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Lyle Wells, giant of Riverhead farming community, killed in workplace accident

When his family’s farm turned 350 years old in 2011, Riverhead’s Lyle Wells had 60 L.L. Bean jackets printed displaying the words “Wells Homestead Acres 350 Years.” 

It was a quiet tribute to a 12-generation tradition he said he wanted to see continue for many more centuries.

When asked if he’d be celebrating that particular anniversary that weekend, Wells replied that he’d be doing what the Wells family has always done on its land in Aquebogue.

“Work as usual,” he said.

A leader in the farming community and the modern day face of Riverhead’s oldest farming family, Mr. Wells was killed Thursday evening in a farming accident. He was 62 years old.

Riverhead Town police were called to Mr. Wells’ farm at 4162 Sound Avenue at 7:22 p.m. Thursday for a report of a man found trapped in a piece of farm equipment.

Police said he became trapped in a manure spreader while working on the farm.

Riverhead detectives are continuing to investigate the apparent accident along with OSHA. The spreader and the tractor were impounded for further investigation.

Mr. Wells’ brother, Brett, 58, said he believes the accident occurred sometime after 4 p.m. when Lyle was working the farm by himself.

“He was always doing that this time of year,” Brett said of Lyle working the spreader. “He was in the back behind his house on Sound Avenue. I think he was standing behind the machine cleaning it out, but we don’t know. We don’t really know what happened.”

Lyle  Wells was recognized as a true leader in the Long Island Farming community with an outspoken voice and a gift for growing produce. He had established a reputation for growing some of the finest asparagus in the region. He was the former president of the Long Island Farm Bureau and a one-time member of the Riverhead Town Planning Board.

News of Mr. Wells’ death stunned his community.

“I’ve known Lyle since he was about 3 feet tall,” said Richard Wines of Jamesport. “I guess the best way to describe him was the father of our land preservation efforts. For years he was head of the committee to oversee land preservation in Riverhead. He was instrumental in getting our first Transfer Development Rights program going.”

It was an effort to keep alive a way of life his family spent generations cultivating. In fact, it was at a Nov. 20, 1661 Southold Town Board meeting that Aquebogue was established with 40 lots and William Wells was allotted three pieces of property for his family to farm near Phillips Lane on Sound Avenue in Aquebogue. According to a 1937 article in the County Review, an earlier version of this newspaper, the Wellses are the only Riverhead family from that era to still farm their land under the same name. There are currently three Wells families farming here.

“His mother was once the town historian, Justine Wells,” Mr. Wines said. “Another of his ancestors Daniel Wells led the building of the Jamesport Meeting House. Daniel Wells the Second was first supervisor in Riverhead. He has very long roots in Riverhead.”

Former Southold Town supervisor Thomas Wickham, whose family has farmed in Cutchogue since 1699, said he was stunned at the news of Mr. Wells’ death.

“That’s horrible,” he said. “He was very active in farming matters on the North Fork. We were two farming families supplying directly to a market in New York City, Fresh Direct.”

Ken Cereola of nearby Palmer Vineyards said seeing Mr. Wells on his tractor was part of the daily routine on Sound Avenue.

“It was an extension of what we see here everyday,” Mr. Cereola said. “He was a great man. We’re running out of men like him.”

Mr. Wines said Mr. Wells has been very innovative, trying new crops and new technologies in his career.

“Clearly the agricultural community will miss him as both a fellow farmer and a leader,” Mr. Wines said. “He was very active in all things that help preserve, protect and enhance agriculture in Riverhead.”

Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said Wells’ impact on the agricultural community goes back decades and pre-dates their 30 years of working together.

“He would take all the time needed to explain a program to anyone who wanted to learn about farming — a legislator, a community member, another farmer,” Mr. Carpenter said. “It’s a big loss. You just can’t replace a Lyle.”

Frank Beyrodt of DeLea Sod Farms, a fellow former LIFB president, recalled Mr. Wells’ “infectious laugh.”

“Everyone would start laughing because of his style of laughter,” Mr. Beyrodt said. “It was an honor that he graced our community and our town. Him having gone through life in this community made the rest of us better.”

Funeral arrangements were not immediately available Friday morning. This story will be update with those and more obituary details once available.

Top Caption: Mr. Wells in one of his asparagus fields in Northville. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch Photo)

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