Clifford H. Foster, Sagaponack Farmer, 78

Jan. 29, 1939 - June 25, 2017
Clifford H. Foster, Jan. 29, 1939 - June 25, 2017

Clifford Hedges Foster, the patriarch of a farming family that runs one of the largest remaining agricultural operations on the South Fork and an advocate for farming and farm interests on Long Island for decades, died on Sunday at home in Sagaponack.

He was 78 and had been in declining health since having a stroke a few years ago.

Mr. Foster was a longtime member and former president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, and also served as the bureau’s state representative. “He had good ideas and was a good, strong leader,” said John L. Halsey, a friend and fellow farmer, who added that Mr. Foster was a passionate “supporter of the role of agriculture in our society.”

Mr. Foster had been active in the bureau’s fight against a proposed nuclear power plant in Jamesport and was proud that the plans never came to fruition, said his wife, Lee Foster. “They fought it because the transmission lines were going to go across farmland,” she recalled on Tuesday. “He and his fellow farmers, they were a force.”

He was also on the board of the Long Island Cauliflower Association.

“Clifford was a leader in his time in the farming community on the South Fork,” said Mr. Halsey, who owns Whitecap Farm on Mecox Bay and the Milk Pail in Water Mill. He was “strongly opinionated, and very free with his opinions,” but always fair and a good listener, Mr. Halsey said.

A progressive farmer, “he always had up-to-date equipment and was very ingenious at adapting equipment to different jobs,” Mr. Halsey said.

“We’re so far from everything, that farmers here on the Island have to improvise,” Mr. Foster told The Star in 1999.

When it came to other farmers or neighbors, Mr. Foster was generous with both his time and his guidance, qualities that earned him deep respect among his peers.

Mr. Foster grew up in Sagaponack and raised his family on the farm established by his great-grandfather Josiah Foster, who had been a whaler before leaving the water for the land. His ancestors had been in Sagaponack since the 1600s, and he was a proud and active member of the local community, also serving on the Sagaponack School Board, as a Bridgehampton firefighter, and as a Bridgehampton fire commissioner.

“He was extraordinarily good at figuring something out and solving it,” said Jeff White, the chief of the Bridgehampton Fire Department and a neighbor of the Foster Farm. “If something could be better, he’d figure out a way to make it better, and then he’d figure out a way to fabricate something to make it better.”

Potatoes were the family’s primary crop, with most of them being sold wholesale to the Puerto Rican market for many years. They also grew field corn, cauliflower, and grain, at one point farming many hundreds of acres, both owned and leased, in Sagaponack, Amagansett, Bridgehampton, and East Hampton. As development pressures grew, the farm’s acreage decreased, but Mr. Foster and his family were nevertheless able to reassemble the core farm in Sagaponack that his great-grandfather had worked, buying land from his father’s brother and his family. “Cliff and I decided that we had to bring it back together,” his wife said.

Mr. Foster was born in Southampton on Jan. 29, 1939, to Charles Halsey Foster and the former Anne Parson Hedges. He graduated from the Sagaponack School and from East Hampton High School, and knew from an early age that he wanted to continue in the family business. “I was more interested in the farm than in school,” he told The Star. But his education by no means ended when he finished high school. On a farm, he said, “You’re never done learning. . . . It’s a different gig every day, every week, every season. . . . You’ve got to be very flexible.”

He met his future wife, the former Lee Beattie, in Sagaponack. She was from Maplewood, N.J., but her family had “a shack on the beach.”

“He was very shy. He didn’t know how to dance,” she remembered. “He was a big guy” — at 6-foot-4 — and “was a hunk, as they say.”

“One of our first dates, he picked me up before dawn, and we went to a field where the ducks were coming in. It was a fall weekend.”

They were married on June 22, 1963, and he did learn to dance, if only to keep her company. “We had very different backgrounds, but we made a life,” she said. They had three children, Robin Ann, Dean, and Marilee. Dean Foster and Marilee Foster followed their father into the fields.

Mr. Foster was an able mechanic. He collected and restored antique tractors and engines that had been used to power older farm equipment, running them at events held by the Long Island Antique Power Association, of which he was a member.

“He was just a solid guy, the foundation of so much that is good in a person,” his wife said. She described him as generous, persevering, and grounding.

In addition to his wife and children, Dean Foster and Marilee Foster of Sagaponack and Robin Ann Foster of Bridgehampton, Mr. Foster is survived by a sister, Julia Mumford of Waverly, Pa.

Mr. Foster was cremated. A celebration of his life is planned for July 8 at 3 p.m. at the family farm on Sagg Main Street.

The family has suggested contributions to the Long Island Farm Bureau, 104 Edwards Avenue, Suite 3, Calverton 11933, the Bridgehampton Fire Department, P.O. Box 958, Bridgehampton 11932, or the Long Island Antique Power Association, P.O. Box 1134, Riverhead 11901.