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  • Bobcat Bonagura

Farmer Profile: Interview with Conner Pangia, Happy Now Farm, Brentwood, NY

Interview by Bobcat Bonagura

TNF:  Tell us a little bit about yourself and your farm.  

Conner: I’m Conner Pangia, I’m 28 years old.  I run a small vegetable farm, Happy Now Farm on ⅓ of an acre, in Brentwood, NY at the Sisters of St. Joseph, which is a 220-acre monastery in Central Long Island.  There are 6 farms on the property.  This is my 3rd season in production.  Next to my farm is a nonprofit farm, Strong Youth, that works with kids at risk and is managed by the Peconic Land Trust.  

I also build and maintain vegetable gardens.  I help Sang Lee Farms with their markets on Saturdays, and I sell my produce at the Huntington Farmers Market on Sundays.  I absolutely love growing food.   Everybody eats and I love to provide high-quality food.  I’m starting with veggies because it's the easiest and most approachable, especially since there are some good programs offering leased land.  

When I’m not farming, I play guitar and like to catch the sunset. I love to get out on the water and paddleboard or sail, but in winter - when I have more time - I snowboard. I couldn’t run the farms with my wife who is so supportive. 

TNF:  Do you have any employees?

Conner:  On my farm, my wife helps with the farmers market and I have one part-time employee. At the nonprofit, the middle of the summer gets tricky because there is a lot of work  - between donating all the food and the camps and mentor groups - it’s a lot to manage.  There are 50 acres that were preserved in 2015.  

TNF:  What made you decide to get into farming and what were you doing before you started farming?

Conner:  Different YouTubers and books, such as Curtis Stone inspired me.  I was working at a pizzeria and doing some house painting.  When I was 18, my grandparents' neighbor got back from a permaculture design course in Costa Rica and I thought, ‘That’s a great excuse to travel’.  So my brother and I went down there to take the course.  It totally just blew me away.  We lived on 82 acres off the grid, learning about waste management systems and better ways to live in harmony with the land.  That was 9 years ago - my first exposure to agriculture and a different lifestyle.  We were planting different trees, cooking food together, feeling like a little community, and learning about different ways to live in harmony.  I recognized where food comes from and learned to manage waste and different systems.  It all really shifted things in my mind.  I had been really lost in my first semester of community college and didn't really know what I wanted to do with life.  The experience in Costa Rica exposed me to a life that was closer to nature.  

Eventually, I took a 1-way flight to Hawaii to take care of a small vegetable garden where I met my wife. That experience led me to work at Elijah Farm in Huntington where I worked with kids with autism to run a 100-person CSA for two years.  Then I went to Orkestai Farm in Oyster Bay, a 2-acre vegetable farm that also works with kids with autism.  Finally, 3 years ago I started the farm at the monastery with my friend Andrew.  Eventually, it was too much for Andrew, so he left but I stuck with it.  

TNF:  Tell us how you started with Happy Now Farm?

Conner: I was working on other farms to gain skills and I felt like I was getting to the point where I might be able to start my own small farm. I started asking around and a board member told me the sisters at St Joseph were looking for farmers.  I immediately said, “Can I please apply for that!”  It was pretty straightforward and seemed like a good opportunity.

TNF:  What are some of the challenges you face farming there?

Conner:  It’s extremely windy so overhead irrigation is tough.  I live 35 minutes away so it’s tricky because I should be there at least once a day to maintain the nursery and it’s just tough .  to always fit in the trip and the work with my other obligations.  Other challenges are weeds, my skill level - I'm still learning so much, pest pressure, water availability, and resources.  

I use a lot of row cover and a lot of landscaping fabric and I think I’m going to need to use more.  Also, more dripline but I get really frustrated with drip line sometimes.  I set up timers this year so that’s been great but I’ve also gone over my water budget because I had a leak somewhere.  

Time and timing are also tough.  Harvesting everything and getting it to the market often means I leave the farm at 9 at night and then I have to be up really early the next morning.  I juggle the needs of the farm and being at the market with landscaping clients that are willing to pay so much that it’s hard to say no to the work and income.  (We also live in my parent's basement to save money!)  But it also means I leave Saturday market and go and do landscaping and then wake up early the next morning to do it all again.  It’s exhausting.  Economically it’s continually getting better, and I know I’m getting better at growing all the time so I feel hopeful.

TNF:  What are some of the joys of your current farming situation?

Conner:  Definitely the kids. I really like exposing kids to agriculture and seeing the satisfaction that they get from pulling out potatoes and eating a fresh carrot and wondering “Why does it taste so good?”  I also really like going to the farmers market and all the appreciation from the customers. It feels like meaningful work knowing that my time is valued and that it’s important.

TNF:  What’s it like farming on Long Island in particular?

Conner:  It’s good soil - sandy loam, not much clay - which is really nice and there seems to be a good market for what I grow.  It’s a densely populated area and there are fewer and fewer farms so there’s much growth potential for farmers if you have land. It’s also really warm since it’s buffered by the ocean. The winters aren’t really harsh at all and there is a lot of sunlight.  I would really like to be a 4 season farm eventually.  The downside of faring here is also the dense population though, and dealing with driving and traffic. 

TNF:  How has your farm changed over the last few years?

Conner:  I started using more weed mat and tilling. I started out no-till and added a lot of compost, but then my friend let me borrow his tiller. It was so much easier to get beds prepped and ready to go. I like no-till, but tilling makes sense for some things. I got a salad spinner this year - you know a converted washing machine - and it’s a game changer.  This is my second season with a greenhouse for nursery stock and I couldn’t do the farm without it now. Since I live a half hour from the farm, I still have to start everything under lights indoors at home so I can water them twice a day, but then I bring them to the greenhouse.  Last year, I built a walk-in cooler in a trailer somebody donated to me and put in a CoolBot.  This means I can harvest a day or two early and get to two markets on the weekends.

TNF:  What are your hopes and plans for the future in your farm journey?

Conner:  Strong Youth received a big grant from the DOL so we were able to hire 6 part-time youth for the nonprofit farm. They’ve been able to help the other 6 farms on the St Joseph site.  

At Happy Now Farm, I’m hopeful I can be an example of a profitable farm so that kids can see it as a potential career.  This farm is mostly to educate and inspire people. 

Ideally, I’d like to buy a one or two-acre lot so that we could have a farm and live on it or at least within a half mile.  This would make farming so much easier and I hope I could stop my extra landscaping jobs. If we ever have a family, I want the farm set up in a way so I can still be around and have meals together.  I’m exploring another lease option at the Jamesport Farmstead in Jamesport and also a 3-acre option out in Mattituck, where there’s been an organic farm for 10 years so there’s some infrastructure. But it’s hard to know what’s right for me and my scale. 

TNF:  What are your favorite vegetables to grow, cook, and/or eat?  

Conner: My favorite is probably cherry tomatoes (I just had my first cherry one today, so it’s on my mind).  They are a snack in the field! Hakurei turnips are my favorite in the winter, oh, and garlic, just because it smells and tastes so good.

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