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Amber Waves Farm Celebrates 15 Years

Thu, 07/27/2023 - 10:13

Nonprofit farm’s founders met as apprentices with the seeds of a dream

A chance encounter as apprentices at Quail Hill Farm 16 years ago led to a friendship and business for Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow of Amber Waves Farm.
Gabriela Herman

On a humid July morning, Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow, co-owners of Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett, sat at a picnic table, steps from a field full of flowers and a bustling retail shop full of produce grown on their acres. “Every table we have on this farm we’ve built,” said Ms. Merrow.

Behind them, Ann Jones, who is in charge of the farm’s educational programming, set up Summer Toddler Farmer Class. It wasn’t yet 8 a.m., but already a line of cars had parked, and 30-somethings loitered with their children and coffee, waiting for drop off.

Ms. Jones has seven people helping her this summer, due to the demand for her classes. Education is one of four major components of the farm’s mission.

“The food education classes are largely geared towards children, although we’ve expanded to adult programming as well,” said Ms. Merrow. They feel reaching children is important. “We have led field trips with Amagansett School since our first season. We take them on a tasting tour and walk the fields. One of the kids who was on our first tour is now an assistant manager in our market.”

Amber Waves is going on its 15th season, a milestone for any business on the South Fork, but more so for a nonprofit that employs 80 people through the summer. It has 20-something year-round full-time workers, remarkable during a period where “help wanted” signs are easier to find than “for rent” ads. With 300 members, the Amber Waves community-supported- agriculture shares sold out this summer (there are still openings for the fall C.S.A.).

“We’re busy for eight weeks of the year and then it’s a struggle to keep everyone employed,” said Ms. Merrow.

“We started during the 2008 financial crisis,” she said. “Our friends who had taken more conventional paths were losing their jobs. It felt risky starting a business, but it feels like life is risky, and it was less risky for us to be in control of our destiny. We thought, ‘The world is a weird place, maybe we should grow our own food.’ “

“We’ve had a minute to test some things during those 15 years,” said Ms. Baldwin. “There’s proof of concept and years of programs that have gotten a foothold. We’re really proud of that and the impact it has on the community and our members.”

The women met as farm apprentices at nearby Quail Hill Farm, back when Scott Chaskey was the farm manager. “The way Scott treated us as apprentices made us feel like we could do this. He had a youthful optimism that matters a lot. It just never occurred to us that we couldn’t do it,” said Ms. Merrow.

“It’s interesting they would think to say they didn’t have doubts,” said Mr. Chaskey, highlighting the enormity of what they have accomplished. “Farming is demanding. But they’re such a good team and they’ve been together all these years after a chance meeting on the farm. I’m really proud, and I tip my hat off to them. It’s amazing that by the end of one season of farming they were ready to take it further.”

It is the 12th year of their own apprenticeship program and they have graduated 50 apprentices. “That feels like another milestone for us,” said Ms. Baldwin.

“Eight of our apprentices have started their own operations. It feels like the whole point is for us to give people a start in agriculture. Almost none of our apprentices has had a formal school background. To get them trained and seeded out to the United States, where they can go back to their own communities and create jobs in other places is really cool,” said Ms. Merrow.

There are seven apprentices working at Amber Waves this season.

Another part of their mission is to allow the public to access the farm, which sits right off the road. “Our gates are open regardless of if you’re a C.S.A. member or just a person visiting. When we submitted our plan for land to the Peconic Land Trust for a farm that’s open to the public, we knew this was the right property, because it’s right off Main Street and accessible via sidewalk,” said Ms. Merrow. “We’re within walking distance to the school, the library, and public transportation. Visiting is a perfect way for the public to come and experience the agricultural heritage of the East End. Public access has always been the cornerstone.”

However, it’s this ease of access and visibility on the busiest East End road that has also led to some criticism of the farm. Some fear that parents crossing Route 27 with toddlers during the busiest time of the year is tempting disaster. Their programming is increasingly popular in the winter months too. Their Deck the Farm event in December drew hundreds. If there’s a downside to their success, it’s crowds and traffic.

Amber Waves submitted a formal request to the New York State Department of Transportation for a crosswalk, but the D.O.T. denied the request. Stephen Canzoneri, a spokesman for the D.O.T. said, “Safety is always the top priority of the New York State Department of Transportation and after a thorough review, it was determined that traffic conditions did not warrant a crosswalk at the requested location. N.Y.S.D.O.T. will continue to monitor traffic conditions in the area.”

Apart from the education and community access, the women are also just really good farmers, and they share their bounty with the less privileged. Weekly, they donate to the Springs Food Pantry, intentionally growing produce for them, but also distributing their abundance.

“There are thousands of families in need, but it’s sort of an invisible population,” said Ms. Baldwin.

As the East End has changed, Amber Waves has changed with it to meet the needs and demands of the community. This year it started leasing the agricultural land north of Amagansett’s municipal parking lot and launched a pick-your-own-flowers program that was three years in the making. In East Hampton Village, it opened a summer outpost at 70 Park Place on the Reutershan parking lot, that sells grab-and-go salads, wraps, juices, produce, and pantry items.

“One of our greatest challenges is that we have to educate folks that we’re a nonprofit organization,” said Ms. Baldwin. “We’re a production farm, but also a teaching farm. The retail component takes a lot of the oxygen, but it’s the programmatic work that benefits. We exist to serve our community.”



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