Increase in local farmers and markets a sign of the times.
by Anne Pyburn Craig
Besides being backbreaking, farming is a huge gamble. Farmers are constantly at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Fortunately for those of us who like to eat, we’re blessed with a good-sized handful of folks around here who do it anyway.
The state comptroller’s office has the stats to prove it: we are one serious produce-growing region around here. Even relatively thickly settled Orange County is one of New York’s top producers of veggies. Ulster County is second in apple production. Need a beverage with that? The region’s got 39 wineries.
And in so many ways it shapes our reality. Deborah DeWan, executive director of the Rondout Valley Growers Association, points out that when local farmers do their thing we harvest much more than food.
“Supporting local farming keeps our soil protected and our carbon footprint smaller, and preserves all that lovely open space,” DeWan says. “And between agriculture and agritourism, it’s about at the top of the local economy. It’s a multiplier. I think that speaks volumes about the soil around here and the people who work it.”
Opportunities to feast on this bounty are abundant at this time of year. Local farm stands are bursting with the fruits of the harvest and the wonders created from them, from baked goods to artisanal cheeses and infused oils. More than a few offer pick-your-own opportunities, corn mazes, and other ways to make your grocery expedition about so much more than simply stocking the fridge.
“I think one of the things that’s working is how much people enjoy the experience,” says DeWan. “Whether they go picking and get their hands right on the source, or just visit a stand or market, they feel connected to their food in a way you don’t get at a chain store.”
After the trauma experienced when thousands of dollars of carefully nurtured crops were ravaged by Hurricanes Irene and Lee (remember all those floating pumpkins?) it’s been a comparatively benevolent season.
“I think the harvest is bountiful this year and we are very fortunate and grateful,” says DeWan. “That said, some of our fruit growers are having a somewhat less stellar season. There was a cold snap last spring after a warm spell, so apple and pear trees were tricked into budding and then froze. The results vary from orchard to orchard; it’s a mixed bag. But what is being produced is outstanding. And this is prime apple picking time—go grab your stash while you can whether you pick them yourself or hit a stand.”
Many communities have centralized farm markets where you can partake of the wares of a group of growers in one place. “Farm markets are just exploding,” says DeWan. “I think there is a growing awareness of food safety and the food stream in general and that helps.”
So does the fact that market organizers are a creative lot, bringing in music, art and kids’ entertainment. Vibrant markets exist in towns from Woodstock to Marlboro, bringing the growers to the people and the people to the growers, reviving the time-honored concept of the market square with a healthy new twist.
Several farm markets, taking advantage of advances in growing techniques and heightened public interest, keep their farm markets going all year long. “There are new innovations that extend the growing season even here in the Northeast,” DeWan says. “Winter markets are growing accordingly.”
DeWan is especially excited about the newest market, and with good reason. Kingston powers-that-be, and citizens, wrung their hands about what to do with the empty lot created by tearing down a derelict eyesore of a welfare motel, the Kings’ Inn, that had blighted Midtown for years. Then the farmers’ market folks stepped in.
“Some of our members have been going to the new market in Midtown and they say the community has really responded,” says DeWan. “People can use their SNAP [food stamp] benefits there and purchase good fresh food. That’s one of the RVGA’s goals, to partner with the various initiatives that work to get food to the underserved. It’s an ongoing conversation.”
Vendors offering their wares at the Midtown market, which will be ongoing every Tuesday in October, include: Highland Farm, Perez Market Farm, Rexcroft Farm, Slow Roots Farm, Wright’s Farm, Abe’s Falafel, Al Andaluz Catering Co., All You Knead Artisan Bakers, Block Factory Tamales, DFC Distributors featuring olive oil, Keegan Ales, and El Donzante Food Truck.
The Midtown market is a spinoff of the hugely successful one that takes over part of the uptown Stockade every Saturday morning. Organizers’ pride is showing on their website: “The duration of the Market in its inaugural year was scheduled for four months, June through September. Due to the immediate, overwhelming demand for more time, the Market quickly shifted gears and remained open through October. Now in its eleventh year, the Market opens Memorial Weekend and ends the weekend prior to Thanksgiving to allow people to shop locally for fresh items for the holiday. The Kingston Farmers’ Market began with 12 vendors. The Market now has well over 30 vendors…The Kingston Farmers’ Market hosts from between 1,000 to almost 2,000 visitors weekly.”
A recent innovation is farmiemarket.com, an online service working to build a local presence by signing local growers up for its “virtual market.” Customers can order online and have their orders delivered. Farmiemarket tends, at this point, toward the artisanal and niche products, which command a pretty price.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says DeWan. “The farmers operate on a miniscule margin and need to get a fair price. There are getting to be quite a few online buying clubs and we’re all for anything that connects farmer to consumer. At the same time we need to keep local products and healthy organic foods accessible. Eating healthier makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”
The RVGA’s website offers a “What’s Pickin’” guide that will tell you where to find what you’re hankerin’ for, whether it is grass-fed beef, hormone-free chicken, the makings of a fruit salad, or this year’s Halloween pumpkin.
“We’re a small organization—only about 60 members—but incredibly diverse and with the benefit of the outrageously rich Rondout Valley soil,” DeWan says. “One thing that I love is that our membership is so varied. We have family operations like the Schoonmakers, who have been farming for twelve generations, and the Davenports and the Kelders, legacy operations. Then we have new growers, CSAs [community supported agriculture], niche operations who may have been around for ten years or may be just starting. And what is really neat is watching everyone work together sharing knowledge and expertise. The longtime farmers are a great resource for the ones just starting out, and the general attitude is that there’s always room for another farm. There’s a rising tide, what you might call a cross pollination between the generations—old operations and the new CSAs.
“That’s a big piece of what we’re about, farmer-to-farmer networking, building the community across all facets of agriculture, bringing farmers together to meet and learn what they have in common and what assets might be complementary. If this tradition is to survive on this fertile soil, we need that kind of cohesion.”
When two of Ulster County’s most helpful organizations, the Cornell Cooperative Extension and Family of Woodstock, need dollars, as they very much do in the current economic climate, it is to the farmers that they turn. The first annual Hudson Valley Harvest Festival was held on the third weekend in September at the county fairgrounds, and the new endeavor drew high profile sponsors, top-notch local musicians, and crowds. RVGA was there, of course. “We’re very much involved in the Farm to Food Pantry initiative and with Family of Woodstock. We made fresh corn chowder with Rondout Valley corn,” DeWan says.
Advocating for local food and local farms is satisfying work as awareness grows. “People are becoming more tuned-in to where their food comes from, the varieties, the seasonal changes,” DeWan says. “It’s wonderful. We are so blessed to live in a breadbasket here, a cornucopia. Everyone should take advantage of it. It helps all of us in so many ways.”
Right now the RVGA is raising money to match a $25,000 challenge grant from the New World Foundation; they’ve got until the end of the year and are hoping the community will maintain the wonderful Ulster County tradition of stepping up. There is a “love farmers” button on their website, rondoutvalleygrowers.org, where you can donate before or after snooping out the “What’s Pickin’” page to make your grocery list. “Get to know your farmers,” DeWan advises. “Come out to a market or a farm, volunteer at an event, or just ‘like’ us on Facebook. Everything helps.”