When it comes to food, Oyster Bay is widely known for its most obvious delicacy: oysters. However, while the hamlet secured its reputation for farming long ago when it comes to the shellfish, a more traditional farm is slowly and steadily making a name for itself. Orkestai Farm, a one-acre farm located at Planting Fields Arboretum, offers a unique program that not only grows organic vegetables, but also serves in the community in a different way.
Founded in 2012 by Alethea Vasilas and Erin Staub, the nonprofit farm began with the idea of fulfilling a void for young adults with disabilities who often struggle finding a suitable occupation, providing “inclusive, hands-on education in sustainable farming for teens and adults of all skill levels,” according to the website.
Vasilas, who grew up in Bayville, was exposed to farming at a young age. Her father, Peter Vasilas, owns Orient Organics Farm on the East End of Long Island and currently serves as Orkestai Farm’s director of farm operations. The concept of having an organic farm cater to the needs of those with disabilities came from Vasilas’ work with a young autistic woman named Rachel, who declared she wanted to be a farmer after just several hours of working at Orient Organics Farm.
“She fell in love with the calming rhythm of farming,” said Vasilas. “I encouraged Rachel and her mother to go to the state park and ask to try out a piece of land.”
The farm began as SustainAbility, which she and Staub managed until Rachel moved upstate in 2014. But the project was so successful, they have kept it going and changed the name to Orkestai, derived from an ancient Greek word that means ”to dance or to set in motion, to stir up, to raise.” Vasilas said it describes how she envisions a farm: “A community collaboration that needs an orchestra of farmers who work together to grow healthy food and merry people.”
As children on the spectrum age out of the school system and no longer have state funding to support any educational programs, they’re left having to “piece their lives together.”
“People often become isolated and get sidelined because of their disability,” said Vasilas. “Our programs foster healthy living, social engagement and creativity. Our members learn to grow food and feel empowered and confident about who they are and what they can achieve.”
Orkestai offers a sustainable farming program, from late spring to early fall, where students learn how to weed, plant, harvest, compost, set up irrigation systems and build healthy soil while also participating in art, yoga and movement workshops throughout the season. Program participants also enjoy the bounty of their hard work by receiving a box of fresh vegetables every week.
Working on the farm, Vasilas said, is multi-faceted, as it’s both therapeutic and educational.
“It gets people outside, allows them to work with their bodies. Plus, they’re growing food,” said Vasilas. “It’s highlighting the ability, while also allowing them to contribute to the community.”
For those who want to support the farm—and enjoy seasonal, organic vegetables—but do not have the time or desire to commit to farming regularly, Orkestai offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in which people can sign up to become members for the season. Members pick up fresh vegetables every week and volunteer in the field twice per season. The first harvest pickup is June 21, and members can opt to pick up at several selected locations in addition to the farm. Vasilas said they will still accept new members for this season, which runs through Oct. 18.
She said Orkestai has also started to tap into the restaurant market: chefs from Osteria Leana, 2 Spring and Magnolia Cafe at Planting Fields get their seasonal vegetables from Orkestai Farm.
And to further underscore the organization’s mission of sustainability, they donate leftovers to local food pantries, such the North Shore Assembly of God in Oyster Bay or the North Shore INN in Glen Cove.
Other ways of supporting the farm are through direct donations or through fundraisers and workshops. Workshops are held on the first Saturday of every month and the farm’s biggest fundraiser is on Sept. 14, at Planting Fields, where local chefs will cook up the veggies and attendees will be entertained by dance performances.
Visit www.orkestaifarm.org for more information.