It’s a rarity on Long Island to come across acres of farmland in the middle of a residential area. Sure, there are plenty of farms out east, with tractors, high-tech irrigation systems and perfect lines of corn bordered by even more perfect rows of hedges cut on razor sharp angles. But here on undeveloped land sandwiched between the congestion of Hempstead Turnpike and rush hour traffic on the Southern State Parkway, there are no perfect lines, simply because: Hedges don’t grow like that. And grass greener than the hills of Ireland doesn’t grow that way on Long Island after a summer of record-setting heat, not without chemicals.
But peach-colored cheese pumpkins that look like they were snatched from one of Disney’s fairy godmothers, those grow here. So do okra and kale, string beans and Dahlias the size of grapefruits. You won’t find tractors here, nor will you find any big machines to groom the land. The planting, the watering, the picking, it is all done by hand. And if you want some tomatoes, you can pluck them right off the vine—a vine grown from a family of seeds that goes back for generations—or grab them at the market up front. It’s a meeting place of sorts, a hub where neighbors say hello, farmland stretches to the curb and everybody knowing your name isn’t a cliché, it’s just the way it is.
“A neighbor came in the other day and said she picked some kale the night before for dinner and hands me a dollar,” says Bernadette Brennan, owner of Friendly Farms in East Meadow. “That’s the kind of place this is.”
At least that’s the kind of place it has been for the past six years, ever since Brennan and her family turned 2.5 acres of neglected farmland, once a carnation farm and later a dumping ground for wood chips and tree stumps, into a hand-planted organic farm and market for produce grown on the grounds and all over Long Island.
“This was all covered in wood chips, it took us forever to get them out,” says Brennan, explaining the work her family has done on the land, while walking through rows of hand-planted celery, rainbow chard and pumpkins of every size. Since the Brennans took over the property, they have cleared a dirt road, built greenhouses, put up fences and managed the upkeep of the land.
But come December, the family behind Friendly Farms will have to figure out a way to move their greenhouses, or they will be destroyed. Plants that come back every year on the property, a family of strawberry plants in particular, will have to be dug up and potted or they will be ripped out.
The entire property will be demolished in less than two months—not to build homes or a strip mall on this million-dollar prime real estate in the heart of Nassau County. The already thriving organic farm run by the Brennan family is getting the axe to make way for the creation of a brand new, started-from-scratch organic farm run by someone else.
“My family has rented the space for six years, and because of politics we have to pack up and go,” says Brennan.
The Brennans lost a battle to run their family business on the property to Cornell Cooperative Extension, a 95-year-old non-profit organization which focuses on education and plans to use the land as a farm, master garden and horticultural teaching center, after what the Brennans call “unfair bureaucracy” and “a biased bidding process” and Nassau County calls “legal” and “done in good faith.” And Cornell Cooperative Extension just “doesn’t understand what all the brouhaha is about.”
Although Nassau County officials say Cornell Cooperative will get this property come 2011, the Brennans, who feel they never had a fair chance to acquire the land they have taken care of for nearly a decade, say they want to keep this a family-run farm to the core, not an education-centered “model farm” open to the public, yet fenced off from the surrounding community. They won’t let it go without a fight.
“This is a farm, this is what a farm looks like,” says Danielle, Brennan’s daughter. “It’s not about a white picket fence and a nice well-maintained lawn behind us. It’s a farm.”
Part of the plans for the property would be moving Cornell’s Master Gardens, or demonstration gardens, and Master Gardener Program, a horticultural training program, from their location tucked away in Eisenhower Park two miles down the road, to the Merrick Avenue location where Friendly Farms now stands.
“They are ripping up something that is and has been an existing farm to put something to teach people the idea of a farm,” says Danielle. “It’s idiotic, it’s ironic and it’s insane.”
The Brennans have until the end of 2010 to pack their things and leave.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Friendly Farms, formerly Fruggie’s Farm, was once part of the Mark family property bordering Luddington Road. The heir to the estate, Philip Mark, still lives on part of the land today.
“Originally my father built everything,” says Mark, pointing to his home, an old-fashioned greenhouse and a small patch of farmland he still owns and uses for his personal garden. “It was all brush when he came here in 1938. I’ve lived here all my life.”
In 2008, Mark, who promised his mother he would keep the land preserved and undeveloped, sold most of the property to Nassau County for $2.1 million.