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The Farmer as Cult Hero

Amy Hepworth, who eats maggots and grows Shiros, and whose upstate farm makes highly anticipated regular deliveries to the Park Slope Food Coop, has attracted a foodie fan base as passionate as the top New York chefs’.

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Amy Hepworth  

One night last fall, a few dozen people filled an upstairs room at the Park Slope Food Coop, cramming into rows of stackable chairs and squeezing past a potluck buffet. The crowd was a typical mix of Coop types: a white-haired woman in clogs, a baby cooing in a carrier, a shaved head under a kufi cap, many hip-serious eyeglasses. The mood was anticipatory: fans before the big event. It was “Meet Your Farmer” night. Amy Hepworth, a seventh-generation farmer from up near Poughkeepsie, sat in front, her legs splayed, her grin huge. She was wearing a chambray shirt, faded jeans, and suede boots, and she had her pet dog, her same-sex partner, and two bags of wormy apples beside her. Hepworth supplies the Coop with an astonishing variety of produce: 111 varieties of vegetables and 53 types of fruit. She is best known for her apples—spicy Ginger Golds, sweet CandyCrisps, Stayman Winesaps with dungaree-tough skins.

Too feisty to give a lecture, Hepworth bounced around and mimed various elements of her work (mowing, spraying, bolting out of bed at dawn); she gnawed on a wild, untreated apple and identified the pests she was swallowing (“That’s codling moth”). She was full of energy—“I’m flying so high!” she announced—and the room was smitten.

Just a few years ago, only a celebrity chef could have stirred up so much epicurean excitement. Back then, the food chain extended only as far back as the restaurant kitchens we viewed—sometimes literally, at, say, the Mercer Kitchen or Café Gray—as staging grounds. But we’ve come to realize that dinner originates in the planting row, not on the prep line. We’re increasingly conscious of how our food is produced, and where—and who—it comes from. So New Yorkers are now beginning to fetishize farmers the way we once did chefs. Some of us make ritual trips to buy our wares at the Greenmarket, nod with recognition when our favorites are name-checked on menus, and turn out to hear them speak when they make meet-the-farmer appearances in town.

The meet-the-farmer mania is characterized by a desire for personal connection. “In the past, people would call me and ask, ‘Where can I pick apples? Where can I pick pumpkins?’ ” says Coop produce buyer Allen Zimmerman. “The thought of a farm being ‘our’ farm is new.” Our farm. Meet your farmer. I went to hear Hepworth speak at the Coop because I really had come to consider her my farmer: It was like a brand preference; I’d buy anything she grew, from a purple cauliflower to a doughnut peach. I liked the idea that I was buying from an actual person, from an Amy. “Farming for the most part is a man’s world,” says Zimmerman. At the Coop, “Amy is a legend. People meet her and they swoon.”

Hepworth has an outsize personality that masks vulnerability, sort of like a plum. This time of year, when plums are in season, you can go to the Coop and buy Dapple Dandy pluots freighted in from California, or Hepworth’s yellow Shiros, which glisten when sliced and taste like juice and sun.

That night, the first question from the audience was “Can we come visit?” But Hepworth’s farm is a workplace, not a tourist attraction, and the answer was absolutely no. “You have to understand I have a very serious job,” Hepworth explained. “It starts very early, it ends very late. Anytime anybody deviates from that, it’s very painful for me, and it really pisses me off.”

“Could we come and work?” someone suggested.

Hepworth turned and slapped her hands against the wall. “Oh, please, dear God,” she exclaimed. “People would pay me to come and work,” she said. She was incredulous. “When you interject a foreign organism, productivity goes down so much. And I’m so attached to productivity. I’m the biggest jerk you’ll ever meet.”

But there were no hard feelings. When Hepworth gave the community a shout-out—“I love the Coop so much!”—I almost expected to hear the audience respond with a whoop, like when the lead singer says the name of your town. Amy Hepworth feeds Park Slope, where the children are organically grown, the parents are locavores, and—as I realized that night—the farmers are rock stars.

I took the train up to Poughkeepsie on a winter day when Hepworth seemed amenable to the interruption. She met me at the station in an old, overheated pickup, and we drove across the Hudson River to Milton, where her family has farmed since 1818. The land, which rolls up and out from the river, was bare at this time of year, but easy to fill in with picture-book farm life. Hepworth immediately offered a corrective portrait: “Sorry the dog smells,” she said. The animal, with crud around one eye, sat on the seat between us. “She got into something last night,” Hepworth added with a shrug.


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