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Balsam Farms thrives in Long Island's high-rent Hamptons

Long Island's eastern tip is 100 miles from New York City's crowds, but it still seems an unlikely place to start farming from scratch. With sand beaches and colonial-era towns, it draws so many of the rich and famous that Alex Balsam calls it Hollywood East. Beatle Paul McCartney and actor Alec Baldwin have stopped at the stand where Balsam and his business partner, Ian Calder-Piedmonte, sell part of their 60 acres of produce.

The young operators of Balsam Farms have one of the few local produce stands that sells just what the farm raises.

"We pretty much grow everything that's in a vegetable seed catalog," Balsam explains one evening over a gourmet dinner at Della Femina restaurant in the village of East Hampton. Balsam Farms' vegetables are sprinkled through the menu offerings of the eatery founded by a well-known ad man, Jerry Della Femina, whose work includes the singing cat in Meow Mix commercials.

When the restaurant crowd thins, head chef Michael Rozzi stops at our table. "It's a pleasure to have such great local produce and see these young ambitious guys," says Rozzi, a lifelong resident of the Hamptons. He has seen many of its multigeneration potato farms disappear to development. "I have a vegetarian who comes in, and he requests Balsam Farms' vegetables," he says.

In 7 years, the two Cornell University buddies have grown their farm from $14,000 in sales made the summer before Balsam headed off to law school to $250,000 last year. Five years ago, Calder-Piedmonte came to visit and work on the farm. After a couple more seasons, "I realized this is what I wanted to do," he says. He gave up teaching to join the business.

Although neither is from a farm, they have childhood ties to agriculture. Calder-Piedmonte grew up in rural Michigan where his maternal grandfather and an uncle run Calder Dairy, a farm that sells its own bottled milk and ice cream. Balsam's parents were teachers in Baldwin, Long Island, but "ever since I was 2, I rode around on tractors with potato farmers who farmed around our house," he recalls. Later, his summer jobs were on cut-flower farms. At Cornell, he majored in agricultural economics.

Today, Balsam and Calder-Piedmonte supervise up to a dozen part-time workers who help them harvest and sell at their stand and four farmers markets. Sales to consumers make up half their business. The rest comes from wholesale deliveries to 25 to 30 restaurants, other farm stands, and a private school. Their seven fields are scattered around East Hampton.

When Calder-Piedmonte drives his tractor through town, "It's not unusual to pass a couple of Ferraris," he says.

The reality of farming in the Hamptons is less glamor glitz and a lot of hard work.

The morning after dinner at Della Femina, Calder-Piedmonte is walking through a 5-acre field at sunrise, picking sweet corn with two hired workers, Jesus Vasquez and his brother, Luis. It's September, so they've slept in before a 7 a.m. start. "This time of year, because there's less sun, it forces us to take it a little easier, which might not be a bad thing," Calder-Piedmonte says as he snaps another ear of corn into his gunny sack. By 8 a.m. he's already had eight calls on his cell phone. His phone rings again. "I've got tomatoes for you," he says. "I've got peppers. I can get you zucchini, seedless watermelons." It's the school's buyer, wanting to stock a walk-in cooler.

Long Island's eastern tip is 100 miles from New York City's crowds, but it still seems an unlikely place to start farming from scratch. With sand beaches and colonial-era towns, it draws so many of the rich and famous that Alex Balsam calls it Hollywood East. Beatle Paul McCartney and actor Alec Baldwin have stopped at the stand where Balsam and his business partner, Ian Calder-Piedmonte, sell part of their 60 acres of produce.

The farmers' growing season begins in early March, when they start transplants in a greenhouse. It ends in mid-November, after they've planted cover crops and have run out of fresh produce, except for winter squash they store. In between, they're planting sweet corn weekly from late April through July 15. They transplant lettuce and greens into early September. They raise more than 75 varieties of tomatoes. They deliver produce to wholesale buyers seven days a week.

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