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The Farmer as Cult Hero

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“We would not have a farm if it wasn’t for Park Slope,” she says, referring to both an economic reality and a more abstract attachment. “Going down to Hunts Point every day and selling apples is very unfulfilling. You’ve got to have a reason, a meaning behind it.” Hepworth’s current crusade, energy savings, has kindled an appreciation for the environmental benefits of city life. She’s proud to grow for a neighborhood whose residents live stacked in elevator buildings and dominoed in brownstones. “I’m dedicated to feeding you people because you don’t have land yourself, but you’re an efficient organism,” she told us that night at the Coop. (Hepworth describes the copious amounts of fuel used for farm machinery as “the worst part of our business,” and is building an energy-efficient storage facility.)

Yet some of the Coop’s members are suspicious of Hepworth’s unorthodox growing practices. Surprisingly, not everything that comes from her farm is organic. Her reservations about the “organic” label are not just semantic—many nonconformist farmers think the word has lost its alternative resonance—but scientific. She does not take an absolutist’s position on chemicals, for instance, arguing that today’s “gentle” synthetics are unlike pesticides of the DDT days, when growers sprayed willy-nilly any “shit that worked.” Hepworth chooses how to grow based on what’s best for the soil. In many instances, the best option is organic, but in others, it’s not. In her view, it’s sometimes better to use a small amount of something synthetic than a huge amount of something natural.

Consider a disease called apple scab. “One organic control is five pounds of sulfur per acre every time it rains,” Hepworth explains. “Twelve to sixteen times a year.” Sulfur kills other things, not just apple scab. It can also coat apples with residue, and, when she was using it, Hepworth suspected that it harmed her earthworm population. She switched to a synthetic, noncarcinogenic fungicide that treats apple scab specifically. “It does the job in small amounts,” she says. “Six ounces per acre. I used it three or four times last year.”

Hepworth’s ecological principles make her apples difficult to classify. The ones she sells at the Coop are described as “minimally treated,” which deters some organically fixated shoppers from buying them. “It’s hard to talk to people who are only interested in protecting their own little body,” says Joe Holtz, the Coop’s general manager. Organic once represented holistic values; now it’s associated with self-serving ones. (The corrective buzzphrase “Local is the new organic” emphasizes broad-based sustainability over personal health.) But to satisfy Coop members’ demands, Hepworth’s vegetables, unlike her fruit, are “certified” organic. “It’s a big, tender issue,” admits Hepworth, who finds the certification regulations, which are expensive to comply with and allow farmers little creative autonomy, stifling.

Yet Hepworth’s Coop enthusiasts are more conspicuous than her detractors. Last winter, for example, a member wrote a three-part series called “In Defense of an Apple” in response to a critical letter about Hepworth’s growing practices that appeared in the Linewaiters’ Gazette, the store’s biweekly newspaper. In another incident earlier this year, some of Hepworth’s normally bare Honeycrisps were accidentally stickered, leading shoppers to conclude that they had come from another farm. “I’ve gotten calls from people on this,” produce buyer Zimmerman tells me. “ ‘How could you do this to Amy? You’ve betrayed her by buying someone else’s apple.’ ” Like any fans, Hepworth’s are both protective and devoted: “Some of the young women here,” Zimmerman continues, “she’s an idol to them.”

“It’s really funny to see in the last 25 years who the farmer has become,” Hepworth observes. “Allen talks about me like I’m an icon or something.” Hepworth comes home most nights streaked with hydraulic oil or rotten squash and is frequently reminded by her mother to comb her hair. She finds it entertaining that her job has become glamorous.

One morning at a quarter to six, I walked to meet Hepworth at the Coop. The streets were quiet except for music playing from the open car door of the guy delivering the Times. Outside the store, huge trucks were humped on the sidewalk, lights blinking. Hepworth stood inside the receiving area. She’d packed her 27-foot truck with a forklift at three, was on the road at 3:30, and had arrived at the Coop two hours later. (On occasion, Hepworth’s groupies have shown up at dawn to see her in action. “Sometimes when I go down there, someone freaks out that I’m there,” she says.)

When it was her turn, Hepworth began shooting cardboard boxes of apples down a roller belt. “Oooh! Don’t let them hit!” she flinched when the boxes bumped. “The impact on apples is no different than on eggs.”

Reaching into the pocket of her Carhartt pants, she pulled out a folded piece of paper, which a receiving coordinator pinned to the wall. The handwritten invoice itemized the apple delivery by the box: 16 CandyCrisp, 20 Empire, 25 Fuji, 48 Honeycrisp, 16 Mutsu, 32 Pink Lady, 18 Stayman Winesap, 20 Cameo. There were no prices. Hepworth trusts the Coop to give her a fair rate.

When Hepworth finished unloading, Zimmerman came outside, water bottle looped to his belt, and she gave him a hug. We stood on the sidewalk talking about the wild greens on Hepworth’s farm—callaloo, lamb’s quarters, purslane. Hepworth had slept for only a few hours, but she was energized. She stood on the sidewalk in work boots and worn pants, holding forth in the presence of admirers. It was like being backstage after the show. We listened to her extol the benefits of purslane—“It has some special antioxidant”—then said good-bye as she hoisted herself into her truck and drove up Union Street back home.


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