Farm fresh


On a gravel lane just off one of the busiest stretches of Route 114 in the Center, Cris DiOrio, a big, bearded man, was taking tools out of the bed of a pickup parked under a tree.

There was an occasional sound, a hush of traffic from the road. Town suddenly became country as Cris, 29, walked up to an acre of cultivated land to work, he said, on “some irrigation issues.”

Island Time Farm, named by Cris and his business and life partner Kelci McIntosh, rises softly and then dips down, rolling back to a tree line. About half of the farm is cultivated with vegetables, herbs and flowers. The rest, Cris explained, is “cover crop,” different types of grasses that will infuse nutrients into the soil. When it’s ready, the cover will be mowed to plant cash crops.

Kelci, 30, was picking a few weeds from a long row of mint, the green leaves gleaming in the overcast day. Farming is hard work, a visitor observed. Kelci said, “Not really,” which brought a short laugh from Cris, who said, “I think it’s hard work.”

Kelci said she meant the really hard work is “the mental strain,” worrying about what you’ve put in the ground, “keeping it healthy,” and how weather, weeds and bugs will affect your labor.

The hard work — mental and otherwise — started last October when the couple took over the plot and cleared it, cutting down thick mugwort and goldenrod by hand with a weed wacker. Now 32 varieties of flowers and what seems like the same amount of vegetables are growing.

They make it plain that their produce is not “certified organic” — achieving that designation is as time-consuming and arcane as taking holy orders — but what they grow and sell “is all natural.” At the Memorial Day weekend opening of the Havens House Farmers Market “we did really well,” said Cris, who manages the market for the Historical Society.

He went into a tall greenhouse of plastic sheeting attached to a sturdy metal frame. Here the first tiny, fuzzy green tomato buds were peeking out of vines climbing staked twine.

“At the market we sold everything we brought except a couple of bunches of kale,” he said.

Neither of the farmers grew up with any connection to agriculture. Cris was an Island kid, graduating from Shelter Island High School, and went to Middlebury College in Vermont where he helped create a community garden.

Kelci grew up in Washington State and attended the University of Nevada, Reno. She’s an accomplished photographer  — check out her work online for Vice magazine — and worked as a gardener and on farms in different spots around the country, with an expertise in cultivating flowers.

She met Cris in New Orleans three years ago, where he had established himself as an “urban homesteader,” planting a garden and raising ducks and chickens.

“I was at a party and I overheard this guy having a conversation about gardening and we started talking,” Kelci said as she tended a row of thyme and parsley. “I thought, ‘He’s cute.’”

A year ago, Cris felt the pull toward home and they moved to the Island.

Their operation is funded on a shoestring, built with sweat equity and Islanders helping out. “The community has been so generous, it blows my mind,” Kelci said.

They’ve salvaged materials from the Recycling Center and taken gifts, such as the frame for the greenhouse, which once supported a carport.

Island Time Farm is not just the story of two young people finding their places here, but is also about continuing a tradition. The couple leases the property — at very acceptable terms — from Jay Card Jr., the commissioner of public works, whose father and grandfather both worked this piece of land.

Before Kelci and Cris took over, and while it was lying fallow, “it was killing me just seeing it vacant,” Mr. Card said. The couple’s work has brought to life — literally — a significant time and place from the past for Mr. Card.

Jay Card Sr. farmed the property with his wife Marge and owned “Card’s Cabins,” the small houses nearby. He had a farmstand on Route 114 — “blackberries as big as your thumb,” Mr. Card said. Cris remembers the stand as a boy and plans to put up a new one at the same location.

The whole family worked the property, Mr. Card said, with his stepmother Marge working as an equal partner managing the business. She developed the flowers side of the farm, he said, seeding and transplanting the varieties. His sisters, Jennifer and Brenda, ran the farm after Mr. Card Sr. passed away in March 2010.

When he was boy, Jay Jr. contributed by pulling weeds, “eating vegetables right out of the garden,” he said, digging stones from the ground and pitching them into the trees. It might have developed his arm for baseball, Mr. Card said, not entirely kidding.

With the farmstand up and stocked by the end of this month, Cris and Kelci will monitor the operation to find out what’s selling and what’s not. If flowers are the true cash crop, they can concentrate more on that.

Someone remarked while standing just below the dip of ground that it was so quiet you could be miles away from everything, even though you’re close to the state road.

Kelci, looking up the rows of crops toward the dark green wall of trees, smiled. “Yes,” she said.