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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Homesteading on Long Island for a self-sufficient life

Some Long Island families are creating sustainable homes on their suburban lots, gardening, raising livestock and pushing back on the lawn culture. They say the goals are self-sufficiency and healthier foods.  (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Every autumn, after picking apples at an orchard either on Long Island or upstate, I bring them home, bake pies and make applesauce. In December, I make limoncello to give as gifts and enjoy over the holidays, and every week I make a batch of Greek yogurt. For the past 15 years, I’ve had an ever-brewing container of kombucha on my kitchen counter, and there is always compost in the backyard. I grow an array of vegetables and, summer before last, I cajoled my family to spend a (somewhat miserable) day canning tomatoes under the hot August sun.

I thought I was all Mother-Earthy, but the truth is, after meeting some suburban homesteaders here on Long Island, I laugh to think of how proud I’d been of my back-to-basics endeavors, which take, on average, mere minutes per week.

JOSEPHINE FAN

PATCHOGUE

Josephine Fan, of Patchogue, walks the walk. After waking every morning at 7:30 with her daughters, Sophie, 4, and Martha, 1, the trio heads outdoors. They feed and water the ducks, and collect their eggs. While the children play, Fan patrols the gardens, inspecting plants to ensure they are healthy. As she makes her rounds, trusty pruners in hand, she takes care of broken or diseased plant parts, and the children pick vegetables, berries and other fruit.

“Sometimes kids can be picky,” said the martial arts teacher, who owns a martial arts school in Bay Shore with her husband, Adam Pilipshen, 40. “But if they pick it from the backyard, they eat it.” Sophie, for instance, refused to taste asparagus until she saw them poke out of the ground in the garden. “She was curious, so we cooked them, and now she eats them,” said Fan, 28.

Martha’s new job is collecting eggs from the ducks. “As long as chores are food-based, I feel they’re motivated,” she said.

After morning chores are done, Fan and the girls head inside to make breakfast, which right now means fresh eggs, as their nine ducks each lay one egg per day between April and November. Fan also hatches some of the eggs and sells the ducklings.

She is originally from Fresh Meadows, Queens, and attended Stony Brook University, where she majored in business management and psychology. After superstorm Sandy in 2012, her parents asked her to check on their rental property in Patchogue.

“A pipe had burst, and the entire interior was destroyed. There were mushrooms growing out of the carpet,” Fan recalled. Unable to sell, she decided to move in and take it over herself. As she made repairs, it struck her that life could turn on a dime, and she decided it would be best to become self-sufficient on the one-acre property. “I came out here, and everything was sand. The lawn was being kept alive by chemicals, by artificial means,” she said. “So I fired the landscapers, and now I maintain everything myself. I just have someone mow. I have them leave the clippings on the lawn as mulch . . .”

Fan said that when she moved in “the soil had no worms, there were no bugs. Now, just four years later, every summer I’m the only house on my block that gets swarms of bees and butterflies. It makes me feel more secure, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s important that it helps the Earth.”

Fan’s parents, who live for a portion of the year in Fresh Meadows, own farms in Costa Rica, so she grew up exposed to agriculture. “My parents maintain the forest on their farms and plant trees, and they got into permaculture, so my dad started shoving books at me,” she said. After reading and learning about the agricultural system that’s modeled after natural ecosystems, Fan said she came to an epiphany: “It made a lot of sense to me as far as how to cultivate the land for food and keep it healthy. If you plant in a way that plants are companionable, you can plant closer together.”

Next, Fan decided to eschew the use of pesticides and herbicides and found that poultry could handle the jobs of both — plus provide eggs. “I’ve had ducks and chickens, but I prefer Muscovy ducks because they’re quiet and they also eat a lot of pests that chickens and regular ducks don’t touch, like gypsy moth caterpillars. They also eat ticks, slugs, snails, pretty much anything that moves, and they eat weeds,” she said, adding facetiously that she has to “fight them” for dandelions, which her husband likes to eat. As a bonus, ducks fertilize the soil as they roam.

There are plenty of other bonuses, too, Fan said: “I don’t have to buy food or store it. I can just go outside and get what I need. I don’t understand using land for manicured lawns when it could be used to produce food for my family so I don’t have to go to the store.”

The family eats seasonally, supplementing with purchased red meat and dairy, and Fan freezes some food. The family’s lifestyle isn’t without its hardships, however. Fan’s edible plants, 75 percent of which are perennial, sometimes get viruses, and the weather can wreak havoc on crops and fowl. Last winter, Fan lost two ducks to frostbite. “They took a swim and didn’t dry off in time,” she explained, adding that the ducks ended up on the dinner table. “There are always lessons to be learned. This year I’m not going to give them their pool during winter time.”

Time constraints pose another challenge. “When my daughters were younger, I didn’t have enough time to do it all,” Fan said. “You get into the zone when you’re working in the garden, and if you keep getting interrupted, it’s hard to finish.” As she speaks, Martha shrieks, as if on cue, and Fan laughs. “Now they’re out with me for three or four hours playing while I’m working, so it’s easier.”

Pilipshen, her husband, is an instructional designer at Nassau Community College by day, as well as a martial arts instructor. “He has no opinion of all this whatsoever,” said Fan, who is the sole farmer in the household. “He does chop wood, but to him, this is weird; he grew up upper middle-class, he’s used to having a lawn.”

Still, she values self-sufficiency. “Maybe it’s in my head, but there’s security in knowing that if things go bad, we’re not completely lost,” she said. “I have a wood-burning stove, so I’m not worried if we’re out of power for two weeks, or out of heat. I have food in the backyard and a method to cook it. I live right next to a lake, so I have water. I can provide for my family in the event anything goes wrong, and even if nothing goes wrong, I’m saving a lot of money. What else do I need?”

NICK SARIN

MANORVILLE

Nick Sarin, of Manorville, is saving money, too, but that’s not what motivates him.

“A lot of it has to do with getting back to old ways, growing our own food and being connected with that food from the growing process,” said Sarin, 35, who is originally from Wantagh.

Sarin, who by day works in the commercial refrigeration field, is a modern-day Renaissance man during his off-hours: Along with his wife, Pamela, 36, he’s a beekeeper, vermicomposter (composting with worms), home brewer and fermenter, grower of fruit, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms. He also raises chickens and rabbits, and he fishes, hunts and forages for weeds and mushrooms.

Each day when he returns from work, Sarin feeds the six chickens the couple share with their neighbors, waters the plants and trees, and feeds the rabbits, which he is planning to breed for meat. Sarin has even tapped his maple trees. “We don’t get very much syrup, but there’s no comparison to store-bought,” he said.

The couple, who live in Pamela’s childhood home with their daughter, Olivia, 3, and son, John, 1, both have master’s degrees in education. Pamela is a former teacher who’s currently a stay-at-home mom.

They practice no-till gardening, opting instead to build upon the existing soil. “We till just one time to loosen soil, then add a layer of wood chips, and mulch, mulch, mulch, and then plant. It’s building nutritious soil and not disturbing the microbes,” Sarin said.

Immediately after moving into the house three years ago, the Sarins began building a 40-foot-by-40-foot garden on their 1.4-acre lot. They planted a large strawberry patch, tomatoes and a small orchard of nearly 20 apple, cherry, pear, peach and plum trees, plus some lesser-known fruit trees, like medlar, which was common during the Middle Ages. The persimmon-like fruit is considered ripe when it’s about to rot, Sarin said, adding that he has plans to graft it onto a crabapple.

Growing up on Nassau’s South Shore, Sarin said he enjoyed hikes and gardening. “I spent a lot of time with friends at the beach, going fishing and watching sunsets, and I got into hives — not because of the honey, but because I like bees. I just enjoy watching them doing their practice flights.”

Currently, Sarin is beginning his sixth year as a beekeeper and “bounces between one and three hives,” he said, adding that he lost hives over the winter because, he believes, of a problem with the queens.

Losses are tough, Sarin said, but often are unpreventable. “Weather is really hard on the bees. A few years ago, we had a very early bloom, and the hive was just not ready. When trees bloom in January or February, that shoots the whole nectar source” for the season.

“A couple of years ago, we had a drought for an entire month,” he recalls, “and that’s hard on the bees because they go into their honey stores, and they’ll consume those that they would otherwise be using to get through part of the winter with.”

Sarin also forages for mushrooms and weeds. He makes dandelion wine using Pamela’s great-uncle’s recipe, tea from stinging nettle he finds, and brings back garlic mustard, Japanese wine berries and usnea, a medicinal lichen also known as old man’s beard.

Time isn’t always on his side, but he’s trying to change that.

“It’s very hard with a job and raising a family,” Sarin said. “My biggest frustration is there’s too much to do, and too little time. Since we’re still new at the house, a lot of the work is cleaning up and planting new things. We’re trying to get it to the point where it’s low-maintenance because I’m not going to get any younger, so let me put in the time now, while I can.”

MICHAEL FIORENTINO

EAST YAPHANK

Michael Fiorentino, of East Yaphank, is just 21 years old, but you won’t find the Penn State University graduate student binge-watching Netflix or playing video games. “No time for that!” said the modern goat herder, who prefers to spend his mornings and evenings with his buck and milking his six does. When there are kids, most of the milk is bottle-fed to them — three times a day — and in between, he cleans their pens, makes sure their hay feeders are full and freshens their bedding. There are chickens and rabbits to tend, as well. When he does have some free time, Fiorentino likes to kayak, hunt and fish, and he makes a small amount of goat’s milk cheese and soap for personal use and to give as gifts.

You wouldn’t know it, but Fiorentino wasn’t raised on a farm, although when he was a boy, his father had a couple of pet goats and pigs. He’s doing all this in the backyard of his childhood home, which sits on a half acre, and where he lives with his parents, Joe and Barbara, and sisters, Nicole, 23, and Jessica, 19. Fiorentino, who holds a bachelor’s degree in animal science from SUNY Cobleskill, is currently studying agricultural and extension education, and his family has stepped in to help out while he’s away during the school year.

Fiorentino credits the Suffolk County Cooperative Extension in Yaphank and 4-H Club, the youth development and mentoring program, with nurturing his interest. “When I was 9 years old, my parents got me involved with 4-H at Suffolk County Farm, and I started working with dairy cattle, and then, a few years later, with goats, which I was able to bring home and keep in the backyard.”

At age 16, his Cooperative Extension work led him to goat dairy farmer Hal Goodale in Riverhead, and Goodale, in turn, introduced him to John and Maribeth Andresen, a veterinarian and retired nurse, respectively, who own Foxglove Farm in Aquebogue, and the couple guided the fledgling farmer.

“I’ve done a lot of work with Maribeth,” Fiorentino, said. “She took me to goat shows around the country, introduced me to a lot of people, and helped me with making decisions and buying, selling and breeding goats.”

When Fiorentino aged out of 4-H, he continued on as a leader and mentor, became involved in the organization’s goat program on the state level and the N.Y. State Youth Goat Advisory Committee, and is currently assistant superintendent for the N.Y. State Fair in Syracuse. But he acknowledges he won’t be able to continue at this pace once he graduates from school. “Right now, I’m trying to maintain and even downsize a little,” he said. “I’m trying to make plans for after school because I don’t know where I’ll end up. I’d like to keep the goats, but there are some 4-H members I’d like to see take on more responsibility with them, and I’d be happy if they took them home when I move away.”

ABOUT BEES AND LIVESTOCK

Livestock can be kept on residential properties on Long Island only where local codes and ordinances permit. Consult your town, village hall or local library to learn which rules apply to your property before embarking on agricultural or homesteading activities, especially those concerning the ownership of bees, poultry or farm animals.

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