Local college-age crew a first for Peconic farm

08/17/2013 10:00 AM |

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Sang Lee farms manager William Lee, 27, (center, with his dog Molly) and farmhands Hudson Miller, Chaz Schneider, Mark Pagano and True McDonald. The young men are part of a unique crew of locals working at the organic farm this summer.

Looking out into the fields at Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, a group of local young men can be seen baling hay and stringing up cherry tomatoes.

These young men each knocked the door of farm owners Karen and Fred Lee this summer expressing an interest in learning about organic farming and nutrition.

“I’ve done this for over 30 years and I’ve never had a team of local boys like this,” Ms. Lee said. “They wanted to be challenged.”

While the job of summer farmhand — known for hot days and long hours — was once a common among local high school and college students during summer break, that’s no longer the case. As easier seasonal employment opportunities have opened up on the North Fork, and the practice of hiring migrant workers has expanded, local field hands who weren’t born into a farm family have become rare.

This is actually the first summer one of the crews tending the Lees’ 100-acre farm has consisted of seven local college students.

Managed by the couple’s 27-year-old son William, the men have been doing everything from digging up onions and garlic to laying irrigation lines through tomato fields.

“These young guys are connected with the land and the region,” William Lee said. “I think the appreciation of the younger generation is starting to come around, because people want to know what’s in their food.”

The crew starts its day at 7 a.m. and finishes up about 6 p.m., he said. Any farmhands who show up late “aren’t going to get the easy jobs all morning,” William Lee said.

While cleaning out a greenhouse last week — pitchfork in hand — 20-year-old Chaz Schneider of Cutchogue said he wanted to learn about plant growth and development and how to grow successfully without using chemicals.

“Working with food feels important,” he said. “It’s good to know where your food’s coming from.”

Mr. Schneider, who expects to major in environmental science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, is the only crew member with any food production heritage. His father produces a line of all-natural fruit spreads, he said.

Sang Lee Farms veteran Hudson Miller, 21, has been working at the farm for seven years, originally working at the farm stand. The Cutchogue native, who is majoring in economics with a minor in botany at Ohio Wesleyan University, said he hopes to opening a company in the city that uses rooftop gardens to grow fresh produce.

“Working here seems like a great jump-off for it,” Mr. Miller said. He’s also participating in a winemaking internship at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue this fall.

Mark Pagan, 18, an environmental science major at Cornell University, said he wanted to apply what he was learning in the classroom to the farm.

“Now I can see the development myself,” the East Marion man said.

He and Mr. Schneider said that while the rest of their friends go out at night, they’re preparing for the early morning job, which they say would be impossible on only a few hours sleep.

The young men’s advice to others interested in working on a farm: “Stick with it. It gets better,” Mr. Schneider said.

“And be ready to get dirty,” added Mr. Pagan.

Ms. Lee said the renewed interest in farming these local men display is exciting, and she hopes many of them will return to help again next season.

“It’s been really unique and really amazing,” Ms. Lee said. “They have the energy and inspiration to get the job done.”

When comparing the students to migrant workers, William Lee said he’s seen a different level of discipline in the “American college boys,” and also appreciates the level of communication, which he doesn’t always have with migrant workers.

“They go home saying, ‘The hard day of work was good for me,’ ” Mr. Lee said. “[They] look forward to jumping in the bay at the end of the day.

“It’s a lifestyle that a lot of country boys out here appreciate.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

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