A Winter Eden at Quail Hill

Scott Chaskey stood in an unheated greenhouse at Quail Hill, with rows of lettuce, baby spinach, and oriental greens for the winter share. Heather Dubin

   Up a creaky flight of stairs in a brightly painted orange room, Scott Chaskey, director of the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, sat down two weeks ago behind his orderly desk for an interview about the farm and its winter share. “I just cleaned a week ago,” Mr. Chaskey joked, explaining his tidy desk, on which he had a jar of pens and a long, elegant feather, and a bowl of small pinecones.
    Mr. Chaskey has been an integral part of the organic farm since 1990, when the community supported agriculture project (commonly known now by the initials C.S.A.) moved to Quail Hill as a project of the Peconic Land Trust. The experiment became “a perfect marriage; a conservation organization and community farming,” said Mr. Chaskey.
    In the spring, summer, and fall, members pay a set price for the season and can harvest their own produce two days a week. And for the past 16 years, the farm has also offered winter shares, giving members access to locally-grown crops after the growing season ends.
    “We built a root cellar and saved crops. People used to do that,” Mr. Chaskey said. There are also unheated greenhouses for lettuce and a variety of oriental greens. “It costs too much to heat them. In this climate, if it drops below 20 degrees, we can cover them with a blanket as long as the roots don’t freeze,” he explained.
    From late November through the end of February, members collect their shares of produce in the same shop on the farm that holds Mr. Chaskey’s office, the root cellar, and a 1948 Ford 8N tractor. Potatoes, squash, beets, garlic, carrots, and a variety of other heartier vegetables are set out on a table every other week for pickup. Members can also visit the greenhouses once a week.
    The first winter share had 20 families. “We bought fancy wooden boxes from Vermont and boxed it all up. Then people didn’t come pick it up, so we decided it was too much work. We had people pick it up like they do now,” Mr. Chaskey said.
    Now there are 85 winter shareholders who pay $340 per family or $215 for a single person.
    Quail Hill, now in its 23rd season, was one of the first C.S.A.s in New York. In the summer, 250 member families pay $825 per family, and $415 per single from June through November, and harvest their own produce two days a week.
    “We used to include eggs, but organic feed is so expensive that we have members pay separately for eggs,” he said. A dozen cost $6.
    There are two other full-time employees in addition to Mr. Chaskey, and they all receive a salary and health insurance through the Peconic Land Trust. An ample volunteer force, including members of the Quail Hill Farm apprenticeship program, worked together to harvest this year’s crop. “Any farm in the summer is an intense period. You do what you can with the amount of hands you have — 30 acres, we do it with six people,” Mr. Chaskey said.
    Although the staff is small, it is efficient. This year the crew managed to stock away 3,000 pounds of potatoes, 1,000 pounds of carrots, and 750 pounds of beets to dole out through the colder months. Other winter produce includes cabbage, turnips, daikon radishes, burdock, garlic, and rutabagas. There are leeks in the early part of the winter, and onions and shallots, too. 
   “This was a great year to be a winter share member,” said Mr. Chaskey, “The weather has been unbelievable. We were harvesting in January. We have until the ground is frozen.”
    In addition to its healthy produce, Quail Hill also teaches its members about farming, and is a resource for the community. “We’re part of the fabric of the town and the village. It welcomes people back to the land,” Mr. Chaskey said. Many winter share members expressed this same sentiment and spoke of the impact Quail Hill has on their lives.
    “Just walking in there, the smell of the root cellar is a relief to me. It’s like coming home,” said Karin Auwaerter of Sag Harbor. “I love the farm. I love the winter share. Simply walking into the greenhouse or picking the greens, it’s absolutely wonderful. That’s one of my big draws for the winter share.”
    “The carrots are out of this world, so sweet and fresh,” Ms. Auwaerter said. The crop fluctuates year to year, and she enjoys the change of produce. “You go with the ebb and the flow of what the farm can produce.”
    Kevin Coffey and his wife, Kathleen Masters, of East Hampton have been members for 14 years. “It’s a way to stay connected with the farm through the winter months,” Mr. Coffey said. The couple has learned to adjust their cooking and eating habits with the seasons. “We look forward to certain things in the year. There are different recipes that we try that we wouldn’t have done before we joined the farm,” hesaid. 
    In her third season as a member, Jenny Landey of Springs has become quite innovative in her kitchen. “The winter share is such an undiscovered gem. It really surprises you with food that you learn how to use all the time: celery root, rutabaga, beets, shallots, fresh rosemary, delicious carrots that come in great dark colors that aren’t orange,” she said. 
    Ms. Landy has found new ways to use vegetables that she ordinarily wouldn’t buy. “I even bought a dehydrator this winter,” she said. “Kind of crazy, but fun. You can make your own sweet potato chips. People think I’m insane.” When she leaves the farm with a “huge shopping bag with fresh vegetables” she feels an obligation to cook responsibly. “I’m eating much healthier than I used to,” she added.
    “This is one of the best things we’ve ever done since moving out here. I wish we’d done it earlier,” said Anita Wright of Springs. She and her family have been Quail Hill members for two years, and she especially enjoys the fresh greens like arugula, Swiss chard, and baby spinach during the winter. “The land itself is beautiful. It’s peaceful to go there and to know that you’re getting organic food that’s grown locally and hasn’t been sitting in the grocery store for God knows how long,” she said.
    Ms. Wright finds a commonality with other members in their discovery of new foods. “It takes a little time for me to investigate ways to cook things. I’ve found five different ways to cook sweet potatoes,” she added.
    Eileen Roaman of Springs claims that Quail Hill has changed her life. After taking care of the chickens at the farm for Mr. Chaskey while he was away, she realized she needed to have her own. She joined the farm a few years after it started, and learned how to grow food in her garden. “It expanded my palate, celeriac was not in my vocabulary, kohlrabi, or the variations of winter squash,” Ms. Roaman said. “Quail Hill is awesome.  It’s the Garden of Eden.”