At 10 a.m. on a Sunday in September, Paul and Marie Polsinelli set out coffee and bagels at the family farm in Speonk and waited for the apple pickers to arrive.
The Polsinellis aren't farmers, and this was not a typical East End harvest. By trade, Polsinelli and his three brothers, who own the farm together, are in the construction business. Growing apples is one of their hobbies — and part of the glue that keeps their families close.
A sign at the entrance to the property announces "Polsinelli Family Farm," but there's no farm stand to sell the harvest to passersby. Moreover, the pickers are all members of the Polsinelli clan and some friends who tag along. Paul and Marie's three children, Paul Michael, 30, of Long Beach, Jenessa Polsinelli-Matthews, 28, of Manhattan, and Toni Ann, 22, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, were among the eager volunteers who were there to enjoy a relatively new — but already beloved — tradition: the annual family reunion and apple harvest.
By noon there were about 55 people ready to work. All 10 children of the four Polsinelli brothers arrived with everyone bringing food. A row of picnic tables set up at the orchard's edge groaned with homemade dishes — Italian specialties like arancini (rice balls), zucchini pie and fried artichokes, a family favorite made by matriarch Mary Polsinelli, 82, of West Hempstead.
But before the feast, there was work to do and everybody grabbed a bushel basket and got to it. About two hours later, 100 bushels of shiny Gala, McIntosh and Golden Delicious apples sat under the farm sign, waiting to be carted home. A white slip in each bushel identified its owner, and in the coming months, family members said, the apples would be munched on as snacks or baked into pies and turnovers for the coming holidays.
"Everybody is really appled-out after a few months," jokes Paul, who lives in Syosset.
Many Long Island families plant a tomato patch in their backyards or frequent local farm stands to buy fresh produce in the fall. For the Polsinellis, their half-acre orchard is yet another opportunity for togetherness in a family that gathers for all major holidays — from Mother's Day to Christmas. On the Fourth of July they go en masse to the beach, and for Easter, they make homemade pasta like their grandmother did, says Marie Polsinelli, 55. To give the family cooks a break, they sometimes have a holiday dinner at the Cold Spring Country Club.
"Some families do very little together," says John Polsinelli, 59, of Bellmore, who owns the land with Paul, 57, and two other brothers, Tom, 54, of Atlantic Beach, and Vincent, 52, of Laurel Hollow. "But we work together, we do family things together. It's part of our lives and tradition," John says.
A ripe reunion
The roots of the apple-picking reunion were planted decades ago, says matriarch Mary Polsinelli, who rested on a chair as her children and grandchildren picked apples. She was a young mother, recently married into the family, when she first visited the property. "There was no electricity, nothing," she remembers.
Her father-in-law, Vincent Polsinelli, an LIRR mechanic, had bought the 19-acre parcel for $450 an acre after seeing an ad in Il Progresso, the Italian-language daily newspaper. After he died in the early 1960s, his widow, Carolina Polsinelli, used her lifetime LIRR pass to travel daily every spring and summer, from Jamaica to Speonk, to plant tomatoes. At harvest time she brought the crops back to Jamaica to be ground and bottled.
"My mother-in-law used to say, 'When you marry a Polsinelli, you're in for a lot of work,' " the matriarch says.
"When we were little kids, we came here," says John, her oldest son. The boys spent idyllic summer days in the 1960s, running around in the woods and visiting the pumpkin farm next door. At harvest time, the boys would help carry the boxes of tomatoes home to Jamaica, where they lived next door to their grandmother.
Family pitches in
So when Paul Polsinelli had the idea of planting apple trees on the property 12 years ago, his family was delighted to pitch in. "We all went out there with 200 sticks, ordered from Cornell Cooperative Extension," Marie Polsinelli recalls. About five years ago, the trees started producing fruit.
The Polsinelli brothers are partners in the family construction business, founded by their father in the late 1950s. Their projects include water fountains at parks in New York City's five boroughs and some of the city's newer bus shelters. Paul reserves weekends for working on the farm. "He goes out every Saturday and cuts the grass, and this year he netted all the Golden Delicious trees because the bees get to them," Marie says of her husband.
The brothers have resisted offers to sell the property, which Paul estimates is worth "a couple of million dollars." But a sale, Paul says, would end ownership of the land that has been in the family for nearly six decades. "There is some sentimental value, and there are lots of memories attached to that land," he says. The family pays $8,000 a year in property taxes for the farm, which also includes two bungalows and woods.
Over the years there have been plenty of challenges. A fence had to be installed — and then a bigger one — to keep deer from overrunning the orchard. Big trees surrounding the orchard had to be trimmed back because caterpillars were dropping from them onto the apple trees, and having their own feast.
From bust to bumper crop
As harvests go, 2010 was a bit of a bust, but Marie and Paul set out the bagels and coffee anyway that year. "The next year we had a bumper crop," Paul says. He's learned most of what he knows about apple farming by researching the Internet and from a Cornell Cooperative Extension book. "You're fighting against the elements all the time — that's the life of a farmer," he says.
When there's a bumper crop, like this year, there will be more apples than anyone can eat or tuck into a pastry. "Anyone who wants apples, gets them," Tom Polsinelli says.
Marie Polsinelli makes apple turnovers, and leaves a couple of bushels next to the coffee machine at the family business in Jamaica, where she works as a bookkeeper. Vincent Polsinelli bakes them into pies, using his grandmother's recipe, and has even considered bringing a pie to the Statler Grill, a restaurant he owns in Manhattan.
As this year's reunion harvest ended and cars exited down a dirt road, Paul Polsinelli picked one of the last McIntosh apples from a tree branch, took a bite out of the slightly sour orb and savored the day he had envisioned when he planted the trees a dozen years ago. "This is what we planned to do," he says with satisfaction, "just what is happening today."
He knows there are no guarantees that younger Polsinellis will want to carry on the tradition of the harvest and work the land. "Me and my brothers are getting older now," he says, and might not choose to "burden the next generation."
Their children all know the stories about their great-grandfather, who bought the land, and their great-grandmother, who sowed tomatoes there. But family history might not be enough to keep the farm. The kids, Paul says, "are all young. . . . They are all getting themselves set up in their lives. Some are in school and some are working. . . . The last thing they are thinking about is coming out and working on a farmer's field."