In late March, just two days after the Spring Equinox, I went to Amagansett to visit Quail Hill Farm, the first of what will be many visits over the course of the coming year, to look at the life and labor behind one of the oldest community-supported agriculture farms in the country. What can we, as home cooks, eaters, and amateur growers, learn from observing the seasonal changes on this farm? Come walk along with us as we document the life of a farm, season by season, beginning with the fresh start of spring: Seeding in March.
Amangansett is a small hamlet on the South Shore of Long Island, way out near the tip, and a three hour bus drive east of New York City. The driver dropped me off on the side of Main Street, the stretch of Montauk Highway that runs through the town. It was late morning, and the mist from the nearby ocean had not yet burned off in the sunlight. I was just about to pull out my phone to navigate my exact location when I heard a car honk, and looking up, saw Scott Chaskey, Quail Hill Farm's poet farmer, waving at me from an old pickup truck across the street.
I first met Scott two years ago when I wrote a small profile of the farm for Apartment Therapy's Green Living channel (previously known as Re-Nest). Then, as now, I was struck by the phrase "old soul" which kept coming to mind. It seemed to describe him perfectly. It's not just the full white beard (the definition of "flowing" if I ever saw one) but the way he talks about farming, his community, and the people who harvest food from his land. Clearly these thoughts have gone through full life cycles of their own over his 23 years on the farm—germinating, growing, thriving, dying, and being renewed again—and have now arrived at an easy place in his mind, freeing him to muse gently and confidently on everything from the batty behaviors of the chickens to the pungent perfection of foraged green garlic.
My arrival at the farm was just one of many beginnings that day: scheduled activities and chores were still in flux as the crew—which includes Scott; Sam, the farm manager; Kate, a market manager, who arrived four weeks prior; and Will, Rachel, and Calvin, three new apprentices marking their very first week on the farm—became acquainted with each other and the work. "The key to managing a crew is seeing what people like to do and also what they're good at," Scott tells me. This first week is a time of trial and error, a time to share and shift until things naturally settle into the rightful place, and people into the rightful tasks. In the meantime, everyone starts at the beginning, with seeding.
The seasonal life at Quail Hill Farm, I learned, begins in early March, with hand seeding. Every vegetable, fruit, or flower planted on the farm starts its life in the heated greenhouse. Onions are seeded first, usually about seven or eight varieties; other early spring varieties include artichokes; parsley, which takes an especially long time to grow; lettuce; fennel; leeks; scallions and snapdragons. The seedlings sprout in trays in the heated greenhouse for four to five weeks before moving to the unheated greenhouse (to acclimate the seeds to outdoor temperatures) and then to the field.
This is how farm life starts for crew and crop, but seeding in the greenhouses is a continual process that runs from early March through July, with different crops getting seeded at different times. Each greenhouse holds 160 trays, with 128-200 cells per tray. (Did you do the math? That's up to 32,000 seeds!) And because Scott uses his own non-sterile live seed mix—a special formula, honed over the years, made of peet moss, perlite and vermiculite, and compost—weeding the greenhouse is a daily ritual.
Kate weeding the greenhouse, which she calls 'kind of zen and methodical."
The morning, which the crew spends seeding, putting down fertilizer, and planting raspberry bushes, soon tips into lunch hour, and everyone convenes in the kitchen on the upper level of the farm clubhouse. This is a functional space, a place to make a quick meal and eat around a table. A medley of pots, pans, and utensils line the shelves. The fridge is stocked with eggs and leftover winter greens. "Anybody like a fried egg?" someone asks, as lunches are retrieved and set up on the table—chicken soup, a bagel and cream cheese, Greek yogurt.
Over the next hour the conversation shifts from college basketball to a discussion on the best bread in Southampton, the trendiness of sopressata ("I still don't know what it is!"), whether or not someone should transplant the Sweet Williams ("No, it's too dry"), what to do with the herb garden ("We need to clear it, then put the mulch down"), and most entertainingly, how delicious it smelled when Scott mowed the peas a few days ago. "I felt like I was in pea soup!" Scott says. "What an amazing aroma!" Then he laughs—a few exuberant quacks—and everyone else does, too.
After lunch, both old hands and young minds walk off to the fields and greenhouses, ready to work for a few more hours. The day has turned warm and the garlic fields need mulching, the herb patch clearing. "That's the thing about farming that is actually one of the best things about it," Scott says, as we forage for green garlic left behind from last year's harvest. "There's always something new going on. You always have to figure out what's next."
(Images: Cambria Bold)