These Female Farmers Are Feeding Long Island—And Themselves

Marilee Foster

Marilee Foster, of Foster Farm in Sagaponack, with her dog, Bird.

Women’s stories are fashionable right now—and the most en vogue among them are being told in a specific way. These stories begin, naturally, with a woman. She is often a successful business owner or some other type of professional who has risen in a field traditionally dominated by men. In photos she appears conventionally feminine, like the sort of woman who decorates her body with either cool, colorful tattoos or simple, meaningful jewelry. Invariably, the story recounts the woman’s success while avoiding at all costs the subjects of ambition and money. Because, according to the trope these stories perpetuate and depend on, this woman is too virtuous to care about something as masculine as self-enrichment; all she ever wants is to nurture and serve her community.

Stories about female farmers are especially rife with these conventions. Despite the fact that more women are farming than ever, making up 36 percent of the country’s farmers (according to the USDA’s 2017 farm census), and outearning their male counterparts at the same time (according to data released in the same year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), the woman who farms is often depicted as some sort of land fairy, as a daughter of Mother Nature whose own fertility is dwarfed only by that of the soil she so lovingly works.

These stories more accurately resemble fantasy novels than they do female farmers themselves—especially on the North and South forks.

Just ask Marilee Foster. Far from a mythical creature who just so happened to traipse onto a field one day, Foster grew up on her family’s historic 900-acre farm in Sagaponack. From day one, farming was a truth of Foster’s existence; she just wasn’t sure it was her calling. So she left home to attend Beloit College in Wisconsin, where she studied art, women’s studies and creative writing. It wasn’t until she returned home after graduating in 1994 that she began to imagine farming professionally.

“I worked my way into it—quite literally,” says Foster. “It was really need based. I came back here and it was just a very hot, dry summer and I was another set of hands. I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t enjoy it. Art comes from talent and practice and all of those things, but farming just kind of comes from having the land—and my family had it. It seemed like I would be wasting an opportunity if I didn’t investigate it.”

Ever the artist, Foster was immediately drawn, she says, to growing “weird vegetables,” and the roots of her interest in agriculture only deepened from there. Twenty-five years later, Foster is a sixth-generation farmer—a profession she describes as “75 percent drudgery, 25 percent thrill”—who, along with her brother, Dean, grows some of the most revered produce on the East End.

“Because of various cultural things and laws, women weren’t traditionally landowners, but women have always been laborers on farms,” says Foster. “We rented some farmland from this guy once and he would tell me, ‘Oh yeah, back in the war, all the women worked the farm and we called them “farmerettes.”’ I was like, ‘Well, I am not a farmerette.’ That ‘ette’ just sounds diminishing; it makes it sound like I’m just la, la, la-ing my way through this.”

Foster is too brilliant to la, la, la her way through anything—not that she could afford to. Farming isn’t easy work anywhere, but it’s especially hard in Sagaponack, where both the Foster Farm and Marilee’s Farmstand are located, a place that’s simultaneously home to one of the best soil profiles in the world and the most expensive ZIP code in the country.

“Of course I want to earn a living, but I also have this sense of history,” says Foster. “This farm was bought by one of my ancestors and there’s this challenge to keep it alive and viable. When I finished college, the development hadn’t really come to Sagaponack as it had to surrounding areas, but it’s certainly here now. And I don’t understand it. It’s freaking cold and damp here; it’s not Capri by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s happening and it’s sad. When my father began to lose his eyesight, I thought, maybe it’s better that he won’t see it. There’s nothing we can do about it anyway. We just have to ride it out. I don’t farm in defiance of what’s happening; I farm right alongside it.”

In order to survive in the modern American economy, especially on the East End, farmers have had to become increasingly creative. To that end, Foster and her brother founded the Sagaponack Farm Distillery back in 2017. Made possible by New York State legislation like the Farm Distillery Act and the New York Craft Act, the Fosters’ distillery transforms their farm’s signature spuds into vodka, a single bottle of which requiring no fewer than 20 potatoes to make.

Read Marilee Foster’s Farmgirl Angst column from the archives of Edible East End here.

Similarly creative are farmers Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow, founders of Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett. Like Foster, both Baldwin and Merrow are college educated—with degrees in international studies and economics/environmental studies, respectively. They met while working as apprentices with Scott Chaskey at Quail Hill Farm.

“The woman we looked to was Marilee Foster,” says Baldwin. “We looked to her and said, ‘Welp, she’s doing it. So can we.’”

Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow of Amber Waves Farm

Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow, of Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett.

Baldwin and Merrow partnered together and opened Amber Waves in 2009. To support the mission of their farm—not only to feed the community but also to offer educational experiences for local children and adults alike—they opened the Amber Waves Market in 2017. This summer, they will expand their market offerings even further, with the opening of an in-house café.

“It’s like we have one foot in the hippie world, one foot in the business world and one foot in the sorority world,” laughs Baldwin. “We’re a weird mash-up of modern young women who are highly educated, who work with children but also work with agricultural tradesmen. And at the beginning, I think, people were surprised and excited to see us doing this. At the very least, our being women was able to generate interest in a way that, say, establishing Balsam Farm 2.0 would not.”

If Baldwin and Merrow challenged assumptions then, they have certainly exceeded expectations now. Their CSA—which began with just 18 families—currently enjoys 180 members; the women who rose alongside them, like baker Carissa Waechter, have enjoyed immense success as well. At Amber Waves, they’ve created not only a successful brand for the East End but a business model that Baldwin and Merrow believe can be transferred and replicated just about anywhere else.

“This is exactly what we expected for ourselves,” says Baldwin. She delivers the phrase plainly, as a fact, not a boast. “We built a farm that produces food that our community eats. The retail and market—with the café component—kind of came as a surprise in terms of timing, but we knew, ultimately, that having a restaurant or a space to sell our wares was important for business sustainability and growth. So, yes, in general, we are kind of where we thought we would be. The fun part, for me at least, is that I wasn’t consciously doing this for me or my own family one day, just for children and families in general. But now that my daughter, Beatrice, is two years old, I see that, in a way, I did create this farm and learning space for her and I’m so glad I did. To see her participating in it makes me overjoyed in a way I couldn’t have imagined until now.”

Rachel Bristel Stephens, of Sweet Woodland Farm in Southold.

Rachel Bristel Stephens, of Sweet Woodland Farm in Southold.

On the North Fork, farmer Rachel Bristel Stephens, of Sweet Woodland Farm, is a mother as well.

“This year is my first year of being a quote-unquote farmer,” says Stephens, who homeschools her two children, now 15 and 13. “Before that, I considered myself more of a homesteader. At home, I have 50 chickens, a really big garden, sheep whose wool I use to do fiber arts with and more. I’m very much a do-it-yourselfer. Organic gardening was always my thing, as was natural healing, and I do have a background in horticulture. So all of these things put together led me to lease one acre of land from the Peconic Land Trust in Southold.”

On this land, Stephens is growing a host of culinary and medicinal herbs from which she will make dressings and sauces, tea and salves. She makes the latter by infusing the herbs into coconut oil, then adding beeswax from her own beehives. The resulting mixture then solidifies, creating a salve that can soothe whatever ailment it’s made to target—be it eczema or bug bites.

“I don’t really think of myself as a female farmer; I’m just a farmer,” says Stephens. “That said, most of the farmers that are with me at Charnews Farm are women and we definitely support each other. Even though we’re all focused on our own work, if one of us needs to leave early for some reason, we are happy to close up the greenhouse for each other. If someone needs a connection for something—like a new implement for a tractor, for example—someone will know someone and share. We are all here for our own reasons, but that’s the thing: We’re all here because we chose to be.”

Lucy Senesac, of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic.

Lucy Senesac, of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic.

Also there, on the North Fork, is farmer Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms. Senesac, who grew up in Laurel, began working at Peconic’s Sang Lee in 2011—though her path to the farm was neither as fast nor direct as suggested by simple geography. After high school, Senesac went away to college, where she studied psychology and art, two subjects about which she was deeply passionate. As she worked on her senior year thesis, however, she discovered that while she did love psychology, she didn’t love the sedentary lifestyle its practice required. So after college, Senesac traveled to New Zealand through WWOOF—a worldwide movement that links volunteers with organic farmers—and spent the following year working at 10 different farms, ranging from dairy farms to vineyards.

But still, she wasn’t sold. “I loved it, but I still wondered if it was the right career for me,” says Senesac. “I saw it still as something to do post-college as I was figuring stuff out. But then I came back from all of my travels and I was pretty broke. So I applied to work at Sang Lee and that’s when it all sort of clicked. I started to really listen to myself, to what I felt called to do and what sort of lifestyle I wanted. And that’s when I decided that farming here, as a career, felt good and right for me, and that’s why I decided to continue.”

Now, eight years later, Senesac runs the farm alongside her partner, Will, and his parents, Fred and Karen. Her background in psychology has certainly not been wasted. In addition to farming, Senesac is the farm’s CSA coordinator and de facto head of marketing. She runs the farm’s social media accounts and has helped revamp its website; she is also deeply involved in all of the farm’s personnel training and hiring.

“I was attracted to farming, because I don’t have to pick just one interest,” says Senesac. “I can use my hands, my brain, my creativity. And I think that, maybe, that’s what many women are attracted to. Farming requires so many things at once that you have to be able to do everything, really. It’s that idea of having a lot of balls in the air, all at once, and I think women are naturally good at that. Traditionally, when women were still at home, they were cooking, doing laundry, managing the household and taking care of the kids. In a way, women have spent their whole collective lives preparing for work like this.”

And now their daughters are reaping the harvest.