Small Farms in N.Y. Are Experiencing a Surprising Boom. Here’s Why

Charity Robey


When the restaurants closed, factory farms lost their customers. Local produce is suddenly in demand.

One Wednesday in early March, Abra Morawiec realized something seismic was happening at her farm stand. The month had been pretty quiet at the Feisty Acres table in the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. But that day, at the very start of social distancing, she had sold out of everything by 2 p.m.

“I had to go home three hours early,” Ms. Morawiec said. After wondering whether her small farm on the North Fork of Long Island would survive the pandemic, this was good news.

But the boom for Feisty Acres has coincided with a virtual collapse at large-scale operations like Crescent Duck Farm, also based on Long Island. In operation for more than a century, Crescent produces a million ducks a year — about 4 percent of the industry total — and was the supplier of choice for fine-dining restaurants in New York, including Jean-Georges and the River Cafe. Those restaurants are closed now, and Crescent has been forced to lay off 80 percent of its workers.

Crescent Duck Farm, which supplied many fine-dining restaurants in New York City, shut down in March. Credit...Johnny Milano for The New York Times

When the lockdown came to the metropolitan area, the earth shifted under New York’s farm-to-table supply chain. All farms are reckoning with the disappearance of the restaurant market and the logistics of getting food directly to consumers. But the agricultural landscape has completely reversed.

Farms with a single crop meant for use in restaurants, like microgreens or edible flowers, face disaster, while those with diverse offerings (and especially root vegetables) have become bulwarks of the social order. After decades of struggle to prove they are sustainable businesses, small farms seem to be flourishing, while factory farms, in many cases, find themselves too big to pivot.

Blue Star Farm, a 10-acre operation in the Hudson Valley north of New York City, is feeling a kind of uncomfortable success since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order. The farm’s sales have increased during the quarantine.

Blue Star sells at a weekend farmers’ market in Hudson, N.Y., that was a social hub before the pandemic, and is now on the front line for feeding the community. “We thought we’d feel the pinch of losing the restaurant business, but we’re hitting demand now that we would usually see in July,” said Mark Decker, who owns the farm with his wife, Susan. “Our sales are up 25 or 30 percent from what we would normally do this time of year.
“The market opens at 9 a.m., and one day we sold out by 12:15,” he added. “I told Sue it’s lucky she didn’t take the dog.”

The line for the Grand Army Plaza market on a recent Saturday stretched into Prospect Park.
The line for the Grand Army Plaza market on a recent Saturday stretched into Prospect Park. Credit...Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Because they have been able to shift their sales directly to consumers — at farmers’ markets and through C.S.A. subscriptions — farms like Blue Star and Feisty Acres are ideally suited to survive a pandemic.

A C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) program — which essentially allows people to buy shares in a farm’s produce before it is harvested — has been vital to the success of Sang Lee, an 80-acre organic farm in Southold on Long Island. The farm is known for its salad greens, organic vegetables, and hard-to-find radishes, ginger and bok choy.

Lucy Senesac, a manager at Sang Lee, said the farm has been inundated since mid-March, when throngs of New Yorkers headed to second homes on Long Island. “Insane crowds,” she said. “Everyone is out on the North Fork all of a sudden, and everyone wants vegetables, more than we can supply,” she said. “It’s hard managing all the phone calls. I’m having to hide a little bit.”

The crowds at the Sang Lee farm stand were so large that Ms. Senesac decided to close it. She retooled the farm’s website to offer pickup options, so customers could show up, immediately get their vegetables and go home.

Norwich Meadows Farm has pivoted from working with restaurants to supplying farmers’ markets and C.S.A. subscriptions.Norwich Meadows Farm has pivoted from working with restaurants to supplying farmers’ markets and C.S.A. subscriptions. Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Before the pandemic hit, Norwich Meadows, a 230-acre farm three and a half hours north of New York City, sent most of its organic fruits and vegetables to restaurants; the rest went to farmers’ markets and its C.S.A. It is not a small farm, but the wide variety of crops it offers has saved it.

“We don’t mess around,” said Zaid Kurdieh, the owner of Norwich Meadows, on his approach to planting a huge number of crops, including ground cherries, an addictive, candy-sweet tomato that he helped establish as a garnish at chef-forward restaurants.

Now that few chefs are looking for clever garnishes, Norwich Farms has come to rely on the Union Square Greenmarket to sell sunchokes, daikon radish, lettuce and purple carrots. It also has developed a robust delivery service. Near the farmers’ market, in the now-shuttered restaurant Loring Place, furloughed cooks, bartenders and waiters assemble boxes of produce for delivery to Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and suburban Westchester County.

Mr. Kurdieh has also expanded his C.S.A., transitioning in three weeks from offering a box of vegetables and recipes to a market box that includes his produce and products from other Union Square Greenmarket vendors.

His success hinges on his six- and 12-month subscriptions boxes, which provide cash for Norwich Farms to plant, harvest and distribute in the coming season. Mr. Kurdieh said it was promising that 400 customers signed up in the first three weeks.

Prepacked produce boxes at the Norwich Meadows stand at Union Square in Manhattan. Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Recalibrating has proved considerably more difficult for commercial operations like Crescent Duck Farm.

In early February, weeks before there were any known Covid-19 cases on Long Island, Doug Corwin began to scale back production at Crescent, where his family has raised birds since 1908. He had been closely following news about the outbreak in China.

“When I saw them building that hospital in Wuhan, I started reducing my supplies of breeding stock and eggs,” Mr. Corwin said. “The last thing I want is to have product stuck in the freezer. All the better chefs only want it fresh.”

When an employee tested positive for the coronavirus, Mr. Corwin, unable to provide safe work conditions, shut down production on March 30 and laid off 47 unionized workers — more than 80 percent of his employees.

“I’m thankful that I stopped it when I did,” he said. “We had one person test positive, and now she’s fine.”

Mr. Corwin says an operation the size of his can’t make it on retail sales alone, even when the demand for fresh meat on Long Island has risen to height-of the-summer levels. Currently, one of Crescent’s best customers is Miloski’s, a poultry farm and meat store in Calverton known for its rotisserie duck to-go. “Miloski has gone from buying 10 boxes a week to 25 boxes a week,” he said. “But I need to sell 3,000 a week.”

Doug Corwin, the owner of Crescent Duck Farm, which has been in his family since 1908. He hopes to reopen the farm in the summer. Credit...Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Mr. Corwin said the presidential executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open was encouraging. He is retrofitting his plant with Plexiglas partitions, and has gloves and masks on order, and is hoping to bring back his workers and reopen in early summer.

But for that to happen, his restaurant clients must reopen and start serving duck again. “Let’s hope that the powers that be have the foresight for what’s best for us,” Mr. Corwin said, “so we can climb out of this.”

But adaptation is possible, even for the narrowest of farms.

Taylor Knapp is the proprietor of Peconic Escargot, a Long Island farm that supplied restaurants with the rarest of luxuries — fresh snails.

The snail market, no surprise, has collapsed. But Mr. Knapp is also a chef. So over a weekend, he turned his pop-up dinners, held in empty restaurants, into a fine-dining takeout in the parking lot of a former inn. Customers pop the trunk just long enough to receive a six-course meal, a votive candle and a long-stem rose.

The snail farm is on pause. “Thankfully, the creatures we raise have a five-year life span,” Mr. Knapp said. “I don’t think we are at risk of closing, but even if restaurants reopen in June, fine dining is going to be changed — if not forever, for a very long time.”