Widgets Magazine

Tom Wickham, 10th Generation Cutchogue Farmer Shares North Fork Farming History

Q: Wickham’s is an old farm; when did your family start farming here? A: That goes back a long way, to Colonial days. Most of the early settlers who came here went to New England first, but it was clear from the Native Americans that Long Island had the better agricultural land and fishing. It didn’t take long for people to come down from the Boston area to settle here.

My family took about two generations in New England before coming here; one up north, one in Connecticut, and then here. It wasn’t just us; there was a number of early families who followed a similar pattern, the Halseys on the South Fork, and the Talmages in Riverhead, to name a couple. Long Island was what farming families were looking for.

My family lived in the Old House on the Cutchogue Village Green up to the Revolution. Here's a view of part of our farm:

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Q: Was Wickham’s always an orchard?

A: No. In the mid-1800s, one of the biggest crops on Long Island (including our family) was salt hay from our wetlands. The Long Island Railroad brought back the salt hay for all the horses in New York City. There were no cars back then, and the city was just full of horses that needed bedding and food.

Then came the potato famine in Europe, and that brought the advent of the Irish and then Polish farmers. Enormous waves of immigrants came, dwarfing the immigration rates we have now. That’s when potatoes became an important part of Long Island farming.

Potatoes were the dominant crop for most farms, including ours, from the early 1900s up through the 1980s. There are still big Irish potato farms on the North Fork, like the McBrides on Oregon Road. They were very good farmers and still are.

When it comes to potatoes, Long Island has two things. It is a wonderful environment to grow potatoes in -- yields are high and we’re close to a huge market -- but it is also an environment that the Colorado potato beetles thrive in.

The beetle was a real problem for potato farmers here.Long Island farmers were unable to get clearance to use effective insecticides because of the risk to our sole source aquifer. Many farmers lost their crops those years.

Q: When did Wickham’s start moving out of potatoes?

In 1939, the year I was born, my father took a trip to Argentina as part of a technical assistance program to help them grow potatoes. He was quite impressed with Argentina’s nectarines, apricots and peaches, and realized that Cutchogue was about the same latitude north of the equator as where he was south of the equator in Argentina. After World War II he started growing fruit.

In a small way at first—we were still growing potatoes up to 1982. But potatoes are a commodities game and the crop is sold wholesale. The key difference between wholesale and retail is this: wholesale you have to take the price given regardless of quality. The farmer’s incentive is volume, to produce as much as possible, which drives down prices further.

Retail allows us to produce a quality product, and seek prices that reflect high quality. We try to produce choice fruit, rather than the highest production, and hope that we can get a living wage from it.

Q: So when did you start your retail farm stand?

I believe we were the first farm stand around—in the late 1940s, my mother began selling peaches off the back of a truck. First we were in peaches, which are wonderful, but you can only sell so many peaches in August. So we continued adding crops.

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Now we start with asparagus in the early spring—our farm stand opens late in April--followed by rhubarb and then we’ve got our greenhouse-grown tomatoes (which we seed in January) and strawberries in June. At the end of June we have cherries both sweet and sour and beginning in July, around the Fourth of July, we start harvesting raspberries, peaches, apricots and sweet corn.

Soon after come blueberries, field tomatoes, blackberries, and melons. As fall starts we add apples, pears and pumpkins. All of those crops are grown sequentially. We just finished picking apples three days ago.

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What we sell really is only what we grow—we might buy a little bit from other farmers if we’re short temporarily, like sweet corn for the Fourth of July if our crop isn’t quite ready, but generally we only sell what we grow ourselves.  We also sell our cider donuts, pies, honey, apple cider and other treats.

Q: Wow that’s a lot of produce; I’m amazed you can sell that much through a farm stand, even one conveniently located on the Main Road in downtown Cutchogue.

A: Right--you can grow almost anything on Long Island; the challenge is selling it.

The people living here year round aren’t enough to support the business, so we need to attract visitors. We do ‘pick your own’ apples, peaches, cherries, and strawberries. But it’s the apples that are most attractive. We sell more apples pick your own now then we do at the farm stand.

The Sunrise Highway range from Rockville Center out to, say, Lindenhurst —that’s where a lot of our regular pick your own customers come from. There is a large population base there.

When we have surplus, and we often do, we sell it to small supermarkets in Nassau County. Where there is a grocery store or a supermarket that’s interested in our stuff, we’re happy to supply them. The big ones like Whole Foods are just too big, a small farm like us would have a hard time supplying them. But there are some stores we sell to regularly.

Of course, we have to pack it the way they want it, deliver it when they want it. But that can be part of the fun. For those sales we get an intermediate price; not retail, but enough better than wholesale for it to make sense.

Q: What’s the Pick Your Own experience like?

We bring people out on a trailer we pull with a tractor to the part where the apples for picking are. Someone hosts—most times it’s me—and talks about the apples. People are really interested; they ask a lot of questions.

If they only wanted to buy apples, they’d go to a supermarket. They come to pick in large part because they like to chat about the crop, the season, farming.

A lot of them want to reconnect with their roots because their families used to be part of the agricultural industry. It’s easy to forget how dominant farming was out here, even in my lifetime. People want to reestablish their connections. It’s important for people on Long Island and elsewhere to remember where their food comes from.

Q: Do you make your own cider, or do you send your apples somewhere for processing?

We press our own cider. We have a wonderful old press, originally run by steam and belts, similar to the one at Clyde’s cider mill in Mystic Connecticut, though it’s not set up for visiting the way Clyde’s is.

The press was originally installed over 100 years ago at the Billard farm, which is where the Cutchogue King Kullen store is today. In the 1960s when that farm was sold for the supermarket, we removed it and reassembled it piece by piece here. It has never missed a season of pressing cider.

That’s one of the great things about apples—there’s a use for the sweet but bruised fruit that we can’t sell retail, to make cider with.

Q: When did you take over the farm from your father?

My wife Gekee, son Jon and I were overseas during most of the years between 1962 and 1986 working in agricultural development. I worked in many countries, mostly Southeast Asia; my specialty was irrigation of rice. I lived in the Mekong Delta during the 1960s and found it quite similar to our local wetlands, except it’s rice growing up in the water, not marsh grass.

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I got satisfaction trying to help produce more food there, but we came back in 1986 to join my family here and I’ve been farming ever since. My father and I farmed together as we transitioned; he died in 1994.

Right now it’s really the three of us—Gekee, Jon and me—who are responsible. Jon owns the farm now, and I am his farm manager. We are putting together the next generational transition.