Farmers & Canaries: An Ear to the Cry of the Natural World

Pictured Above: Feisty Acres’ fowl got some much-needed extra late winter light.

There are few people more in tune with human interaction with the natural world than farmers, whose days begin before sunup and often continue well into the night, working their plots of land and watching out for signs that something is askew in their microcosm of the world.

Stephanie Gaylor, whose Invincible Summers farm in Southold has given rise to the Salt of the Earth Seed Company, recently began a blog called “Dispatches from A Canary in a Coal Mine,” and she knows full well the dangers that face humanity if we don’t understand where our food comes from.

She convened a gathering of farmers to talk about issues surrounding biodiversity on March 16 at the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center, in the former Northville Grange Hall.

“Everybody’s having different kinds of challenges, from seed farmers to poultry and vegetable farmers to seed libraries or just a person who eats food,” said Ms. Gaylor in her introduction to the forum. “The bottom line is you have less and less farmers who can make a living, and you have more and more interest in biodiversity. It’s like democracy. We say we’re living in a democracy, but it’s not a democracy unless you participate. The same thing with biodiversity.”

The issues facing humanity’s food supply, the panelists agreed, are dire, but the economic realities of farming are equally dire. 

Farming has long been a nearly impossible way to make a living, and that hasn’t changed as many other segments of the economy have yielded riches.

Jamesport farmer Phil Barbato, who grows a broad variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and even Christmas trees on his Biophilia Organic Farm on Manor Lane, grew up on a conventional farm in Smithtown.

“My father told me not to go into farming,” he said. “He said it was too hard and I wouldn’t make any money. He was right. So I went out and did environmental engineering for 35 years.”

Coming back to farming as a second career, he named his acreage after a 1984 book by entomologist and author E.O. Wilson.

“Biophilia means the love that humans have for all other forms of life,” he said.

That love of other creatures and plants was palpable among the panelists, including Ms. Gaylor and Mr. Barbato, Laura Klahre of Blossom Meadow Farms in Southold, game bird and heritage breed poultry farmer Abra Morawiec of Feisty Acres in Southold, and Laura Accardi, who runs the seed library as part of her role in promotions and development at the Patchogue-Medford Library. 

The wide-ranging, two-hour conversation was moderated by WPKN broadcaster Hazel Kahan, who recorded it for broadcast.

It’s not in certain peoples’ best interest to have a bunch of 
different farmers doing a bunch of different things.”
— Abra Morawiec

On Feisty Acres

In 2015, Ms. Morawiec and her partner, Chris Pinto, began Feisty Acres, raising quail, French guinea hens, chukar partridges, heritage turkeys and silkie chickens, originally on two acres of Mr. Barbato’s farm before moving to their current location on Youngs Avenue in Southold. 

Ms. Morawiec said business has been booming, in part because of their razor-sharp focus on different food cultures and their presence at farmers markets in diverse neighborhoods at Grand Army Plaza and Union Square in Manhattan.

“There’s a huge demand,” she said. “People from different countries and different food cultures are actively searching out things such as quail and quail eggs. We have French people who are very interested in eating heritage breeds of chicken. Korean people look for eggs and Nigerian people are specifically looking for French guinea hens. People from the Middle East are looking for chukar partridges. We have a problem keeping up with the demand.”

Ms. Morawiec said very few breeders are breeding these unusual species, and because they are not extensively bred there isn’t much diversity to the genetic lines.

“If they keep breeding with each other all the time, they can’t seek out other genetic lines, which can lead to susceptibility to diseases and malformations,” she said. “A lot of breeders share the same genetics.”

She added that some birds, like bobwhite quail, are often artificially inseminated.

“They don’t like mating in captivity,” she said. “They’re wild birds. They have a hard time getting it on in public. I get it.”

Ms. Morawiec, who had started a pilot project to release wild quail on the North Fork, found that there wasn’t enough diverse terrain or food in the habitat here.

“Deer have basically eaten all of the habitat for bobwhite quail in the Pine Barrens, and in the woodlands of Southold,” she said. “Phil’s land is in the middle of 200 protected acres, but there are sod farms and no hedgerows. A lot of times the birds were across the street because the residential areas had shrubs and places for them to hide.”

Ms. Morawiec said 2018 was the first year her farm turned a small profit, but she doesn’t see a clear path to growth because of New York State Agriculture & Markets regulations regarding poultry processing facilities. 

New York farmers with 1,000 birds or less are exempt from these restrictions, but farmers with 1,001 to 20,000 birds must invest in an indoor processing facility, with drains and stainless steel fixtures, which cost several hundred thousand dollars. Farmers with more than 20,000 birds are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For a first-career farmer who started her business with $11,000, she’s taking these growing pains hard.

“That’s a big hurdle for us,” she said. “The regulations we’re subject to don’t make sense. In Virginia, you can process up to 20,000 birds in a season without being subject to regulations. It’s not in certain peoples’ best interest to have a bunch of different farmers doing a bunch of different things.”

“Meanwhile, Tyson can make chicken nuggets that have blue rubber in them and distribute them all across the country, but I can’t send quail to the dozens of people across the country who email me each week,” she said. “If I got caught, I’d be fined very, very heavily and could lose my business.”


“When I go home at night, at 9 o’clock at night, the bumblebees are still pollinating our raspberries, whereas the honeybees were in their hives at 5 o’clock. They’re so lame.”
— Laura Klahre

Honeybees Are So Lame

Man North Forkers know Laura Klahre as “the bee lady” from her longtime advocacy for pollinators and her original business in honey. 

But Ms. Klahre is mostly a student of science, and she’s seen a growing body of research that has turned her off to honeybees. She now calls herself a “bee rancher,” and is working to raise awareness of hardworking native bees like mason bees and bumblebees, which she uses to help pollinate both her own berry crops and orchards and farms on the North Fork. She then makes jams out of her berries.

“I realized that native bees pollinate two to three times better than honeybees — there are papers upon papers on this,” she said. “Last year, some really great papers came out that show that if you have honeybees in an area, the bumblebees in that area are actually smaller in size and produce fewer babies, because it’s all a competition for food.”

She added that honeybees were imported from Europe and prefer to pollinate plants that aren’t native to this area. She said honeybees were going to be added to the New York State invasive species list before the honey lobby intervened.

“When I go home, at 9 o’clock at night, the bumblebees are still pollinating our raspberries, whereas the honeybees were in their hives at 5 o’clock. Like, they’re so lame, right?” she said. “The native bees, they’re the work force. So, you know what, see you later honeybees. We do not have honeybees anymore. It feels good to follow the science.”

“People always ask ‘do you have honey?’ and I say no and that’s ok,” she added. “At first, when I started to ratchet down honeybees, people thought I was crazy. They’d say ‘that’s so nice, what you do.’”

Ms. Klahre added that native bees also become active earlier in the spring, and are essential for pollinating early-flowering fruit trees like apricots. She’s seen that in practice with the apricot trees her bees are pollinating at Surrey Lane Farm in Southold.

Her scientific curiosity isn’t limited just to bees. Ms. Klahre also provides ideal dark conditions for moths to pollinate her berries at night, and grows milkweed to provide a safe haven for monarch butterflies.

She insists that everyone can do their part to help with biodiversity, from letting their backyards go wild to making sure they have five kinds of flowers growing on their property at a given time. She has even found a favorite variety of sunflower — the lemon queen — which she describes as “chow” for bumblebees. It’s loaded with pollen, she said, unlike many varieties which were bred to have less pollen so they wouldn’t make a mess in cut flower arrangements.

“Libraries should be part of this because that’s where the people in your
community go when they don’t have.”
— Laura Accardi

Grow a Pizza At Your Library

Laura Accardi, of the Patchogue-Medford Library, isn’t a farmer, but her job is to engage whole families with the library’s programming, and with programs that help their health and well-being.

This spring, the seed library at the library put together a new grow-a-pizza program, giving away little cardboard boxes that looked like individual pizza boxes. Inside were makings for pizza dough, along with seeds for tomatoes, basil, oregano, peppers and onions. The only thing missing was the cheese.

“We want to issue a challenge to the community: At the end of the harvest season, show us your pizza. Take a picture and put it on Instagram. We’ll give them a lawn sign or something that says ‘I grew a pizza with my library.’”

Ms. Gaylor said she believes seed libraries at public libraries are a vital part of getting regular people to care about biodiversity.

“People have so many questions. What’s a hybrid? What’s an heirloom?,” she said of two types of seeds, the first of which is cross-bred by humans to enhance certain traits but whose seeds revert to one of the prior genetic strains used for the hybridization, and the second of which is a variety whose seeds will produce a plant with the same characteristics as their parent plant. “That one piece of information for most people is game-changing,” said Ms. Gaylor.

Ms. Accardi was excited to learn about Ms. Klahre’s plant choices.

“I do not have lemon queen sunflowers in my library, and I will order them,” she said.

“We can try to do what we can in our own little control areas, but the more important problem we face as a species is we could be next on the extinction list.”
— Phil Barbato

Carrots Love Tomatoes

Mr. Barbato is fascinated with the practice of companion planting, in which you select plants that have been known for generations to grow better together. His bible in this process is a book called “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte.

“It’s old folklore knowledge that just works,” he said. “I’m experimenting with that more and more. I have five groups of plants in organic rotation. But it’s so small compared to the problems we face as humanity.”

Mr. Barbato loves garlic and he loves it raw, especially for its medicinal properties. When attendees noted that, in addition to being an anti-viral anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory plant it was also an anti-social one, he chuckled and shared a secret: find yourself a sprig of parsley to chew on after eating garlic, and no one will mind your breath.

But garlic has also taken an interesting role in biodiversity. We only grow a few varieties of garlic, he said, because it’s easy to grow garlic through clones by separating out the cloves from a head of garlic and replanting them in the fall. Garlic does produce a seed head, and those seeds can be planted, which helps strengthen the genetic line. But farmers can’t financially justify taking the extra year to grow garlic from seed.

“How can you compete in the market when everyone is growing from clones?” asked Ms. Gaylor. “If you’re looking to keep the gene pool diverse, people don’t value that anymore.”

“We say we’re a democracy but it’s not a democracy unless you participate. The same thing with biodiversity.”
— Steph Gaylor

Teach the Children?

Young people have been speaking up all over the world about the perils posed by climate change, and Ms. Kahan asked the farmers about the role they see for children in the future of farming.

“I think the young folks are starting to get po’d about us not doing enough, and they’re activated,” said Mr. Barbato. “It might be a good time to translate this information for them.”

Mr. Barbeto’s farm has long had a CSA — a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which families purchase a share at the beginning of the season, giving the farmer seed money for the year, and then receiving a box of produce each week. 

As part of the CSA, he’s had a “young farmers” program in which kids chose what they’d like to plant, plant seeds in the greenhouse and then transplant them to a plot that they take care of throughout the growing season.

“They get their hands in the soil so they can start to put the pieces together in their heads,” he said.

He said he’s had as many as 20 kids in the program in past years, but lately parents are so busy with second jobs that they don’t have time to bring their kids in to tend their plots.

“I think its a cop-out when people say we should talk to the kids. We need to do something now and I’m so tired of people saying ‘it’s so interesting what you’re saying. Can you talk to this second grade about bees?” said Ms. Klahre. “Personally, that’s not where my energy lies.”

“When you look at the decline of insect species and birds that eat insects, we need to work on this now,” she said. “You need to stop spraying pesticides and have five types of flowers blooming now. A bumblebee only flies a half mile from its nest and if it doesn’t have flowers in that area, it’s going to starve to death. All of our bees are malnourished.”

Bees love lemon queen sunflowers, whose high pollen content is a magnet for beneficial insects.

The Extinction of Farmers?

“If everyone here is doing something so out of the ordinary, if we’re all running out of product and our stuff is in demand, then why is the financial baseline very similar to a conventional farmer? Why aren’t we swimming in money?” asked Ms. Gaylor.

Ms. Morawiec said she first got a glimpse of subsistence farming in the West African nation of Mali while in the Peace Corps. Now she realizes that she is also a subsistence farmer.

“It opened up my eyes. This is not a way in which world can truly sustain itself,” she said. “Being poor and farming for your family and not being able to sell what you’re growing because you’re consuming everything. These people are not able to send their children to school. They’re not able to become community leaders and rise up in the government.”

“I’m a subsistence farmer in that, with the things that I sell, the money I make goes back to being reinvested in the farm, but also pays my bills now,” she added. “But we’re not having kids because we can’t support a kid. I’m regulated into the dirt. If I didn’t have regulations, I could claw my way out, but the system is not meant for farmers like me.”

“We’re competing with megafarms that are getting subsidies from our own tax money to pay for grain that is used to feed animals in these unhealthy places,” said Mr. Barbato. “Most people don’t get to the idea of deferred costs. Those huge farms with birds in little cages, the environmental cost of that is not accounted for in the prices.”

“If I’m preserving 50 varieties that no one has and I have to spray them with Roundup once to keep them and I’m no longer organic, is that better than the varieties that you get from a catalogue? That’s a very hard decision to me,” said Ms. Gaylor. “I don’t think theres a right or wrong answer. It’s just about trying to translate that to people who care.”

“Farmers don’t have time to eat a meal at home, let alone to talk to other farmers in the community, which is really critical,” she added. “You die once in your lifetime. People who own funeral homes are wealthy. You have to eat three times a day and farmers are just getting by. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Ms. Klahre said she encourages everyone she talks to in the to try their hand at farming, even if they just grow one esoteric thing like pickled green beans.

“When you meet them at the farmers market, and they say ‘I tried that and it was hard as hell,’ they have more respect,” she said. “When I first started, I thought I was going to have offices in every state. Now I’m older, 45, and I just want to have a nice, balanced life.”

Part of the problem for local farmers here is that the cost of doing business on Long Island is incredibly high, driving up the costs of local farm products, while many families are having a hard time getting by here.

“People talk about wanting to buy pasture raised chicken eggs, but when they see the price, and when no one’s looking, they’ll totally buy the cheaper eggs,” said Ms. Morawiec. 

“At Greenmarkets, they accept food stamps, and if you want to buy pasture-raised chicken eggs for your family, you can,” she said, adding that she makes $100 to $200 per week in food stamp sales at farmers markets in New York City, which are processed using an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.

That’s helped along, she said, because the market, not the farmer, handles the logistics and  regulations associated with having an EBT card reading machine.

“People like that don’t go to farmers markets out here,” she said.

“But they do go to the libraries,” said Ms. Accardi. “Libraries should be part of this, because that’s where the people in your community go when they don’t have.”

“We’re not a brick and mortar library. We hit the streets hard,” she added. “If I know I can make a difference by visiting farmers markets or the laundromat, I will go. If every library committed to doing that, we could spread the word a little further.”

“I have a very moral job. it’s a great job but this is an immoral system,” said Ms. Gaylor. “No matter if you’re a conventional farmer or an organic farmer, you’re living just above the poverty line. You just have to keep getting bigger and bigger and becoming more and more efficient because everyone is running to just stand still.”

“Everything that lives and eats needs seeds. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bumblebee, a chicken, a quail or people,” she added.

“What you’re talking about, writ large on the whole earth, is what is going on with our completely natural areas,” said Mr. Barbato. “The more they shrink, biologists have calculated the minimum size where we can continue to have a multitude of species who have evolved to live together. We’re past the tipping point on that, according to E.O. Wilson. In 2001, he was predicting then that we had reached the tipping point worldwide for multiple mass extinctions.”

— Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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