Long Island’s top asparagus producer, Lyle Wells, was an 11th-generation farmer whose passion to preserve farmlands remains evident throughout the North Fork today, according to fellow farmers and local officials.
Wells, 62, died Thursday in an accident involving farm machinery in Mattituck, police said. His Riverhead farming roots stretched back to the 1600s.
“There was nobody in the world who had more passion for farming than Lyle Wells,” said Frank Beyrodt Jr., a good friend and fellow farmer. “He truly enjoyed it every single day.”
Wells was dead when first responders arrived at a farm off Sound Avenue after getting a call at 7:20 p.m. Thursday, said Det. Sgt. Ed Frost of the Riverhead Town police.
“It seems to be an accident at this point. The medical examiner will determine the cause of death,” Frost said.
Family members said funeral arrangements were pending.
“He will be missed more than words can express,” his family said in a statement.
The Wells family has grown squash, asparagus and other vegetables on land that has been in the family since 1661.
The Wells Homestead Acres in Aquebogue boasts on its website that it is “the longest running family farm we know of.”
While other farmers did not grow asparagus, Wells did, Beyrodt said. He was the largest asparagus grower on the Island. Each season, Wells harvested from 4,000 to 5,000 crates weighing 30 pounds each and sold them to local farm stands, supermarkets and online grocer Fresh Direct.
“It was one of his gemstones. He took a lot of pride of in it,” Beyrodt said.
The history of the Wells land and family is connected to the history of the North Fork, first settled in the late 1630s. The Phillips Lane farm was bought by an Englishman named William Wells from American Indians in 1661. But even before this land was bought, there were Wellses farming in Cutchogue and Southold.
Lyle Wells continued the tradition.
“He was born and put on a tractor right away and appreciated his mission in life to put a seed in the ground and to grow something with love and to harvest it,” said Beyrodt, of the DeLea Sod Farms family.
That love of the land translated into Wells becoming an advocate for preservation. He served as past president of the Long Island Farm Bureau and also was a former member of the Riverhead Planning Board.
“The loss of Mr. Wells is going to leave a very huge gap in the farm community,” said Robert Carpenter, Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director.
Wells served on many agricultural committees and in many roles at the farm bureau. He worked tirelessly on efforts to protect farmland and was instrumental in the Transfer Development Rights program, Carpenter said.
“He was very passionate and very diplomatic,” said Carpenter, who knew Wells for 30 years. “It goes beyond words what Lyle brought to the community . . . He was just a huge, huge leader.”
Wells also donated surplus produce to Island Harvest, a Bethpage-based nonprofit that rescues surplus food for pantries, said Beyrodt who is on the organization’s board.
Wells didn’t work “a 9-to-5 punch in, punch out,” Beyrodt said. “He would do it until 8 or 10 at night . . . He was very serious and passionate about growing crops that people could use.”
Wells’ father, Kenneth L. Wells had sat on the Riverhead Town’s zoning appeals board for 34 years and also worked for years as a Riverhead school official. His mother, Justine Wells, was once the town historian.
There are only a few of those longtime family farmers left on the North Fork, said former Southold Town Supervisor Thomas Wickham, of Wickham’s Fruit Farm.
“Some farmers are involved with planning boards, and town boards and supervisors, and Lyle was not one of those — he worked the business end of farming,” Wickham said, adding that Wells helped establish sales to Fresh Direct. “He was a fine farmer and a friend and the whole agricultural industry will miss him.”
Wells became a member of the town planning board in 2002, and the board voted to remove him in 2015.
At the time officials gave varying reasons for his removal, saying he had failed to reapply for his position, and that he should have recused himself on a vote where he had a potential financial interest.
Wells denied any wrongdoing and said he thought he was being removed because of his opposition to a pending industrial development.
Wells is survived by his children Jessica de Vera Wells, Matthew Wells and Logan Wells; his partner Wendy Kukla; his brothers Mark Wells and Brett Wells; the mother of his children, Susan Wells; his son-in-law, Carlos de Vera; and his grandsons Laird de Vera and Warner de Vera. He is predeceased by his parents and two brothers, Kent Wells and Scott Wells.
With William Murphy
11th generation North Fork farmer
Largest asparagus grower on Long Island
Donated surplus produce to Island Harvest
Past president of Long Island Farm Bureau
Former member of Riverhead Planning Board