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Tuesday, 22 Jun, 2021

Centuries-old farming custom goes on in Riverhead as Wells household offers lands to county preservation effort

The Wells family has farmed land in Riverhead for centuries, growing vegetables on a 45 acre homestead that has been passed down for generations. ..

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The Wells family has farmed land in Riverhead for centuries, growing vegetables on a 45 acre homestead that has been passed down for generations.

Matt Wells, a 12th generation farmer, said his father, Lyle Wells, was a “fierce advocate” for keeping farmland undeveloped.

“It was one of my dad’s dreams to preserve farmland,” said Matt Wells, 35, who sat in a harvest barn surrounded by boxes of asparagus that were packed and ready for collection. “Not just ours, but all the farms that are still here in Riverhead and Suffolk Counties.”

Lyle Wells, former President of the Long Island Farm Bureau and a member of the Riverhead Town Planning Board, died in an agricultural accident in January 2018. He was 62 years old.

But his family, who have run the farm since 1661, said his dream would go on.

Matthew Wells, 35, owner and operator of Wells Farmskneels next to an asparagus field on property rented May 12 in Mattituck. Photo credit: Randee Daddona

The development rights to part of the Wells family farm – an 11.16 acre section – were sold to Suffolk County with an agreement that it would be used for agricultural purposes only.

Wells said paying the county $ 613,800 not only helps preserve the land, but also helps the rest of the farm survive and repay loans for operating costs and equipment.

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The county conservation program, launched in 1974, has become a model for other such efforts within the state and country, Suffolk county officials said.

“The acquisition also expands and expands a very important block of farmland in the area that is being retained,” said Sarah Lansdale, the county’s planning director. “Building blocks of farmland are important to the entire farming community and farming economy.”

More than 11,000 acres of farmland have been preserved in Suffolk, district officials said.

August Ruckdeschel, Suffolk County’s farmland and open space coordinator, said the conservation program began because “there are serious concerns about the loss of viable agricultural land”.

Suffolk farmland farms annual sales of more than $ 226 million

Wells land, first bought by William Wells, has spawned variations of pumpkin, cucumber, and sunflower. Lately the farm has grown into a top asparagus producer.


Asparagus boxes packed and ready for collection

Asparagus boxes packed and ready for collection at Wells Farm in Riverhead on May 12th. Photo credit: Randee Daddona

The Wells initially grew a few acres of asparagus, but as local demand grew, they expanded to 17 to 18 acres of vegetables in addition to the property they leased in Mattituck. They produce up to 6,000 pounds per season, which starts in May and lasts up to eight weeks.

In addition to growing vegetables to sell in the community, the family has developed a relationship with New York-based online grocery company FreshDirect, Wells said.

Three to six people work on the farm with Wells, who does chores that range from setting up irrigation to paperwork, checking the beetle fields, and preparing the soil for planting.

A delphinium field takes up 2.25 acres, and another seven acres are dedicated to sunflowers. When planting, a variety of crops are required to adapt to demand. Planning takes years.

“You can’t always grow the same thing,” said Matt Wells. “We kind of switch it over when we notice that the market is changing.”


Farm workers harvest asparagus in Mattituck for Wells Farm

Farm workers harvest asparagus for Wells Farm in Mattituck on Wednesday May 12, 2021. Photo credit: Randee Daddona

Susan Wells, Lyle’s widow, said while her children were all helping out on the farm, it was Matt who starred.

“My other kids helped, but Matthew kind of took over and everyone else came in and helped him,” said Susan Wells, who worked on the farm for over 40 years and now owns three greenhouses on the family farm. “We all did. We still are. Like he’s asking me questions every day, ‘Ma, ma. What do you think of that?'”


Susan Wells, widow of Lyle Wells, is ready

Susan Wells, widow of Lyle Wells, stands next to one of the greenhouses at Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead on May 12th. Photo credit: Randee Daddona

Matt Wells’ brother Logan, 24, helps out on the farm while her sister Jessica de Vera Wells, 39, runs Farm Hands, an agricultural school for children and youth in Riverhead.

For Matt Wells, the return to the family farm came earlier than expected.

In 2012 Matt Wells moved to Manhattan where he worked in a whiskey bar. After meeting his then girlfriend, now fiancé, Ella Jane New, 35, they opened up Brahman Yoga in Harlem. When his father died, they decided to move east and run the yoga business from the island.

Farming is likely to stay in the Wells family for another generation as New and Matt Wells welcome their first child, a girl, in August. He plans to further expand vegetable production on the farm while managing ongoing operations.

“When you’re a farmer, you’re not really just a farmer,” said Matt Wells. “You’re a mechanic, you’re a carpenter, you’re a business owner. You must be a jack of all trades.”