Calverton farmer boasts Long Island’s first crop of certified organic grapes

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Calverton farmer Rex Farr in his vineyard checking on the cabernet franc grapes Friday afternoon.

A crop of certified organic grapes is ready for harvesting for the first time in Long Island history, according to one Calverton farmer who claims to have successfully pulled off the challenging feat.

Rex Farr, owner of The Farrm on Youngs Avenue in Calverton, said he planted vines on his farm in 2005 and planned to harvest his first crop in 2009 before severe summer rains destroyed 15 percent of the vines and most of the grapes.

Now, he says, he finally has a grape crop ready for harvest.

Starting Friday, Mr. Farr said, he plans to pick 10 to 12 tons of four grape varieties — merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petite verdot — making him the first farmer on Long Island to successfully grow certified organic grapes.

The Farrm was certified organic in 1990 by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. The organization, accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2002, inspects annually. Mr. Farr said NOFA inspectors most recently combed his property in June.

The Farrm does not have a wine production facility, so Mr. Farr hopes to partner with a local winery or community-supported agriculture network to produce and bottle organic wine.

“We are the only [local] vineyard with a certified organic grape,” he said. “I’m offering an opportunity for whomever. They all realize the marketing value of an organically grown grape.”

Mr. Farr said he’s already spoken to a half-dozen wineries about a possible partnership.

Long Island Wine Council president Ron Goerler said other local farmers have failed in their attempts to grow an organic grape, something he said is “extremely challenging.”

“Hats off to him,” Mr. Goerler said. “If he can grow grapes out here organically … God bless you if you can do it.”

Barbara Shinn of Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck said she applied for certification last year through the National Organic Program, which is run by the federal Department of Agriculture. That program requires three years of participation before land is certified organic.

“We’re in the process,” Ms. Shinn said. “It’s very challenging all over the East Coast. The weather conditions have to be pretty good to successfully do it.”

She said she “commends” Mr. Farr for his success.

Fred Lee of Sang Lee Farms, a certified organic farm in Peconic, said he has never attempted to grow grapes and agreed that growing grapes organically is “very difficult.”

“The timing of the application of materials, the health of the plant and the cultural practices are all very important,” he said.

Mr. Lee, Mr. Goerler and Mr. Farr all said harvesting certified organic grapes this year, in a rainy season when many local vineyards have struggled to produce a healthy harvest, makes Mr. Farr’s feat even more impressive.

Mr. Farr attributes his success to a touch of luck, his farming practices and his 20 years of organic farming experience.

“I like to think good farming practices help to enhance Mother Nature,” he said. “I’m a neophyte when it comes to the growing of grapes, but I’m an expert when it comes to organic farming.”

The fact that he only attempted to grow red grapes, which hold up better in the rain than white varieties, may have also played a role. But the Calverton farmer is also quick to admit his first crop won’t be perfect.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “We could have taken fruit off for the last four years. This is the first year the grapes are ready.”

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