It’s Planting Time at Golden Earthworm Organic Farm: A Conversation with Maggie Wood

By Mary Deyns Brandão

 

While things were fairly quiet, we sat down with Maggie Wood, of Golden Earthworm Organic Farm, to see how our farmers fared over the winter. February was relatively peaceful as they organized and prepared for the coming growing season. As for keeping warm over the seemingly endless winter, Maggie and the Golden Earthworm family relied on slow-cooking dishes like roasted vegetables and hearty legume and vegetable soups. That said, the pace is now picking up—and quickly. In March, things got going in the greenhouse. First into the ground were onions, followed by a variety of crops planted throughout the month.

The spring season will be an adventure. Maggie Wood and Matthew Kurek have two sons: a 3-year old, Galen, and a new baby boy, Zinn, whom they welcomed into the family in December. There are no weekends off. No sleeping in or lazy Sundays. They enjoy downtime as a family in the off season from December – February, which is the only period in which there isn’t a constant stream of chores and activities to manage. Not to suggest there is no fun to be had. The kids will explore one of the most bustling environments a child can imagine. Without a doubt, this a cool place to grow up, exemplified by the fact that 3-year Galen already rides the more than ten tractors on the farm with dad.

This season, CSA members will be treated to new varieties of cucumbers and tomatoes. Golden Earthworm Organic Farm will also experiment with some artichoke crops, as they did last year. “Last year we grew trials and they were great, so that’s in the works for a coming season.” As always, our farmers will buy certified organic seed from the trusted vendors they have used for years, including High Mowing Seeds, Seeds of Change, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

The more than 80-acre farm serves over 2,000 member families across Long Island and Queens and produces more than 100 varieties of vegetables. Since its inception in 1996, the number of CSAs Golden Earthworm Organic Farm has served has grown to nearly 20 times its original reach. The farm family includes: co-owners Matt and Maggie, farming partner James Russo, and Stephen Searl—the new farm and CSA manager. A small flock of sheep, a goat, a very large pig, and a few cats roam the grounds and keep everyone company.

Golden Earthworm Organic Farm employs well-established organic farming methods to yield nutritious and stable crops. Their approach is two-fold: maintain healthy, nutrient rich soils and strengthen plantings against weeds, pests, and disease. Last season they planted pea cover crops which absorbed nitrogen from the atmosphere and, in a symbiotic dance, deposited nodules through the plant’s roots—preparing the soil for another round of vegetable plantings. Cover crops, composting, and other measures to manage the land’s ecological balance also help suppress weeds and pests. Crops are regularly rotated in a scientifically sound way. The farmers introduce birds and insects that help keep pests away naturally, and when necessary, use barriers such as handcrafted bat houses and fencing. Outbreaks like late blight, which is the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, often require more rigorous efforts. A few years ago, a potato variety planted at Golden Earthworm Organic Farm was struck with blight, making it the second documented farm on Long Island to be hit. The farmers took action to prevent destruction of the tomato crop by spraying a special copper certified for organic use.

As a former chef and architect respectively, Matt and Maggie’s past professional lives give them a unique perspective on farming. “I find the beauty in our work and in our life and try to share that with our CSA community. Both Matt and I are obsessed with food and cooking, so we’re always keeping that in mind when we make decisions about the best tasting varieties to grow, or what to put in the boxes each week,” said Maggie. Just as members do, they cook up the shares each week and delight in what comes from the ground and provides so much nourishment. A variety of food blogs and cookbooks keep them on the pulse of what is new and delicious. Favorite blogs include: 101 Cookbooks and Sustainable Pantry. Maggie’s go-to cookbook of the moment is Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. It’s no wonder the recipes in the weekly newsletters are so carefully procured and aesthetically appealing.

Maggie manages the design for the website. She is the woman behind the lens that captures the beautiful close-ups of squash, strawberries, and you-name-it, as well as the sprawling images of the fields on the farm’s website and in the weekly newsletters. With Stephen now on board to manage the CSA, she will have more time to dedicate to the two boys. Maggie hinted at some new farm projects coming up, but she won’t reveal them just yet.

We asked Maggie some of our burning questions:

FHCSA: What are the biggest pests on the farm and how do you get rid of them naturally? Do you ever share tips with other farmers?
MW: The organic farming community is very close and helpful out here on the East End. Some of our biggest pests include potato beetles and late blight. These can wipe out our potato, eggplant, and tomato crops.  We also have issues with powdery mildew which destroy our winter squash. We do what we can with organic controls, but sometimes they can claim crops in a matter of days.  

 

FHCSA: Do you offer volunteer programs for those who want to try out being a farmhand?

MW: We don’t have a volunteer or intern program. We’re a bit too busy to oversee them.  Perhaps this is something we could do in the future if we had more management.

FHCSA: Who’s our CSA share delivery man?

MW: Deliveries are made by Neil, who has been with us since last year.

FHCSA: What do you say to a member who hasn’t had time to come to any of the events on the farm? Will it really make a difference to tour the farm and see the crops first-hand? 

MW: All members should come visit the farm. We wish we could make the visit mandatory. I can always tell if a member has actually been to the farm when they write to us on email. Those who have been here really get it.

FHCSA: Was it challenging moving from an urban setting to the farm? What’s the best thing about being on the farm year round? Do you ever feel nostalgic for the city?

MW: We both love living in the country. It’s peaceful and quiet. The North Fork is changing, though, and lots of people are choosing to move out here with their families, so the community is rich and evolving. We like to come into the city when we have time in the off season. The biggest surprise was just how hard farming is. It’s always so romantic until you start doing it! You have to learn to be a perpetual optimist—always looking to the next season, to getting it right, to learning from your mistakes.

FHCSA: Where did Matt serve as chef? Did he work in any restaurants we might be familiar with?

MW: He was the first chef at Caravan of Dreams in Manhattan. He worked at many other restaurants in New York before coming out to Long Island to start farming.

FHCSA: The food movement is stronger than ever, yet agribusiness is represented by powerful interests. Is it easier or harder to be a small farmer than it was ten years ago?

MW: I think it’s actually easier for us.  More people know about organics and are seeking to support their local farmer. We used to have to spend a lot more time educating our community about these issues. Now we sell out every year.

FHCSA: Where do you think sustainable agriculture will be in 20 years? Where would you like it to be?

MW: Hopefully we’ll continue on a good path.  I expect to see more small, organic farms meeting the demands for this kind of food. The CSA model makes it possible for us to farm the way we do. CSA is a win-win for everyone: the farmer, the consumer, the land, and the local economy.

FHCSA: Why are you personally committed to organic farming?

MW: It’s healthier for our planet and for ourselves.

Quoted on the Golden Earthworm Organic Farm website is Daniel Webster:

“When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”

As members, we can enter this new season with the knowledge that our farmers not only respect the land and work tirelessly to fill our pantries, but also that they give us reason to feel inspired about and connected to a shared vision for a healthier and more sustainable planet.