Hepworth Farm: Beyond Organic

From the Fields

Hepworth Farm: Beyond Organic

Adam Kurtz

FARMING ISN'T—OR SHOULDN'T BE—just about growing food. That’s the philosophy of someone who knows a little bit about it: seventh-generation farmer Amy Hepworth of Hepworth Farms, in Milton. “We’re consistently working in this paradigm of ecological, economic, and social justice,” she emphasizes. “Working within that framework, we feel that we can achieve a food system that benefits all.”

Hepworth Farms was established in 1818 and opened up a long-standing roadside market 100 years later. The current (seventh) generation of the family on the farm included five children; among them, Amy stood out as the logical pick to head the farm operations. “Amy was always the farmer,” says Gail Hepworth, Amy’s twin sister. “We all helped out but she has always been very tied to the land—she always loved to drive tractors, she loved to be outdoors, she was always learning and inquisitive and interested, and she had a keen sense of nature.”

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By the 1970s, the well-established Hepworth fruit farm had grown to be a large commercial operation, selling apples all over the United States. Once it passed into Amy’s hands in 1982, the newly minted Cornell pomology graduate made some radical shifts. For starters, she scaled back production—way back, from 1,000 acres in production to only 50. She slashed the farm’s client list, too, keeping only a carefully selected group of buyers who truly cared about how their food was grown and sought a long-term, mutually enriching partnership. Significantly, Amy converted the entire farm to organic, a movement that at the time was just beginning to gain momentum.

“I did a lot of experimenting—and lost my farm a lot of money!” Amy admits. “Within five years, we discovered, with a scientific team, that [organic] wasn’t the most ecological system. We had to stop doing organic fruit production because it wasn’t sustainable and ecologically superior.” She didn’t abandon her commitment or her belief in organic farming, however; by the late 1980s, she had refocused farm production away from apples and into vegetables, and today grows more than 400 varieties of certified organic produce on 500 acres. The farm is the largest grower of organic tomatoes in the Northeast; other specialties include eggplant, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers and greens.

The guiding principles underlying the farm’s operations can be grouped under ecological, economic, and social justice headings. “We first set out to be ecological,” Amy notes. ”Then we realized we had to have some kind of economics so we didn’t go out of business. Then we knew that we were identifying with our workers and that we wanted them to prosper with us and just be honored and respected.”

Dealing with the economics of farming first involved trimming production and developing market connections. “We downsized enough to connect with people who really wanted to know how their food was grown,” she says. “We really wanted it to be known that we were working really hard to make this food be responsible, the best we can do—and we got lost in the commercial market. Nobody cared; they just wanted the best price, period.” In 1982, the 260-member Park Slope Food Co-Op became one of Hepworth Farms’ first clients; 16,000 members later, the relationship is still strong. Whole Foods now carries the farm’s produce, as do CSAs and restaurants throughout the state.

“[Hepworth Farms] is probably one of the more ambitious organic wholesale farmers,” says Joe Angello, owner of Angello’s Distributing, based in Germantown, which brings produce to smaller co-ops throughout the region. “Amy’s one of the most committed agriculturalists—if that’s even a word—when it comes to thinking about organic agriculture and how that works well in the Hudson Valley. She’s probably one of the strongest, most innovative farmers in thinking about how to produce a lot of food and make it available to a wider market than, say, a CSA farmer or a farmers’ market farmer or somebody like that. She goes back generations on that land and is just very, very committed and dedicated to creating organic agriculture commerce in the Hudson Valley.”

Mike Geller, owner of Mike’s Organic Delivery, which delivers produce to customers in Connecticut and Westchester County, appreciates the true relationship he and the farm have built. “Amy and Gail and everyone else at Hepworth has really become like a family to me,” he says. “We love that they grow 108 kinds of heirloom tomatoes, and we love that they’ll grow purple broccoli or watermelon radishes, because we want to expose our customers to new and different things they can’t get at the store.”

The Would Restaurant, in Highland, is one of a handful of local restaurants the farm supplies directly. “The beauty of it is they go right out into the field and cut it for me so it’s really fresh,” says owner Claire Winslow. “I have the nerve to go down on that farm in the midst of their craziness and somebody always takes care of me! Whatever they grow, we work with.” Hepworth Farms’ microgreens, kale, winter squashes and spring onions are especially popular in The Would’s kitchen, and when tomatoes are in season, they take over the menu. She’s also partial to Hepworth’s round, speckled Calliope eggplants. “What’s fun about the eggplants is that when you go to the farmers’ market, you can pick up any different variety (they always have a gazillion of them), and then cook them and see which ones you like better, which ones are more firm and less watery—just play around and see what you can do.”

The farm’s commitment to social justice begins with the farmworkers. “If you want to better the lives of your workers, then you just take steps to do it—make an effort to know them, to know their needs,” Amy says. “It’s always ongoing, but actually to do that well takes a lot; you have to have an extra effort.” In 2000, Amy, alongside partner and head of personnel Gerry Greco, not only boosted the workers’ compensation, but also developed more personal relationships with them, going so far as to meet their extended families. “In the new movement of farmers, we all want to retain our help, and we want them to advance, also,” Amy stresses. “If you can create an environment where people like to go to work, and get compensated for their work, it works out for everybody—the farmers get experienced help, the families prosper. They’re a part of our succession; our workers are the future of our farm.”

In addition to managing personnel, Greco keeps the farm’s books and manages the office. The breadth of Greco’s background—she grew up in Africa, has traveled over the world, and speaks four languages fluently—has enhanced her innate gift for connecting with people. “She’s the glue, that’s how I look at it,” Amy says, “and one of the nicest personalities in the history of the planet. She keeps everything connected so things don’t fall through the cracks.” Greco also spends Saturdays representing the farm at Heart of the Hudson Valley, in Milton, the only farmer’s market they supply. “The community all wanted our food, and this is the way that they get it,” Greco explains.

We've changed the direction of our farming—for the last four years we’ve grown by 50 acres a year—we want to see more idle land put into production.

Amy’s sister Gail joined the farm’s management team as head of production in 2009 after a long career in the biomedical engineering field. Her extensive background in business development, manufacturing and project management helps her plan the farm’s pre-season, manage and streamline the packing process, and market the farm to an expanding audience. When she first came on board, the farm was still only operating on 50 acres; Gail’s first task was to help scale the operation for growth. “We've changed the direction of our farming—for the last four years we’ve grown by 50 acres a year—we want to see more idle land put into production,” Amy notes. Other growth plans include renovating an historic packing/wholesale distribution/retail facility, purchasing and rehabilitating what was formerly the farm’s controlled-atmosphere storage and packing facility, building additional farmworker housing, and creating a retail and drying facility.

Though the farm already utilizes some solar power and uses geothermal cooling in the underground packing facility, decreasing energy consumption even further is high on the to-do list.

Amy also is extending her efforts beyond the farm, fighting against the corporatization of applied research. “We need applied research to keep us advancing in organic and ecological production systems [but it] has a very serious problem at this time—the government has cut funding,” she notes. “You don’t want chemical companies doing all the applied research and all the consulting—[but] that’s the system that we’re headed to.” Amy sits on the board of directors of the Hudson Valley Research Laboratory, in Highland. “It’s a farmer-owned facility, a unique institution that the growers created to facilitate progress in agricultural techniques,” she says. “We’re fortunate in the Hudson Valley to have a lab that is all about applied research specific to this region.” Among other projects, recent efforts at the lab focus on ecologically safe ways to quell the growing brown marmorated stink bug epidemic, which is threatening crops as well as annoying homeowners.

My whole objective is to create a movement that goes beyond organic—one for everybody.

Another cause close to Amy’s heart is the call for a “hybrid” farming model—one based on organic principles, yet allowing greater freedom in the face of expanded and improved technology. “The organic movement has been successful, [but] we have to know when the next movement begins and [how] that movement can be incorporated,” she says. “I would like the freedom to grow within that [organic] paradigm without being restricted. Where organic falls shy—possibly in technology, or synthetics, or whatever—if [another method] is ecologically superior, I don’t understand why we’re not using it.”

Amy certainly has no plans to decertify the farm. “It’s not to say organic is bad—remember, I love organic!—I’m just studying 2050. It is pretty clear that if we [continue to] farm the way people think organic agriculture [should be done], then we will certainly have an unsustainable and vulnerable food system. The organic movement and conventional growers have a lot more in common than people know—[both] care the same about growing techniques. It seems like the consumer is very misguided—there’s a language barrier that I’d like to break through,” she says. “My whole objective is to create a movement that goes beyond organic—one for everybody.”

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