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May 19, 2009 8:01 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Trial ground for Amber Waves

May 19, 2009 8:01 PM

When the Amagansett Farmers Market opened for the season on Monday, there were two young farmers working the 7.5-acre plot of land behind the garden, hoping to grow their first crop of spring wheat.

Katie Baldwin, 28, and Amanda Merrow, 23, two former apprentices at the Quail Hill Farm, an organic farm in Amagansett that is run by the Peconic Land Trust, submitted the winning bid to lease the rich Bridgehampton loam behind the farmers market.

“Their work will be integrated in the market. It’s very convenient, since it’s at their back door,” said John v.H. Halsey, the president of The Peconic Land Trust.

Ms. Baldwin and Ms. Merrow are planning to grow organic wheat for flour at the site, which Mr. Halsey said can be used by New York food purveyor Eli Zabar, who won the lease to run the farmer’s market last year, to make his well-known Eli’s Bread.

“Wheat is tricky to grow on the South Fork because of the dampness. This year is an experiment,” said Mr. Halsey.

On Monday afternoon, after weeks of chilly weather, steady rain, and an occasional freak summer-like heat wave, Ms. Baldwin and Ms. Merrow took a break from painting one of the buildings on the property to survey their trial three-quarter-acre plot of wheat, which they planted a month ago.

“Nobody here is growing spring wheat because of the fungal issue,” said Ms. Baldwin. She said that the Northeast Organic Farming Association had given them a trial batch of a disease-resistant strain of wheat that also makes good bread. Ms. Merrow estimates that they can cull 1,000 pounds of flour from their trial run this spring.

“Fifty years ago there were hundreds of acres of grain on the East End,” said Ms. Merrow. “Now there are no grains for human consumption.”

While it’s too early to tell how the crop will fare in this wet spring, Ms. Merrow said that the first challenge is to find a way to prevent birds from eating the seed before it germinates.

Ms. Merrow is from Vermont, which has a strong local food movement. She worked on dairy farms there before her 10-month apprenticeship at Quail Hill last year. She said the East End has a good range of local food sources—from artisanal cheeses, honey, mushrooms and beer—but micro-grain production is lacking in the food supply.

They hope to plant the back 4 acres of the property with winter wheat, which, when planted in the fall, is strong enough by the following spring to withstand fungal threats.

The women plan to harvest the grain by hand with a scythe and will thresh it by hand as well. They don’t have a tractor, and while they have relied on friends’ tractors to till the soil for the 2 acres of vegetables they are putting in this spring, they’re no strangers to hand-cultivation methods.

“Quail Hill is the most hands-on, hard-core farm. We run a 25-acre farm with five people, and a lot is done by hand from seed to harvest,” said Ms. Baldwin, who is originally from California and worked on several farms there before her apprenticeship at Quail Hill, where she met Ms. Merrow. “Their program equips you to start your own farm.”

The farmers are also growing 31 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in two greenhouses on the property and plan to grow 100 varieties of vegetables, which will also be sold at the farmers market. They’re also working on a trial run of indigo, red and yellow dye plants that they hope will be in demand by artists who live in the area.

“It’s a big deal for young farmers to have access to a market,” said Ms. Baldwin.

They are also in the process of establishing a non-profit corporation that they hope will enable them to use the farm as a teaching laboratory for students at the Amagansett School, which is right down the street from the farm.

Students have already begun visiting the farm on field trips, and the farmers hope that they will also be able to work on the farm in order to fulfill their community service requirements. They also hope to have weekly workshops to introduce the community to farming methods.

Their farm, which they have named Amber Waves, is owned by Maggie DeCuevas, who last year in a four-way deal with former farmers market owner Pat Struck, the Land Trust, East Hampton Town and Mr. Zabar, sold the development rights to the town and the Land Trust, and enabled the Land Trust to lease the market to a food purveyor and the land to farmers.

Mr. Halsey said that the young farmers are leasing the land for three years at the going rate for farmland of about $150 per acre.

“We’re starting with this, and if Katie and Amanda are successful, they’ll find other acreage,” he said.

“Our long-term plan is to create a sustainable partnership with the Peconic Land Trust and put some more land under production,” said Ms. Baldwin.

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By EG (8), 11937 on May 20, 09 4:07 PM
Wow, this is great! Congratulations Amanda and Katie! Thanks for your committment to these projects and our Amagansett community.
By BAB (7), Newport Beach on May 21, 09 12:27 PM
Thanks for your commitment to farming in a day when the land out here seems to be seen as suited better for Mc Mansions than food.

Remember, NO farms, NO food!
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on May 26, 09 12:39 PM
Hello! I am a food lover myself and am the kind of person who gets so excited finding the freshest produce and the freshest ingredients to make a great dish. Katie Baldwin I was reading a little about you and that you got some inspiration from the union square market. I haven't been to that market but eaten around their at Mesa Grill-Bobby Flay's restaurant and had drinks at Blue water grill, what great places around there. I am about 35 minutes outside of Manhattan and enjoy local farms and ...more
By Christian Miller (1), Mahwah on Sep 28, 09 9:01 PM