by Beth Young
It’s been eight years since Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow planted the first field of wheat at their farm, Amber Waves, behind the Amagansett Farmers Market, during the early days of a locally grown food movement that has only intensified since.
Now, as they embark on their ninth growing season, the farmers are taking on their biggest project yet, as the owners of the roadside farmers market that until now has stood between their farm and the public, and, for the first time, as the owners of the land they farm.
“We have been literally looking at the Amagansett Farmers Market since we started the farm. It has always made sense to us that the market and the farmland be reunited and have the primary produce at the street be grown right out back,” said Ms. Merrow, as she and Ms. Baldwin prepare the farmers market for a soft opening in late May.
“I have never before experienced where you go somewhere and you fall in love with a piece of land the way you fall in love with a person, or like Katie and I fell in love with farming as a profession,” she added. “We grew up as farmers on this land and we have spent more time here than we had on any other property.”
Ms. Baldwin and Ms. Merrow were both apprentices on the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in 2008, and they jumped at the chance to lease the land behind the farmer’s market after the Land Trust helped conserve the property that year.
The Land Trust again helped broker the sale this February of both the Amagansett Farmers Market and the farmland, a total of 9.33 acres, under the first enhanced agricultural easement in East Hampton Town, which ensures that most of the land will always be used to grow food.
In 2008, the Peconic Land Trust worked with the property’s former owner, Maggie de Cuevas and former Amagansett Farmers Market owner Pat Struk to conserve the property, while East Hampton Town purchased the development rights on 7.56 acres. The farmers market was then run for several seasons by Eli Zabar, and for the past two by the Amagansett Food Institute.
Throughout that time, Amber Waves has sold their produce to the farmers market, while the farmers grew into their land. Around 2011, they began making inquiries about purchasing the property.
“We had already been putting in years of sweat equity and stewardship,” said Ms. Baldwin. “We knew where we had spread lime, and which parcel needed compost next. We had an intimate relationship and dialogue with the property. It’s difficult to envision starting another farm from scratch. We had already dug in really deep.”
“Right downtown is a really rare thing. we have always felt it’s been our charge to have an open gate policy and really welcome people right off the sidewalk into the field,” said Ms. Merrow. “In the early morning hours when nobody is here, at 5 a.m. before the bees are even out, that’s a magical time. But when tons of people are out in the field is also a magical time.”
Amber Waves grows 300 varieties of 60 different crops that will be available at the market, with the exception of corn, potatoes and melons, which they will bring in from neighboring farms.
“We would love to have the market be a beautiful reflection of what’s here and what’s in season,” said Ms. Merrow. “Every time I go into a store, I want the store to have already curated for me what’s in season. That’s what’s so great about shopping in an open air farmers market.”
They also grow a wide range of flowers and plan to open the season with a plant sale for home gardeners.
“Live plants are exciting for us. We have thousands and thousands of plants,” said Ms. Baldwin. “I hope people are still gardening.”
They are currently working on curating a healthy supply of shelf-stable pantry items from “local food partners that we love and respect,” said Ms. Baldwin, as well as pasta, local breads and dairy products from local farms.
Their staff is slated to double with the addition of the market, which they hope to have open year-round, though it currently isn’t heated. They’re planning to be open at least through the end of this calendar year.
They’re planning to be open Thursdays through Mondays in June and this fall from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in July and August.
The farmers said the terms of the sale with the enhanced easement, which substantially reduced the cost of the land, give them confidence that the farm will be on solid financial footing as it grows.
But they will be taking a break this year from their original crop, wheat, in order to put together a long-term plan for how to make wheat fit into their growing business.
“We’ve been getting by by borrowing equipment and fields and we would like to nail down the model going forward,” said Ms. Merrow. “People are much more interested in wheat now than in the first couple years. We might have been a little early with the idea, but now everyone is interested.”
“It was a cumulation of a lot of things — the gluten-free marketing movement, questions people had about GMOs — wheat just jumped on peoples’ radar in a really significant way,” said Ms. Baldwin. “People are still asking questions about wheat, and now about yeast and baking. We’ve had successful crops each season. It has proved to be a viable crop out here.”
Taking a breather from wheat could prove helpful for Ms. Baldwin for another reason — she’s expecting to give birth in late May.
“It’s about how can we do this more efficiently, what can we take off our plates for a year, so we can ultimately be better at it next year,” said Ms. Merrow.
Amber Waves has long had an educational mission, inviting school children on field trips, holding programs for foodies and training prospective farmers, and they’re planning to use some of the space in the farmers market for their educational programs, lead by education director Laura Rose.
“We can really view this as a blank canvas and make it so it fills the farm’s needs, it fills the public demand and it serves our community,” said Ms. Baldwin. “It’s pretty versatile. As much as we love being outside, farmers really love having indoor space.”
“I can’t believe how enthusiastically people want to tell me about their lifelong connection to this space,” said Ms. Merrow. “This entire property is really a community institution, and we feel like the next long-term stewards. People have a lot of passion about this place.”
Editor’s Note: The print edition of this story said the market would open May 15. The opening is now slated for the week of May 22. We’ll have more details when they become available.