Widgets Magazine

Q&A With Ed Harbes III of Harbes Family Farm

Ed Harbes III with his family, L to R: David, Lisa, Ed III, Monica, Jessica, Shannon, and Ed IV at the Mattituck farm stand. Children not pictured: Jason, Evelyn Martinez and Daniel.    Photo Credit: Carrie Miller Q: When did you come to the North Fork?

A:  My family had a farm in Huntington; when they built the LIE in the 1960's it  cut the farm in half. Shortly after that that my grandfather bought the farm in Mattituck where we currently live.

Q: So you come from a long line of farmers. Did you grow up knowing you wanted to farm?

A: No. As a very young boy my grandfather asked  me if I wanted to be a farmer. I said no I want to be a scientist! My grandfather smiled at me and said maybe so, but if you stick with your dad one day he will give you a good opportunity on the farm.

Years later I met a beautiful young lady  in college I asked her to marry me.  I remembered my grandfather's advice so, I asked my father if I could farm with him and he agreed.  At that point our family was in the potato business. Things began to change  in the 1980s.  Our potato business  got smaller as our family was getting larger. We began to look for alternatives.

My wife and I had an agreement. I’d take care of the farm, the vegetables and the string beans, and she would take of the household, and the human beings. That worked out well and we went on to have four sons and four daughters.

Q: What do you grow?

A: Well, on the hay ride I say ‘Even though we raise a lot of interesting crops, my favorite crop is our family.’

Q: That’s fair—eight kids in a multigenerational farm counts as a family crop. But what else do you plant?

A: We are very diverse growing super sweet corn, pumpkins, and vegetables as well as a vineyard and orchard. We have three different locations—the original farm in Mattituck—a mile west is the farm in Riverhead, and that’s where we have the orchard featuring u-pick  apples, nectarines and peaches. Our third location is on Main Road in Jamesport where we have a farm stand and Fall Festival.

All of our locations have a lot of family and children’s activities.  We know that’s an important for families who want to come out and visit. We have our "Barnyard Adventure " children's activity center, singing hayrides, pony rides, corn mazes, and more. We have several special events during the year too.

Q: Since you’ve invested so much in making kids happy on the farm, what did you love most on the farm as a kid?

A:  When we first moved out here in 1968 my father was a potato farmer, but in between our farm and our neighbors there was a small triangular garden that grew sweet corn. It grew more than our family could use. So when I was 11, I asked my father if I could put Mom's card table on Sound Avenue to sell our surplus corn.  The sales  lasted only several weeks but the exciting memories last a lifetime.

In 1989 we were looking for alternatives to the potato business and decided to revive the  retail  sweet corn model with our Harbes Family Farm stand. That was 25 years ago.

Q: What’s changed in your time farming here?

A: A few things—the potato acreage has continued to decrease. In the 80s it was close to 25,000 acres, it’s probably 2,500 acres now.

The overall trend has been to very large farms. Long Island doesn’t lend itself to that. It’s all small family farms here. Because of the small scale, farmers here pay a premium for their inputs, like seed, and fertilizer.  Profit margins are small.  If you have enough acres that  might work, but it’s hard for small farms.

So what we’ve done is switch to a retail line, so instead of competing with Idaho and Maine, we compete by distinguishing our produce with better flavor and freshness. In addition to that, we’ve added the experiential part of it over the years.

Why travel out here to get a pumpkin when you can get it at a local supermarket? The only reason is the enjoyable experience. That’s why we have corn mazes, hay rides, and fun activities.

Q: Have your kids followed you into farming? What did they love doing on the farm?

A: When we first started sweet corn, my 10 year old son— Jason, our oldest—volunteered to sell the corn. He found out he really loves finance. He’s a banker now, with Wells Fargo. But he comes back and helps out sometimes.

Many of the family really enjoy the wine business; they find that a lot more glamorous than raising string beans. They love participating in the North Fork wine business both as a producers and tasters.

Currently five of our eight children are participating either short term or long term in the business. Our second oldest son Edward is the vineyard manager and head of crop productions. His favorite is the U-pick apple orchard business, which he researched, planted and maintains.  My second oldest daughter, Jessica, has been managing our farm market ever since she graduated college over 10 years ago. David,who's very creative, oversees marketing and the corn mazes. Sarah manages our Jamesport location and Lisa works in our wine tasting barn!

Q: What do you love most about farming out on the North Fork?

A: We have a lot of great memories. To live and work on a farm is a beautiful thing. We’re surrounded by nature from morning to  night. It’s really formed a lot of our family’s character and memories. It’s been a really good place to live  and grow  as a family.

The North Fork has a rich heritage in agriculture and I’m glad it has found a way to continue into the future with the advent of agritourism over the last 20 years. We worried about the future of the Fork as potato farming declined.

One of the obvious candidates to fill that vacuum was housing and other types of development. But with the vineyards, agritourism, and the community coming together to protect the land and keep it beautiful, that hasn’t happened and we can see a future in farming.

That’s a beautiful thing in my opinion.

Q: Summer season—Memorial Day to Labor Day—is the North Fork’s busiest time. But you guys are busy in the spring and fall too. What are the summer-only people missing?

A: My observation is that people want what the country has to offer most in the fall, in the harvest season. Even though people aren’t hunter-gatherers anymore, and most aren’t farmers, harvest time  is still important to everybody.

A Pumpkin, or a bag of apples, people could get at the store, but they like to participate in the harvest themselves. For the farmer, the autumn is a time of reaping all that you’ve put in during the year, harvest the fruits of your labor. It’s a good time.

I think vicariously it represents that for people who don’t farm too. Sharing the harvest experience still has a lot of value to people.

Years ago, one of the reasons pumpkins were popular with the Indians was that they stored well during the winter. For people now that’s not the issue, they’re just colorful, a nice symbol of harvest time.

Q: Tell me about your vineyard.

A: We specialize in chardonnay and merlot, and generally the French vinifera [grape varieties]. The wines of this area have been getting distinguished accolades lately.

Last year our stainless steel chardonnay won a double gold medal as best chardonnay, in the New York Food and Wine  Competition! That means best of class of 200 entrants from all over NY state.) This year our Red Bordeaux blend  won a double gold medal as the best wine in its class!

Excellent wine comes from excellent grapes and good growing conditions. All those things are coming together here.

Q: Anything you’d like to add?

A: Yes.

There was a time in the mid-1980s when I was beginning to wonder if we had a future in farming. Monica and I said many prayers and fortunately the Lord answered them by giving us new direction and opportunities. I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful we were able to find a way when it wasn’t all that clear. We believe the Lord has blessed us with many things and we are very grateful for that.

Check out Ed Harbes III driving the Harbes Hayride which features live music and an educational talk about the history of the farm, and other scenes of fun on the farm (photo credits David Harbes):