The Hottest Party Is at … the Farm
A field of flashy zinnias and cosmos swayed in the early evening breeze, and a bounty of zucchini, kale, peppers and tomatoes carpeted the fecund soil.
Sean Pilger, who runs this 20-acre farm in Brookhaven, N.Y., a rural hamlet on the South Shore of Long Island, surveyed the 100 paying guests. They sat beneath pink clouds, discreetly slurping local oysters and clams, and drinking Blue Point ales from a nearby brewery.
“We planned this dinner so the corn would be nice and ready,” said Mr. Pilger, 42, who is affectionately known as Farmer Sean. “But before I start grilling, I’m going to the dunk tank.”
With his shirt and straw hat off, Mr. Pilger, who looks like a blue-ribbon-winning hybrid of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, egged children to toss tennis balls that would plunge him into the frigid water. The sheep in the adjacent pasture, used to a social ruckus, took no notice.
“Come on kids,” he yelled. “It’s hot and I want to get wet.”
It was all in a day’s work at the Hamlet Organic Garden, better known as H.O.G. Farm, which has a summer schedule as packed as any Hamptons social calendar.
H.O.G. is among a bountiful new crop of community-minded farms outside New York City and other metropolitan areas that are not just about growing and selling vegetables. Part social clubs, mindful markets and cultural centers, these farms host earth-to-table dinners, locavore cooking classes, biodynamic wine tastings, homegrown music performances, book readings, sunrise yoga, sound bath healing circles, drive-in movies and drag queen bingo nights.
Social cultivation is the new cash crop. Many find it more alluring than chard or kale.
“Over the past five to ten years, we’re seeing farms adding all kinds of elements,” said Carrie Sedlak, the director of the C.S.A. Innovation Network, a national resource for community farms based in Wisconsin. “Farmers are good at leveraging the fact that people romanticize being on a farm and it offers them revenue quickly.”
While many of these farms are open to the public, some also operate as a C.S.A., or community-supported agriculture, where paying members not only get seasonal produce, but also special invitations to dinners and parties. Vegetable pickups can turn into social hours when neighbors gossip and compare weekend plans. The H.O.G. Farm sometimes has a D.J.
“I always put on mascara before I pick up my vegetable share,” said Gail Levenstein, 82, a former executive at Bill Blass, who belongs to nearby Early Girl Farm in Brookhaven, where the $685 for the 15-week allotment she splits with a friend might include python beans, radichetta and sprouting cauliflower. The farm’s owner, Patty Gentry, also grills Indian dosas for members on Saturdays, to help offset costs.
Another Early Girl member, Turna Uyar, 45, who is a senior vice president at Sotheby’s, compares the C.S.A. to a private social club.
“I gave up my Soho House membership, but being a member of this farm is better,” Ms. Uyar said. “It’s expensive but you get sucked into it.” Especially when she sees Nicky Hilton, who lives nearby, coming up the dirt driveway. “She was in head-to-toe Valentino.”
Profit Margin of a Carrot
How did farms become so social? The trend likely sprouted with the same cultural shift that gave rise to organic eating, agricultural tourism and the locavore movement: an effort to reconnect with the earth and be virtuous and vigilant about food. An appetite for community also figures in.
In rural areas, especially during the pandemic, when city people fled to the country, these farms offered them a place to mingle and integrate. Country clubs are expensive and to many younger sophisticates, old fashioned. Active Main Streets are few and far between in most regions.
And then there’s the well-documented fact that millennials want to spend their money on experiences, the more homespun and authentic-looking the better. Plus, it is all very Instagram friendly.
“Coming to your local farm is not just a social experience, it’s a tactile one, especially when members go out to pick their own vegetables and flowers,” said Kate Anstreicher of the Hudson Valley CSA Coalition, a 125-member farm organization based in Westchester.
For many farmers, the main driver is economics. “The margin of profit on a carrot is pretty slim,” said Bethany Wallis of the New York State chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “Programs add to the revenue stream.”
What began with hay rides, petting zoos and corn mazes decades ago, gave way to weddings, event space rentals and cultural offerings that are catnip for transplanted urbanites.
The Space on Ryder Farm in Brewster, N.Y., about 60 miles north of Manhattan, hosts dinners with readings by resident playwrights. Chaseholm Farm, a third-generation operation in Pine Plains, N.Y., holds a gay pride drag show in its milking barn. In Encinitas, Calif., Coastal Roots Farm offers a film and music series, Sabbath celebrations and workshops that explore notions of justice and forgiveness.
Mama Farm, next to Early Girl Farm in Brookhaven, held a drag queen bingo game in July. “We wanted to become a piazza for the community so everyone can interact,” said Elettra Wiedemann, the farm’s executive director and the daughter of its founder, the actress Isabella Rossellini.
While “everyone” may sound idealistic when the tickets cost $150 (granted, dinner was included), art comes at a price. “I started programming during the pandemic for performers and chefs who weren’t working,” said Ms. Wiedemann, who hosts an ongoing series of eclectic jazz performances. “Our prices are high in order to pay artists a living wage.”
But the real money at her farm (which shares its 28-acre property with Early Girl), doesn’t come from the C.S.A. or from dinners. It is from private weddings: the farm rakes in $14,000 for a weekend rental that includes the property and a rustic-chic country house that sleeps 10.
“It used to be clubs, now it’s farms, because they reflect a couple’s values,” said Ira Lippke, a wedding photographer who until recently lived in Brookhaven and now lives abroad. “I still get calls to shoot at country clubs, but turn them down because they’re so boring.”
‘Heartbeat of This Neighborhood’
Cultivating a social farm has its dark sides, too. Yolo County in California enacted a law limiting events, to shield farmers from complaints and lawsuits over their crop spraying during weddings and other social gatherings.
“Our county didn’t want to be like Napa, where the land has become too expensive to grow anything but grapes,” said Amon Muller of Full Belly Farm in Guinda, Calif., near Sacramento. “Here farming comes first.”
Some residents complain that events are priced high enough to seem elitist. A flower arranging workshop at Amber Waves Farm, a C.S.A. in Amagansett, N.Y., costs $120, for instance. Participants gather their own flowers, though drinks and snacks are included.
And more events mean more traffic in quiet rural areas. At Greig Farm, a pick-your-own family farm in Red Hook, N.Y. in the Hudson Valley , neighbors balked when the owner applied to open a hard cider tasting room last year. They worried it would increase traffic on their rural road; the town board approved it anyway.
H.O.G. farm has held many boisterous events, too, though only one — an ecstatic dance circle with drumming and wailing last year — has rankled neighbors. Even the families right across the road appreciate having a gathering place, especially during the Covid lockdowns.
“If you had to design a utopian community, you’d have a farm like this at its center,” said Sam Buffa, 44, the founder of Fellow Barber grooming salons, who is a neighbor and member. “It’s the heartbeat of this neighborhood.”
On a recent Thursday night, the H.O.G. farm held a concert featuring Lillie Mae Rische, a young Nashville singer-songwriter with a peroxided pixie-cut who has toured with Jack White. Mandolin and fiddle music filled the sweet summer air. Artisanal sausages grilled on the fire.
After a hard day of processing chickens and helping prepare vegetables to deliver to restaurants, Mr. Pilger watched the soulful and high-spirited performance near a chalkboard that listed summer squash, peppers and green beans for pickup. There was straw on the floor, a wheelbarrow nearby and a disco ball above.
“When I started here, I knew I’d be a steward of the land but didn’t think I’d also be a steward of the community,” Mr. Pilger said. “I love that this old farm shed is our stage now.”