale at the Sag Harbor Farmers’ Market, where the couple can be found each Saturday morning, to make it more palatable for the uninitiated.
Many though, are initiated, and Bette and Dale sell not only to East End residents, but also to a number of local restaurants, including Estia’s Little Kitchen and Espressos, and Bay Burger, as well as the Allegria Hotel in Long Beach, where former American Hotel chef Todd Jacobs serves as executive chef.
“We originally started delivering to him at the American Hotel in 1992,” remembered Haubrich. “He is committed to organic ingredients.”
“A lot of people do the talk, but don’t walk the walk,” he continued. “It’s just more convenient. Our ideal chef is one who we tell what we have and they plan a menu around what is available.”
Although attitudes have changed regarding the food we eat, particularly in the last decade, and with the organic movement still growing, Lacina is hopeful people are becoming more educated about sustainability, and would like to see more East End residents take a more proactive role.
“We live in an area where land is so valuable and yet a lot of people have five-acre lawns,” she said. “If that was converted to organic farming, we wouldn’t have much need for hunger on the East End.”
For those just dipping their toes into the realm of organic farming, she suggests crafting edible landscapes, which can be beautiful, yet useful, and do not contribute to groundwater pollution like many of the emerald green lawns of the Hamptons do.
For Lacina and Haubrich, the ideal East End would be one full of small, organic family farms with the farmers themselves turning out at the local farmers’ markets to sell their bounty.
“I think sustainable is sustainable,” said Haubrich. “People are more educated and I think there is hope. At least there is a good possibility.”