Neighbor: Peter Garnham, Renaissance Man

Peter Garnham
Peter Garnham

“Been there, done that” could easily describe Peter Garnham’s professional life. Except the verb tense would be wrong. A wiry, compact man of intense energy and ready humor who lives “south ON the highway,” Garnham seems always to be in the forefront of significant East End initiatives.

Today, he could boast being the chair of the Trustees of the Amagansett Historical Association and a founder and director of the Food Pantry Farm at ECCO (East End Community Organic Farm)—if he were a boasting man, which he’s not. Born and schooled in London, Garnham is arguably one of East Hampton Town’s most community-minded individuals. He willingly offers to assist in various endeavors because he believes in causes and likes problem-solving. But once he gets involved, someone will inevitably say, “Hey you know about this stuff, why not become a board member or the executive director?”

The irony of his current activities with the Food Farm Pantry doesn’t escape him. He started out decades ago in England, studying in an “Ag” school, hoping to be a farmer. But, well, other activities intervened, among them working for Ian Fleming just as the first James Bond movie was coming out. He was hired as a fact-checker and proof reader—a “co-conspirator,” he says drolly.

After Fleming died, Garnham went to work for the British government, arriving in the States in 1964 to work for the U.S. government as a “communications engineer.” A what?  His weathered, high-cheek-boned face breaks into a grin. A few years in Barbados followed and then it was back to the States—Sag Harbor, to be exact. Whatever the subject, Garnham did it. The range, from researching firearms to organic gardening, is impressive, no matter what the initial prompt. A girlfriend drew him to Sag Harbor, and he was soon assisting Ted Conklin in restoring The American Hotel.

Other East End connections ensued, including running an East Hampton disco-bar called Moon. He instituted a Children’s Night there to give local kids something to do—after clearing out the liquor, of course. The gig introduced him to East End parents who were delighted at what he had conceived and urged him to get involved with the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, where eventually—inevitably—he wound up on the board and as its president. The time-consuming endeavor eventually gave way to a gig as the chamber’s first paid executive director. From there he moved into real estate, heading up the Jack Douglas Real Estate Agency in East Hampton for a few years. And then, typically, intuitively, he and a friend (“the best business partner ever”), Dr. Htun Han, a marine biologist at the Ocean Science Lab in Montauk, got together and opened a real estate office in Amagansett. The collaboration was the first such association of independent realtors. Along the way, Garnham also became an EMT with the Amagansett Fire Department, a position he held for 20 years.

He did well in real estate, but in the greedy ’80s, business had changed from “Hi folks, can I show you a house?” to investment buyers interested only in a “commodity.” His partner, a Buddhist, had more patience, and Garnham was on to other challenges, including a passionate go at promoting recycling within East Hampton Town. At the time, the environmentalist advocate Barry Commoner was promoting composting food waste, an idea that made good financial and ecological sense. So much money was being spent on trucking away waste, the heaviest portion of which was garbage. Why not compost it? Enter Peter Garnham, Recycling Information Officer for the Town of East Hampton. “My job, which was part of the Sanitation Department, started when recycling certain materials became mandatory for town residents.” He held the position until politics intervened, and the position was abolished. He loved the job and the sense of addressing an important need. He already had 22 restaurants from Montauk to Wainscott that had pledged to separate waste, not to mention that the composting facility on Accabonac Road was already built to the tune of $7.5 million. “Now people don’t even know it’s there,” he sighs. “They don’t care about garbage, only that it goes away.”

Suspension of that position, of course, meant that the enterprising Garnham was out of work. But not for long. He soon delved into editorial positions, writing and editing nonfiction books for Grolier’s Children’s Press and then for its new parent company, Scholastic. He also wrote articles for upscale horticulture and garden magazines and “content” for online. Although that semantic distinction between writing for print and the web amuses him, he keeps at the freelancing, while also continuing to work as head of the Amagansett Historical Association and the Food Pantry Farm.  He’s always had an ardent interest in local history, he says, and found himself entreated to join the Board of Trustees of the AHA.

The organization, chartered by the state, is unlike most other historical associations in that it is wholly private. Garnham has already turned his attention to enhancing this 50-year-old tourist site, with new programs planned for the 1725 Miss Amelia Cottage, the 1850s Lester Barn, the Richard S. Jackson Carriage House and now the 1805  Phebe Edwards Mulford House. At the Food Pantry Farm, where he’s been chairman of the board since 2011, he’s leased a couple of acres to raise vegetables for five East End food pantries plus The Retreat. Last year the pantry received 17 tons of organic food, and this year will see a farm stand offering organic produce. Where else, he asks, can he walk around 120 local gardens, pick a leaf from a vegetable and eat it right then with no washing necessary?

Despite his round-the-clock work, Garnham  keeps on learning, having acquired along the way a Master Gardener certificate from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County—“practical knowledge you don’t get in college.”

His passion to probe for answers seems at times prescient. Six years ago he wrote for the White Flower Farm Horticulture Magazine about the hot topic of empty hives and colony death, tracing the problem to memory-damaging chemicals that destroy bees’ sense of direction about where and how to get to pollen fields, ultimately leading to their deaths. No chance that Garnham himself will lose direction. An inner compass always seems to tell him which way the wind will blow.

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