Penguin Books CEO pursuing his agrarian dream

03/09/2013 9:00 AM |

TIM KELLY PHOTO | In a recent photo, Southold vineyard owner David Shanks shows the extensive pruning his vines required.

All Penguin Group CEO David Shanks ever wanted was to have a small area on his property that captured enough sunlight to grow roses and tomatoes. About a year ago, the part-time Southold resident ended up owning a 44-acre farm.

His farm, Surrey Lane Vineyard Orchard Farm, located on Main Road in Southold, was formerly Ackerly Pond Vineyard owned by Ray Blum. Prior to tilling his new land, Mr. Shanks, 66, sought advice from local expert viticulturist Steve Mudd and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Riverhead to help him jump start his farming plans.

“The people here have been amazing, friendly and helpful,” Mr. Shanks said. “I’m sure I’ve done something wrong, but I’m learning.”

Mr. Mudd described Mr. Shanks as having a fantastic attitude and said his motivation will drive the farm’s success.

“Agriculture, in general, is very frustrating because so much of it is out of your control,” Mr. Mudd said. “He’s hands-on and is a lot of fun to work with it.”

Mr. Shanks — an avid fisher of striped bass, fluke and blackfish — and his wife, Elizabeth, reside in New Jersey and purchased a second home in Southold in 2000 after deciding to move there from their summer place in Bridgehampton.

“I’m hoping it doesn’t get discovered anymore than it has,” Mr. Shanks said about the North Fork, adding he enjoys the area’s quaintness.

Mr. Shanks said that after moving he started to look into acquiring a two-acre farm where he could grow a few grapes, apple trees, vegetables and flowers. Two turned into four, then eight. Ultimately, the Shanks settled on the 44-acre farm. In addition to planting grapes, vegetables and flowers, Mr. Shanks is also growing a variety of fruits, including blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.

“It’s the best thing I could have done,” Mr. Shanks said. “I’m having a good time with it.”

Mr. Shanks said the most enjoyable part of harvesting his crop last year was picking his own tomatoes and zucchini. Using the fresh produce, Mr. Shanks said, he made his own sauce and one of his favorite Italian dishes: zucchini stuffed with ricotta cheese.

“My wife cooked when the kids were little and now I do all of the cooking,” he said as he drove through his farm. “Nothing tastes better than something you pick or fish yourself.”

The property, which he bought in December 2011, includes 17-acres of grapes. Last year, he sold the 40-ton harvest to Wölffer Estate Winery in Sagaponack. Mr. Shanks said his crop will become cabernet franc and chardonnay.

Mr. Shanks said he’s enjoying getting his hands dirty and growing fruits and vegetables. Last summer, he donated most of his harvest to a food bank in Greenport.

This time around, Mr. Shanks said he’s turned his focus to apples.

Before he planted apple trees, Mr. Shanks said he sought advice from Mr. Mudd and Cornell Cooperative Extension. The group recommended Mr. Shanks use a spindle technique to support young branches to accelerate the growth process. He now has 1,800 apple trees and is growing Fuji, red delicious, dandy red and other varieties. He’s currently looking for a market to sell his next harvest, which he estimates will be about 80,000 apples.

In addition to connecting with local agriculture experts, the Brooklyn native is also making friends in the animal kingdom.

While mowing his vineyard last summer, Mr. Shanks said he came across a red-tailed hawk. As he tended to his crops, Mr. Shanks said the hawk stayed perched on a pole and watched over the field like a guard dog.

“He stayed all summer,” Mr. Shanks said, adding his wife gave it the nickname Hannibal the Hawk.

Mr. Shanks said he plans to work more on the farm this year as his company finalizes a merger with Random House. The $5 billion deal is expected to be completed August, and as to his future with the new company he said, “They don’t need two CEOs.”

As his second career as a farmer unfolds, Mr. Shanks said he doesn’t plan on opening a tasting room at his winery, nor is he interested in agritourism, such as hayrides, at this time. Maybe apple-picking in the future, he said. And he’s considering a community supported agriculture program, known as CSA. Maybe a little farm stand in the future, too.

And if Mr. Shanks ever decides to go into the winery business, he’s already got the logo picked out.

“There’s got to be a hawk of some sort on the label,” he said.

jennifer@timesreview.com

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