Keeping the Farm in the Family
It is not only slow food specialists and vegans from away who are at the forefront of the resurrection of farming on the South Fork, but also some of the “founding children,” descendants of the earliest European settlers, many of whom have been farmers for generations.
Sam Lester III is such a person. Farming land his ancestor Jeremiah Lester bought in 1851 from Hervey Dayton, part of a huge tract that once straddled Further Lane and Skimhampton Road in East Hampton, Mr. Lester started at the age of 5 with a self-serve apple stand and a can people could put their money in. He charged $5 a bag.
In his middle and high school years, it became a full-scale produce stand with tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans, peppers, beets, carrots, eggplants, watermelons, and canteloupe. He would work at the stand on weekends and after school in the fall and all summer.
After attending college at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island, where he studied business, Mr. Lester went to work for his father, Sam Lester Jr., a builder who retired recently from the other family business, construction, to farm land with his wife, Maura Lester, in Vermont.
Last year Sam III tried his hand at his grandmother Rose Lester’s recipe for beach plum jelly, and decided it was good enough to sell at the farm stand. That marked the beginning of the Pantigo Farm Company, which he started with his girlfriend and business partner, Hillary Levine. Over the winter they went to markets and fairs all over Suffolk County to see how other farmers were running their businesses.
They started using vineyard grapes and now have an arrangement to use the grapes local vintners don’t need to make cabernet franc, chardonnay, and merlot jellies. The farm stand has a Web site as well, pantigofarm.com, and can be found on Facebook as Pantigo Farm Co.
Last fall, Mr. Lester and Ms. Levine made a cranberry sauce from hand-picked Amagansett cranberries, cooking it down with port wine. The Art of Eating bought some and served it at its slow food event. “Once I saw the demand, there was no stopping me,” he said recently. “When the demand really hit me was when I was doing the wine jellies. I felt confident within my own game,” he said.
Now he and Ms. Levine make beach plum barbecue sauce, garden relish, strawberry rhubarb jelly, and a host of other jams, jellies, and salsas. In addition to the few acres behind their farm stand, on which they have fruit trees, vegetable crops, including horseradish, different types of tomatoes, berries — elderberries, wineberries, gooseberries, black and red currants, blackberries — and beehives, Mr. Lester farms another five acres on Bistrian land on Spring Close Highway, where he is about to plant fall crops. He uses no pesticides or herbicides on any of his crops, and even does his own weeding.
Ms. Levine, who grew up in Swampscott, Mass., learned to bake and can from her mother and she helps with the jams and also bakes bread, wild cranberry and orange loaf, and blueberry-zucchini bread, among other delicacies. Her title includes manager.
On Aug. 1, when they move the operation into the first house on the right on Skimhampton Road, they plan to have a full market that will extend the season until December. “People like to buy jellies and jams as Christmas gifts,” Mr. Lester said. He is hoping his father will sell him the house one day, which would help him continue the family’s farming and cooking legacy.
Mr. Lester promised a beach plum ice cream that he plans to sell through the end of August. “Every day is a new step forward,” he said. “When I can get a little breathing room by being able to put out 400 jars instead of 40, it’ll allow my brain to come up with some more wacky stuff.”