All the fresh lettuce that chef Matthew Connors could serve at his Bay Shore restaurant, the LakeHouse, grows just nine miles away at a CSA on the grounds of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum, a New York state park. This synergy is a brilliant exemplification of the farm-to-table movement at its best.
Our mighty Empire State is blessed with a vast and beautiful state park system. According to Randy Simons, public information officer with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, “NYS Parks has 350,000 acres in its 214 state park system. Of that, 179 are parks and 35 are historic sites.” In the opinion of this writer, the jewel of the state park system is on our south shore, in Great River at the Bayard Cutting Arboretum’s CSA farm. The pristine arboretum is home to the only CSA in the entire NYS park system. Wow.
On the picturesque Connetquot River, the arboretum was once the home (then called Westwood) of William Bayard Cutting and his family. Mr. Cutting passed away in 1912. In the years that followed, his widow and daughter decided to give the 691-acre estate and arboretum, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, to the people of Long Island in memory of Mr. Cutting. Their intent was “to provide an oasis of beauty and quiet for the pleasure, rest and refreshment of those who delight in outdoor beauty, and to bring about a greater appreciation and understanding of the value and importance of informal planting.” After meetings with Robert Moses in the 1940s, Mrs. Cutting set up the Bayard Cutting Trust to ensure that the arboretum would be properly maintained and “not just become another park,” says Nelson Sterner, executive director of the park. In 1954 the Bayard Cutting Arboretum officially became a part of the New York State park system as a passive park; activities such as biking, picnicking, sports, bathing and games are not permitted.
Bayard Cutting Arboretum might be a passive park, but within its 691 acres lies a very active farm and CSA. Three years ago, Sterner approached the folks in Albany with the idea for starting a CSA on the grounds of the arboretum. “They embraced the concept, got onboard, and the project was approved in three months,” says Sterner. Quite a feat when you think of it. With additional financial support from the Bayard Cutting Trust, Bayard Cutting Arboretum CSA Farm was born, and rototilling began just under three years ago. The 1½-acre farm is fiscally “very close to breaking even,” says Sterner, of their three-year goal of being fully sustainable. Three winters ago, the farm brought in a new farmer, Jen Campbell, to manage the farm. A self-proclaimed “hands-on girl” and a bit of a neatnik, Campbell has brought horticultural knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm to the farm, along with neatly planted and weeded rows of vegetables and herbs. There are 75 full-share members and a large waiting list. In addition to Campbell, there are also two full-time paid interns. It is crucial for members to also volunteer their time, and Campbell has come up with inventive and fun ways to encourage helping out. For instance, every Wednesday night is a Family Speed Weed Gathering, which is one hour of weeding followed by a rotating member-hosted dinner. “If 20 people show up and weed for an hour, that’s 20 hours of volunteer labor,” says Campbell, “plus, it’s a lot of fun.”
Education is front and center at the farm, with a summer program for children that includes classes on “Good Bugs/Bad Bugs,” “Herbs Can Cure, Not Just Season Our Foods” and a “CSA Scavenger Hunt.” “It’s pretty amazing to see the face of a kid running out of the barn with a freshly laid egg,” adds Sterner. The farm also hosts a variety of events and workshops: wine and cheese parties, jam making and farm-to-table dinners with chef Connors and his wife, Eileen, of the Lake House Restaurant.
The farm-to-table alliance between the CSA and the restaurant began about eight years ago when the Connors first opened the Lake House. The Bay Shore native took a CSA share at the already established Farm at St. Peter’s, also in Bay Shore. It was at this farm where he first became acquainted with Jen Campbell. Three years ago when Campbell landed the farm manager job at Bayard, Connors followed, and the fruitful relationship between farmer and chef continued to grow and flourished.
In February, Campbell and Connors meet to discuss the next seasons planting. She makes her selections based, in part, on Connors needs for the restaurant. “I have a pretty good say in what gets grown over there. They appreciate my input. For better or worse they pretty much grow what I ask them to grow. It’s nice to have that control,” explains Connors. “Jen has grown fava beans and ground-cherries just for the restaurant. It’s great,” articulates a clearly appreciative Connors. Campbell is only too happy to oblige, “I am interested in growing whatever he wants. Whatever he needs to me to grow, I will grow for him.” Campbell continues, “It’s great for us. He will put on the menu that the greens for the salads come from the Bayard Cutting Arboretum’s CSA, and that’s great for our program. He gets the word out about us and we get the word out about him.” And the synergy proliferates as Connors is Campbell’s go-to guy when she is inundated with bruised or damaged vegetables. “I get my regular weekly share and then, about every other day, I stop by the farm and pick up the seconds. Bruised tomatoes for instance, I use all that stuff for gazpachos and sauces. It is the kind of produce that the regular household members don’t want. I’ll make a couple of gallons of tomato water out of them. It is like liquid gold,” reveals Connors. Countless varieties of heirloom tomatoes, beets, beans, herbs and lettuces are all sought out by Connors. “We grow beautiful lettuces here. They are so beautiful. They come in so many different colors, and they taste so different from what you can find in the supermarket,” describes Campbell. The CSA also has a flock of 50 or so egg-laying hens. Connors uses the CSA’s eggs whenever he can, highlighting their freshness in dishes such as Spring Vegetable Salad, also featuring the CSA’s lettuces, asparagus and chives.
When reflecting back on the first two years of the farm, park director Sterner discloses that he is not only proud of its success but equally proud of the cooperative efforts between the state park people and the Bayard Cutting Trust. Clearly, it took a village. “The arboretum attracts one group of people while the farm attracts another element. Thanks to the state park people embracing the concept, the farm has brought in a whole new group of people who are interested in fresh food and knowing where their food comes from. And that’s a good thing for all concerned.”
Will there be more CSAs on other state parks on Long Island? Clearly neither Jones Beach nor Robert Moses, for instance, is suitable for such. “On Long Island, it’s not apples to apples in each park,” states Sterner. “It is not easy for many parks to take on new projects. We were endowed by the Bayard Cutting Trust, and other parks are not as fortunate.”
One can only hope that the work that Nelson Sterner, Jen Campbell and their staff are doing at the farm will continue to serve as an inspiration and catalyst to chefs like Matthew Connors and others.
Bayard Cutting Arboretum Farm CSA: 440 Montauk Highway, Great River; 631.256.5048
The LakeHouse: 240 West Main Street, Bay Shore; 631.666.0995