One Memphis man, one North Fork acre, a whole lot of organic vegetables

10/02/2011 4:16 AM |

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Dan Machin on his one acre of farmland in Southold.

Just five years ago, Dan Machin was living in Brooklyn and had no experience working with dirt or growing food.

But today, he is one man who grows 100 varieties of vegetables on one acre of land at Charnews Farm in Southold.

Mr. Machin, 29, is originally from Memphis, where he studied Spanish and film studies. He worked in restaurants in New York and as a Spanish-English interpreter in New Haven, Conn., before taking a fateful trip to the East End four-and-a-half years ago. On that trip, in late August, he stopped into the Garden of Eve organic farm in Northville where he volunteered to pick green beans for a day. He asked if he could work for the farm, and Chris Walbrecht, who runs the farm with his wife, Eve, said yes.

After a year as a farm apprentice there, Mr. Machin thought up a unique business idea. He would use an acre of land to grow as many varieties of vegetables as possible, all certified organic, to be sold to restaurants and through selling shares in the garden and through what is known as Community Supported Agriculture, or a CSA. And he would call his plot The Lone Acre.

For the past two years, he’s been running and working his one acre at Charnews Farm on Young’s Ave. in Southold, an agricultural learning center operated by the Peconic Land Trust.

“A rototiller is the biggest tool I have,” he said, as he walked through his acre on a recent Thursday morning after a solid week of rain.

Confining himself to just one acre hasn’t been easy. Organic farming relies heavily on crop rotation, or planting different varieties of plants in the same spot each year in order to keep plant diseases from recurring.

And sticking to his mission of being just one guy working on the farm hasn’t been easy easier. Between weeding and watering, harvesting and making trips to restaurants and farmer’s markets in Brooklyn and Greenport, Mr. Machin easily puts in 60 hours per week. He also sometimes works part-time on friends’ farms to help pay his bills. But he’s still planning to farm for the rest of his life.

“Food was always important in my family. My grandmother lived alone on a farm in Indiana, so it’s something that’s close to my heart,” he said.

His secret to stocking as much food onto one little acre as possible is to grow in rows so close together that there is just a tiny path wide enough to walk single-file between the rows.

Some plants, like chicory, love the tight spacing, which protects them from the glare of the sun so that they blanche and are sweeter than chicory grown farther apart.

But other plants, like tomatoes, need as much space as possible between plants, particularly in a region that has been hit by late blight, which has a far more disastrous effect on crops that are grown very close together.

“It’s better to have a little more spacing” for them, he said.

“I have friends who grow on 15 acres, and if you add up the beds, it’s about one acre worth of growing space,” he said. “It encourages you to be resourceful with small spaces.”

Mr. Machin’s mission of providing 100 varieties fits well with his vision of a farmer as an artist. Some of his rows meander with the minor variations in the land, which would be impossible if he wasn’t working them with a hand cultivator.

He’s able to plant small patches of ground cherries, which taste like tiny tomatoes encased in a husk that falls to the ground when it is ripe, a row of nutty climbing Malabar spinach, okra and even peanuts, which he planted indoors in early spring. He even grows cotton and ginger and a small patch of perennial alpine strawberries.

But as a year-to-year leasee on the Land Trust’s land, he’s not certain that he’ll still have his plot next year. And while the life of an itinerant farmer can be a romantic idea for a twenty-something farmer, as he approaches 30, Mr. Machin is thinking of expanding his farm. He is also considering perhaps acreage and employees somewhere where he can put down roots for the long-term.

“People ask me how much you have in your 401K, and I don’t have one,” he said. “But it’s totally rewarding. At the end of the day, it’s about creating good relationships. It’s been great to get started here. I’d like to do this for the rest of my life.”

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