As summer sizzles, East End farmers make their stand

Stand apart: It's the most wonderful time of the year at Balsam Farms in Amagansett.

July on the East End of Long Island is magical (aside from the traffic).

Foodies marvel at the local bounty, which starts trending now toward its peak in August and September. This is the time of year when cooking by stove or oven is traded for a chopped local veggie and herb salad … just perfect.

Soon we’ll see heirloom tomatoes and baseball bat-sized zucchinis on farm stands, like the stand at Balsam Farms out in Amagansett. Founded in 2003, Balsam Farms started with 10 rented acres, one tractor and a small roadside stand – today it’s one of the East End’s most successful farming enterprises, offering produce and groceries at that Amagansett stand, at The Market in Montauk and via its popular home-delivery service.

“We’ve learned and grown a lot since [2003],” says founder Alex Balsam. “Today, we farm approximately 90 acres with two greenhouses, a new barn, over 20 tractors and an impressive farm stand, all operated by our outstanding and skilled farm and field crews.”

Kate Fullam: Endless summer.

Balsam Farms also works with the East End Food Institute to produce its own line of shelf-stable and refrigerated products. When a farm like Balsam grows vegetables, fruits or herbs, there’s plenty to spare – so the EEFI helps turn the surplus into products with longer shelf lives than fresh produce.

As noted by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, “value-added processing can be very simple to extremely complex,” ranging from the straightforward (sorting fruits and veggies) to the difficult (unique packaging) to the really complex (processing salsas and jellies, for instance). However you get there, though, the goal is the same: new life for surplus produce.

Processing fresh produce also gives farms the opportunity to offer out-of-season vegetable and fruit products in the spring, when greenhouses and fields are not highly productive. The EEFI also freezes surplus produce for schools, hospitals and food pantries, while the institute’s Farm to Community program helps farms sell more of their produce in all seasons, while improving food access for the year-round community.

A stockpile of value-added goods was a particular advantage for Balsam Farms when demand for their home delivery services skyrocketed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four seasons: Local producers and shops like the Riverhead Indoor Farmer’s Market benefit from the EEFI’s Farm to Community program.

“The ability for us to have a jar of tomato sauce or pickles or jams when we open in May really helps round out the season,” noted farmer and Balsam Farms co-owner Ian Calder-Piedmonte. “[The East End is] an expensive place to live and to operate a business … and by working together we’re all better for it.”

Salad dressings, pestos, jams and barbeque sauces are just a taste of the many value-added products now on the shelves at Balsam Farms and other eastern Long Island farms this season.

Meanwhile, at its shared commercial kitchen in Southampton, the EEFI offers rented space for new and innovative food businesses whose products ultimately end up on the shelves of regional farm stands.

From pasta and pies to soups and salsas, it seems there’s no shortage of innovation around food on the East End.

Kate Fullam is the executive director of Southampton-based East End Food Institute.