Local Winegrowers Catch Sustainable Farming Bug


Hanging in my kitchen is a photo taken in 1940 showing my former North Fork neighbor, Hallock Tuthill, binding wheat on a rig driven by three massive farm horses.

I love this image. Here is real horsepower. Can you imagine mowing your lawn with a three-horsepower tractor? Yet these animals got the job done. And the rig must have been a marvel of innovation at the time it was invented, if not in 1940.

I also love the image because I was so fond of the Tuthill cousins who lived in close proximity to me near Alvah’s Lane in Cutchogue. Their ancestors were “first settlers” on the North Fork, but some of them had found farming here so difficult that they left Long Island in the 19th century to homestead in Nebraska. When the homesteads failed, they returned here to reclaim their roots as best they could.

Sitting on his rig, Hallock Tuthill is such a cool dude. He could easily pass for one of today’s young Slow Food farm interns—with his shades, his shorts and his porkpie hat. Come to think of it, he was a slow food farmer, literally!

In case you missed the asteroid that fell right next to you: Slow Food is an international movement that advocates protection of diverse and traditional food practices in the face of the mega-corporate dominance of food production. Born in Italy in 1986 to protest the establishment of a McDonald’s in Rome, it has grown beyond its original (somewhat tongue-in-cheek?) call to reconnect with the pleasures of eating slowly. It has become a potent political force, especially in Europe.

On the East End, a Slow Food “convivium” started by Ted Conklin, owner of the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, has grown to sponsor “edible schoolyards,” farmers’ markets and farmer training on the East End.

Because the Slow Food movement is driven by the enjoyment of food, it may seem trivial, but its mission is dead serious. Without biodiversity, without fair access to good food, without maintaining sustainable farms, we are already facing a worldwide food crisis. With the abbondanza we enjoy here in our own restaurants and markets, it’s easy to ignore the tenuous nature of our own agribusinesses.

When Hallock Tuthill bundled wheat on that hot summer day in 1940, most of the East End’s farms grew diverse crops—asparagus, strawberries, potatoes, cauliflower, beans—plus poultry and dairy products. Hallock’s cousin, Stanley Tuthill, told me when he was growing up, he never ate an apple, pear, or peach that was unblemished because if was perfect, it would be sent to market. But his mother made pies from damaged fruit, including a “buttertop” apple pie that involved carefully lifting the crust after the pie was baked, in order to slather the apples with butter. Now, there’s a recipe Slow Foodies would applaud.

Crop diversity diminished here throughout the ’50s, as farmers invested too much capital in potato combines to be able to justify dedicating much land to other foods. The minor agricultural revolution that brought wine grapes here in the ’70s and ’80s required new skills, equipment and capital. The benefits of farming any crop here, with some of the world’s best agricultural soils and a temperate, rain-fed climate, are challenged by high land and production costs. I would add, the blasé attitude of New Yorkers who have seen everything and value little adds to the challenge of marketing local products.

Nonetheless, behind the scenes, a dedicated group of farmers continues to seek ways to farm here that are sustainable. Eighteen Long Island wineries have bonded to form Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing (LISW) in Cutchogue to provide observable standards for sustainable viticulture here. Having spent many years developing guidelines based on New York State’s VineBalance program, they recently took the unprecedented step of paying an outside professional, Clifford Ohmart of SureHarvest—a California-based agriculture firm—to evaluate their practices.

Applauding the LISW as “a robust and well-constructed program that compares well to other existing sustainable winegrowing certification programs,” Mr. Ohmart described the essence of LISW’s efforts as, “Doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.”

In his recommendations for LISW going forward, he emphasized that the organization needs to find ways to demonstrate the “What’s in it for me?” to farmers who want to participate, but can’t justify the extra expense.

If more of us would get behind those wineries who have gone the extra mile to protect the environment along with their crops, the sustainability of wine—and farming—would be far more secure.

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