“If you had asked me when I was a kid if I wanted to be pulling weeds and playing in the dirt for a living, I would have said, heck no!” stated Amy Halsey, of the Milk Pail in Water Mill. “But I actually love it. I love being outside, being in the soil and watching things grow. I think it’s nothing short of miraculous. Watching the little leaves unfurling from a tree, the grass turning that bright, deep green, the blossoms blooming, the bees knowing they’re supposed to be here, and the animals having their young is exciting to me and yet.” Dhe added, “It also makes me realize how minute we are in the big picture.”
A 12th-generation Halsey, Amy Halsey-Cohn and her sister Jennifer Dupree are co-owners of the well-known farm market and U-Pick on Montauk Highway in Water Mill, which celebrates its 50th year. The two sisters took over the business from their parents, John and Evelyn Halsey, when they retired.
“My father wanted to be a dairy man his whole life and went to college to learn but my grandfather, Everett Halsey, a potato farmer, said he was crazy and would never find a woman who would want a stinky old farmer,” she said. But John Halsey has a dairy farm for nine years, and during then he met Evelyn Halsey at the Blue Moon bar that was in Southampton. It was on their honeymoon that they imagined a small retail store, the Milk Pail, to sell their milk and vegetables.
“They also introduced apples from my mother’s parents, Max and Ruth Skou’s orchard in Vermont,” Halsey said.
“Believe it or not, they used to meet on the road halfway between Water Mill and Vermont and fill up a truck with the apples from my grandparents’ apple orchard. My grandfather had worked for Grumman and when he retired, he bought the orchard in Vermont and kept it as a hobby.” The apples were a big hit and the following spring, the Halseys started their own orchard, incorporating new growing techniques developed by Cornell University.
In keeping with the family’s farming tradition whose roots date back to the 1640s, Halsey attended SUNY Cobleskill, earning a horticulture and plant science degree. A pioneer in Cobleskill’s program, Halsey requested an internship in Europe. “I always wanted to see Holland. The Dutch and Germans are so innovative in the flower world. I think it’s amazing how they reclaimed land from the sea. They’re really smart people and they grow plants really well,” she noted.
Halsey was accepted and worked with Tuincentraum De Bosrand in Holland. With the assistance of the Van de Wetering family in Jamesport, she lived with the van der Holst family in Wassenar during her four-month internship.
Reminiscing, Halsey admits that she was a very quiet person throughout her schooling and remembers when she told her parents she was going to Holland for her internship. “They took me to the airport and I just got on the plane and left. They were standing there going, ‘What just happened?’ I’d never been away from home. I was immediately homesick and everyone was speaking Dutch. I called my parents and said I wanted to come home. But, by the next day, I was fine and I never looked back. I didn’t want to come home when the internship was over. I loved what I did, I loved the people, and loved the area. It was an awesome experience.”
Amy’s sister, Jennifer Dupree has her degree in pomology with a degree from Cornell University. “With her expertise in the growing and marketing of fruit, Jen handles the production and mechanical end of the farm and also added peaches, pears, and some blueberries to the farm. I do the artistic sales end at the store,” Halsey explained. “We have different personalities and it actually works out well.”
“I consider myself a very lucky girl. I’ve been married for the past nine years to Austin Cohn. He’s an equine dental professional. We met when I was riding at a local stable and we liked each other instantly and kept bumping into one another sort of accidently on purpose. He’s super supportive,” she added.
“Jen has two children, Will and Kay. Will is 10 years old and ready to take over the family business. I’m pretty sure Will was born with boots and a cowboy hat,” she said. “Kay is six, and still busy being a kid. My mother still helps out in the store and my father spends a lot of time with his grandchildren on the farm. He just bought a new lathe and is busy doing some woodworking projects and putting some of the items in the store. He also does the farm tours and gives the whole run-down on how the farm started, how it progressed, why we changed from milk to apples. He tries to inform the public how it gets from a seed to a tree to an apple to your mouth. It’s not a ride to the grocery store,” she said.
“I’ve been farming since I was three and a half,” Halsey stated. “And I feel that people have lost connection with the process. People come into the store in May and ask why we don’t have any apples. People don’t understand that it takes a year to produce them and that there are all these components that go into one little apple. During the time they are growing, you are maintaining them, feeding them, pruning them, harvesting them, and storing them. It doesn’t just happen.
“The big supermarkets bring their fruits and vegetables from all over the world so people are used to walking in and getting an avocado whenever they want it. I think that’s why there is such a disconnect. I feel that I am here to help educate as well as provide food. I’m also very passionate about life and that’s what farming is: the circle of life.”