The Farmer as Cult Hero

Amy HepworthPhoto: Ben Stechschulte

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.

Hepworth Farms occupies 400 acres in Milton, about 90 miles up the Hudson. Photo: Ben Stechschulte

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.

“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.

The Farmer as Cult Hero