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The Farmer as Cult Hero

Hepworth Farms occupies 400 acres in Milton, about 90 miles up the Hudson.   

Hepworth is physically trim and constitutionally brazen, and it’s easy to imagine her as her daredevil teenage self, riding motorcycles and downhill skiing. She likes drinking beer, eating apple maggots (she believes pests are good for immunity), and operating heavy machinery. “That’s a 55-ton excavator,” she pointed out as we traversed the muddy roads of her 400-acre farm. The machine was orange and dinosaur-size. It hovered over massive compost heaps. “I operate anything,” she said. “I’m a natural operator.”

We got out of the pickup and walked through grass and leaves to a mossy outcropping on the banks of the Hudson. “Eagle! Eagle! Eagle!” Hepworth cried. We watched the bird swoop low over the silver river. “High five on that.” Hepworth raised her hand. “That’s auspicious.” Later, she assured me that the eagle’s significance was wholly ecological. “I don’t want to come off as a New Ager. I don’t live in a spiritual realm. I’m a very physical girl.”

Hepworth is not someone who recently left the city to raise heirloom something; she was born on the farm in 1960. She was driving tractors at 9, trucks at 12. In 1970, a fire destroyed one of the family’s packing facilities, and her father left the family two years later. Hepworth’s mother, uncles, and family friends pitched in to keep the business running, and when she graduated from Cornell’s agriculture school in 1982, Hepworth returned home to take charge of the farm. She was the only one of her four siblings with the inclination for the job: “I liked being boss. My love of agriculture came later.” In the beginning, she says, “it was brutally hard not to have a mentor.” But Hepworth sees her father’s absence as, ultimately, freeing. “The thing that helped me go my own way”—in particular, in introducing sustainable practices to her family’s conventional farm—“was that I didn’t have a father on the farm,” she told me. “Traditionally, fathers indoctrinate their sons. I didn’t have to follow anybody.”

At Cornell, Hepworth had become interested in a more holistic approach to agriculture. To restore ecological balance to her family’s farm, she now had to carry out purposefully destructive tasks like allowing mites to infest a portion of her apple orchards, in order to attract the mites’ predators—nature’s own pesticides. It was a slow process. Leaves bronzed and fell off, and some of that year’s crop was unharvestable. In making the transition, she says, “I must have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. My family was almost ready to kick me off.” Yet Hepworth persisted. As soon as she returned to Milton, she sought out alternative distribution channels, and by 1983 she was selling her produce through a wholesaler whose clients included the Park Slope Food Coop.

Though she’s spent her entire adult life farming, Hepworth and Gerry Greco, her girl- friend and business partner, have made a profit only for the past three years, as her city clientele’s interest in locally grown food has increased and her business acumen has improved. The Coop, which received about 1,000 cases of produce from Hepworth last week, accounts for about 80 percent of her vegetable sales. (She runs her fruit operation with a cousin, and those business arrangements are more complicated.) Most of the rest of the vegetables go to a New Jersey co-op called Purple Dragon, or a Hudson Valley–based distributor named Joe Angello. His priority is quality, not expediency, meaning, for example, that “when Amy’s chile peppers come on the scene, we’ve already told most of our growers, ‘Don’t even bother.’ Everyone knows Amy’s are the best, they’re going to buy Amy’s.” Angello sells regularly to Brooklyn foodie outposts like Applewood and Franny’s, and to Whole Foods.

Angello introduced Hepworth to Whole Foods, and she now distributes some of her produce to them directly. She claims that the chain, which has been criticized for its reliance on “Big Organic”—corporate agriculture—gets a bad rap. When it comes to large buyers, “Whole Foods is as alternative as anybody I’ve ever worked with,” she maintains. Hepworth supplies New York City Whole Foods stores with a variety of vegetables, mostly tomatoes (thousands of cases last year). “They would like to buy our whole farm,” Hepworth says, meaning her produce, not the operation itself. But for various reasons, Hepworth is not interested in maximizing the relationship. For one, “they would want me to contract 60 cases of Swiss chard every other day.” To meet such a demand, she would have to change her style of farming: “That would take fifteen to twenty acres to do. That’s a lot of acreage. I like diversity in our crop systems.” (Diversity is a hallmark of sustainable farms.) But more important, Hepworth is committed to the Coop, which has supported her for 25 years.