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On the Road: Farm Stands of the Hudson River Valley, NY

Posted: 10/07/10 11:47 AM ET

The Hudson River stretches 315 miles from the canyons of Manhattan to Lake Tear of Clouds in the Adirondacks Mountains. The area commonly referred to as the Hudson River Valley extends from Northern Westchester and Rockland Counties on the south, nearly 100 miles north to Albany.

The long valley is bordered by the Shawangunk ("The Gunks") and Catskill Mountains on the west and the Taconic and parts of the Appalachian mountains on the east. Nestled between is a wide and lush central valley with rolling hills leading up to the surrounding mountains.

The river and valley were formed some 13,000 to 25,000 years ago by the retreat of gigantic glaciers of the last ice age. The lower half of the river, up to Troy, is a tidal estuary and not truly a river. An estuary is a partly enclosed coastal body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it. It is a transition zone between the salty sea and fresh water of a river. Specifically, this lower portion of the Hudson River is a type of estuary referred to as a drowned river. A drowned river is a narrow band of land that was previously above sea level that becomes submerged as sea level rises. With the melting of glaciers at the end of the last ice age, sea level rose and water flowed into this now "drowned" area. I go into this in some detail because with global warming and rising sea levels we may be getting to know this term much more than we might like.

The river is named for Henry Hudson who sailed up the river in 1609 for the Dutch East Indies Company. The area was originally settled by the Dutch, British and French as those colonial powers jockeyed for supremacy. It was a major battleground in the 1750's of the French and Indian War -- of James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans fame. British victory insured brief British domination of the area until the American Revolution. The British strategy in the Revolutionary War to cut the colonies in two along the Hudson Valley failed as the colonists prevailed and the British retreated to England.

The Hudson River Valley's early economy was built upon lush pastures and proximity to the river. The river provided access to the growing population center of Manhattan and to seas to distant lands. The river also powered mills. As our young country grew and industrialized, proximity to the river continued to fuel the area's economy as factories moved up river and into the heartland. In 1825 the completion of the Erie Canal linked the Hudson all the way to the Great Lakes. In 1887, Edison Machine Works opened a factory in Schenectady. A merger in 1892 with a Lynn, Massachusetts company transformed Edison into General Electric.

With the golden egg of industry came industrial pollution. In 1966, Pete Seeger's Hudson River sloop Clearwater began to cruise river towns to call attention to the impending death of the river. In 1976, all fishing was banned on the upper Hudson and in 1983, a 200 mile stretch was identified as a Superfund site. It was not until 2009 that GE began dredging the river to clean-up PCB's. This Saturday's New York Times had an editorial about GE's Latest Maneuver to put off the second phase of the river clean-up.

I grew up in Yonkers, a community along the Hudson just north of New York city in Lower Westchester County. The movie theater in mid-county White Plains was about as far north as I ventured -- save for an occasional teenage romantic stroll with an occasional girlfriend around the reservoir in Valhalla. White Plains was where the annual area high school basketball tournament was played. This was also when small schools from places called Putnum and Dutchess Counties competed in Class B and Class C divisions. My Roosevelt High School was strictly Class A - by virtue of its size. Anything beyond White Plains I simply thought of as "the land to the North." The kids from these schools might as well have been from some foreign land as far as I was concerned.

Proximity to New York City continues to be a determining factor in defining the character of the counties that line the Hudson and comprise the Hudson River Valley. In total, about 1 million people live in the six counties usually thought of as comprising the Hudson River Valley. Putnam and Orange are closest to New York City. Putnam County, just above Westchester on the east side of the river has a population of 293,562, a density of 349 people per square mile and a household income of almost $90,000. West of Putnam County is Orange County -- population 383,532 and a density of 418 per square mile. Orange County's household income is about $70,000. These southern counties are substantially bed room communities for commuters to New York City. These are relatively affluent and densely populated suburban areas. Contrast with the two remote northernmost counties of Columbia and Green. These rural counties have a combined population of about 110,000, a density of about 85 per square mile and household income about half of Putnam County.

Hudson River counties are linked by a series of bridges that include the Bear Mountain Bridge, pictured above, just below West Point, the Newburgh-Beacon, Mid-Hudson (at Poughkeepsie) and the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridges. It is of note for Philadelphians that from the time of its completion in 1924 for a period of 19 months, the Bear Mountain Bridge was the world's longest suspension bridge until it was eclipsed by the Ben Franklin Bridge that links Philadelphia and Camden.

I began my journey to this "land to the north" with a 200 mile Thursday afternoon drive from Philadelphia to Kinderhook, in Columbia County -- about 20 miles from Albany. This was the most distant of my series of farm stand drives and connected to a Saturday rendezvous with my brother-in-law, who has a nearby home in Tuxedo, NY. Our plan was to share the bounty of my travels for his Sunday birthday lunch..

I arrived in the late afternoon to the town of Hudson where I planned an 8 PM dinner at Local 111 -- a restaurant known for its use of local ingredients. I had made no overnight arrangements, assuming I would easily find an a familiar Holiday Inn-like accommodation before dinner. I didn't want to have to go on this hunt after dinner. A brief stop at Local 111 for some overnight guidance yielded little. So I was left to the guidance of my trusty GPS and recently acquired 3G-enabled iPad. Though there were nearby bed and breakfasts, I am not the bed & breakfast type. For me, the ideal barber is the one who doesn't talk and the ideal accommodation is clean, comfortable and anonymous. Well, it turns out that as miraculous as I find my GPS and iPad, they are not able to conjure a clean, comfortable, anonymous...and familiar hotel/motel within easy driving distance of my 8 PM reservation. I picked an innocuous sounding establishment about 15 minutes away -- just enough time to check-in and return for dinner.

My short drive from Hudson to my motel took me through beautiful countryside and a preview of my next day's journey. The setting sun lit up the field of purple flowers pictured above. I would see similar lovely purple fields frequently through my trip. It was only when I returned home to Google that I discovered that these are fields of Purple Loosestrife, an invasive plant species that is wrecking havoc and depriving habitat to friendlier species. Mother Nature is not always a benign mother.

There were ample hints that something could be amiss regarding my chosen motel. First, my GPS denied knowledge of such a place. Only my iPad would guide me. When I pulled up I saw but one car in the barren roadside parking lot. Next, as I rang the bell to the locked office, I was greeted at the door by a shoeless, t-shirted gentlemen, who for $65 provided me with a frown and key to my room. Now, I have slept in a fair number of far-away third world countries. I trained for the Peace Corps in Brazil in the Sixties. But I can tell you that never have I stayed in a place as dirty and rundown. My dinner reservation provided no time to tuck tail and run so I deposited my bag and headed back to the warmth...and cleanliness of Local 111. Such are the perils of an intrepid farm stand hunter!

The following morning...early...I began my quest for farm stands. With the help of the internet and Fresh from the Farm, a book by Susan Meisel & Nathalie Sann, I had mapped an ambitious Friday itinerary that stretched the Hudson River Valley from north to south and close proximity to my Saturday rendezvous. There is a long family farm tradition here dating back to the late 17th Century. But, as we know, the life of a family farmer in today's food chain dominated by large industrial farms is neither an easy or necessarily successful path to business survival. Farmers make difficult choices. Many family farms have been sold off to developers and, in some instances, abandoned. Thursday's New York Times featured an Our Towns article by Peter Applebome about the dashed hopes of government assistance to family farms - Promised a State Lifeline, Family Farms Are Still Waiting. Applebome noted New York's failure to deliver support first promised to a farmer in 2006 as part of an ambitious assistance program. It turns out that New York has spent only "$86 million to preserve 170 farms while Pennsylvania has spent some $710 million to protect 3,928 farms on 428,000 acres."

My late August drive coincided with the start of the Tea Party's tea pot seriously boiling over. The area I was driving through has seen better times. As noted, area household income in the northern counties is about half of Putnam County to the south. Driving around by oneself, even doing something as entertaining as searching for farm stands, leaves time for reflection. I was struck by signs on many a pole that simply advocated: Just Vote Them OUT! It's a non-partisan primal scream of disaffection from our political class.

My first stop was at Samascott Orchards. Samascott is a large 1000-acre family farm started in the early 1900's with a focus on dairy cows. In the 1960's it grew from 180 acres to its current size and shifted its focus to apples. Today, Samascott grows 50 varieties of apples beginning in the summer with Ginger Gold.

In addition to apples, Samascott grows a variety of other produce, but apples are the thing here and the produce offerings modest. Though Washington State leads the nation in apple production and outproduces #2 New York about five to one, apples are New York State's highest grossing single fruit or vegetable.

Clearly what you see at a farm stand is just the end result of lots of hard work behind the scenes. It is actually rare you see behind the scenes. Here are Hispanic workers at Samascott shucking a mountain of corn.

Great Performances is one of New York's great caterers. Katchkie Farm is their 60-acre organic farm in Northern Columbia county that furnishes produce for their events as well as a number of cafes operated by Great Performance in New York.

Livestock and dairy account for nearly two thirds of the economic value of New York State farm products. Chaseholm Farm is a 350 acre dairy farm.

New York ranks third in milk production after California and Wisconsin. Pennsylvania ranks fourth.

It is interesting to note that worldwide, India ranks first in dairy production followed by the United States.

Ronnybrook is a large family owned dairy farm that produces Ronnybrook branded products ranging from super premium ice cream and bottled milk, including a richly wonderful chocolate milk to a drinkable yogurt. The farm store, it turns out, was only open on weekends, but Ronnybrook's checkered brand was familiar throughout markets in the Hudson River Valley.

The creation of childhood friends Rory Chase and Peter Dressler, The Amazing Real Live Food Co. produced its first cheese at Ronnybrook Farm prior to setting up their own facility in a renovated chicken coop at Chaseholm Farm. Amazing's market niche is that their farmers cheeses, queso blanco and ice creams are probiotic. Probiotic products include good live bacteria like acidophilus typically found in yogurt. The live bacteria puts the live in the Amazing Real Live.

Inevitably, it seems when I begin my farm stand journeys I despair of ever finding something really unusual to share with you. As I began the day in the sparsely populated and densely farmed northern reaches of Columbia County, there was no shortage of photogenic farms along the road. Farm stands were another matter as there are just too many farmers to set-up a farm stand to sell to farmers. My despair expired upon my arrival at the vaguely eccentric and modest Double Decker Farm. The farm stand was not housed in the structure pictured above. That seemed to serve primarily as a storage shed. Rather, self-serve honor system produce was neatly priced and on display on outdoor tables.

The farmer is a former college administrator who was terminated from his position the day following a foray into unionizing his colleagues. Some years later, the result of a financial settlement enabled a career change and the establishment of Double Decker Farm.

Despite the self-service nature of the stand, the farmer, who was sorting tomatoes across the yard, was happy to tell me about the varieties of garlic and tomatoes he grows. Pictured above are both softneck and hardneck garlic. Softneck is the garlic commonly found in supermarkets. Its name derives from the soft pliable neck opposite the root end. Hardnecks are the variety that produce garlic scrapes -- the virtues of which I have extolled on this blog. The principal hardnecks are rocambole, porcelain and purple stripe. Though there are hundreds of sub-varieties of garlic, they all come from about a dozen primary types. There is a debate among garlic aficionados as to which has the better flavor - hardnecks or softnecks. As a garlic novice, my preliminary verdict is hardneck with sharper, more garlicky flavor.

It's always fun to see how many ways entrepreneurial growers vend their wares.

Here is another.

A drive by Somer Hof Farm in Ancramdale yielded only yet another barn picture. By now it was mid-day and but for Double Decker Farm, my trip was a bit barren. I was getting hungry for lunch.

I headed to "downtown" Ancramdale to seek out lunch and discovered Sommer Hof farm's The Farmer's Wife...literally. Greetings pilgrim. Your search is ended. Dorcas Sommerhof began her catering business in 1989 - the result of a phone call looking for someone to cater a hunt club breakfast prior to a fox hunt taking place on her Sommer Hof farm. Over time Dorcas outgrew her four-burner farmhouse stove. In 2002, she moved into her Ancramdale storefront where a ten-burner stove produces food for her small cafe, take-out shop and bustling catering business. For the road I bought a bag of Sommerhof's Savory Cheese biscuits, promising myself I would only eat a few and save the rest to share with family at our Sunday lunch. Not possible. As my journey continued I ate my way through a generous bag of savory and peppery thumb-sized biscuits -- actually more cracker than biscuit. Upon my arrival back to Philadelphia I looked online and was thrilled to discover that I could order tins of biscuits. I ordered two. The first is long gone and the second sits securely unopened in the cupboard. The Farmer's Wife Savory Cheese Biscuits.

My drive continued over hill and dale and soon I arrived at Herondale Farm...complete with farm store. Herondale Farm produces grass-fed beef and lamb and pasture-raised chicken and pork and sells both retail and wholesale. Customers include the famous Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barn in Pocantico Hills. Herondale's May 25th website posting featured the job description of the farm manager they were seeking. By July 16th, Hernodale welcomed Stephan Clark -- their new farm manager. Their farm store includes produce from neighbor Sol Flower Farm.

The heavyweight champion of my tour was the McEnroe Farm Market on Route 22 between Millerton and Amenia. More a farm supermarket, McEnroe sells products from its 800-acre organic farm. This large family enterprise was started in the 1980's with the joining of the neighboring McEnroe and Durst families. The scope of its products is awesome. Products include vegetables, fruits, poultry, beef, lamb, pork and plant starts. In addition, it sells organic compost and soil. The ambitious market also sells lunch and prepared food including dinner to go...as well as homemade ice cream.

The McEnroe Organic Farm includes a significant education component that includes a Victory Garden, used as a test site and staffed by the Victory Volunteers and an area artists community as well as school tours and an internship program for aspiring organic farmers. Pictured above is McEnroe's Harvest Calendar.

By virtue of size and mission, McEnroe is clearly a leader in its industry. Marketing efforts included a Locavore Festival heralded by a friendly scarecrow.

Much of what is grown on Hudson Valley Farms is not exactly grown for you and me, but to feed the livestock that makes up nearly two thirds of the value of Hudson River Valley agriculture.

Picturesque haystacks disappeared long ago, given way to tightly wrapped and efficiently transported round hay bales -- often wrapped in white plastic for protection from the elements.

Here is a hale bale buffet ready for a small herd of cows in the distance.

In farm country you share the road with locals including a little fraternity of ducks.

I would not want to mess with these guys.

Here a dog took a moment out from enjoying a corn-on-the-cob snack to pose for an On the Road cameo.

And llamas always seem to appear somewhere on my trips.

The leader of the pack.

Many months ago in the beginning of this On the Road series, Christina and I came across this guy in front of a hot dog stand on Route 130 in New Jersey. At the time, little did we suspect that he had a brother who hung out in the Hudson River Valley.

It was late afternoon when I arrived in Annadale-on-Hudson to Montgomery Place Orchards. Founded over 200 years ago, for the past twenty-three years the farm has been operated by Doug and Talea Fincke.

Unlike last year's cold and wet summer, the weather this summer has been sunny and hot -- resulting in a bumper crop of sweet plump fruit and vegetables stretching throughout the Northeast.

Montgomery Place Orchards focuses strictly on its own retail market and its exclusive focus on retail is evident. Its display and signage reflects the same tender care in selling its products that goes into growing its products. In this entire farm to table journey, it is rare that I have seen a farmer take this amount of care. Typically, farmers seem to think that its enough to grow the stuff. But pleasure can be had nearly as much in shopping as eating and Montgomery Place, with its brightly crafted wall paintings and colorful signage is an example of how value can be added to the process for the consumer.

Its small chalk-colored blackboards and little flower arrangements were a delight for the eye.

Speaking of a delight for the eye, Migliorelli Farm's logo gets my summers-worth of farm stand tours award for Best Logo. It has a wonderful play of warmth and tradition, but with a modern feel. Migliorelli Farm is located in Tivoli, New York. In addition to the farm, it operates two farm stands including the one I visited on the road leading to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge.

Migliorelli Farm traces its roots to the 1933 arrival of Angelo Migliorelli to the Bronx from Italy with his prized broccoli raab seeds. From is small east Bronx farm -- in the Baychester area -- Angelo sold vegetables by horse and cart. The Bronx farm continued until 1968 when the last of the Bronx farmland was taken over by what became Co-op City -- today the world's largest housing cooperative. It was then that the Migliorelli's secured land in the Hudson Valley where today they grow more than 130 varieties of vegetables that they sell at their two farm stands and at thirty farmers' markets.

Great stands come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. This simple stand stood in the shadows of the late afternoon sun -- wall-less and dirt-floored, a simple wood structure painted deep green -- mostly roof -- reminiscent of barn boards and with generous wood benches loaded with premium produce.

Included in Migliorelli's vast inventory of vegetables were squash runners -- a first on my farm stand visits -- just waiting for a hot pan, some chopped garlic and good olive oil.

This uncommon Lita squash is a sweet cousin of zucchini.

Migliorelli's was as far as I would get on my Google map. I began the day with a pin-dappled 200 mile itinerary and ended up about fifty miles short -- not too bad. If it was earlier in the summer, with longer days, I could have perhaps made it a bit further. But farm stands, like their farms, march to nature's rhythm and nature was dimming the lights. I had a cooler in the trunk filled to the brim with my day's harvest.

It was time to think about dinner and the drive further south so I could be closer to my Saturday morning rendezvous with my brother-in-law Larry. Our plan was to extend shopping with visits to a few of Larry's haunts. When finished, Larry and I planned a cook-in for Larry's Sunday birthday family lunch with our families. And, of course, I had to find a clean, comfortable, anonymous place to spend the night. Did I mention clean?

On the Table are the results of my Friday Hudson River Valley farm stand tour -- augmented with a little extra shopping Saturday shopping. It would become Sunday's lunch. Roughly counter clockwise from the left: A quart of flame-roasted plum tomatoes, heirloom melon, peach butter, assorted cheeses, raspberries, smoked organic turkey breast, more cheeses (can you ever have too many cheeses?), soft and hardnecked garlic, small sweet orange peppers, Romano beans, beef short ribs, ground beef and bacon (this would become hors d'oeuvres sliders), corn, baguette, varieties of small tomatoes, purple and golden beets, white radishes, fennel flowers, a bowl filled with sweet crab apples, prune plums, doughnut peaches and heirloom tomatoes and a loaf of sourdough bread. Behind the fruit bowl is a bunch of spigariello -- aka known as broccoli leaves.

At the Bryn Mawr Farmers' Market on October 23nd
I will be making a pre-Halloween visit to the Bryn Mawr Farmers' Market on Saturday, October 23rd for a demonstration and book signing. The Bryn Mawr Farmers' Market is located on Lancaster at Morris Avenue between the Ludington Library and Bryn Mawr Train Station.

Coming Posts
These posts will come over the next few weeks as my writing catches up with my travels and I fit my writing into my Frog Commissary responsibilities. If you are not currently a subscriber, I strongly suggest subscribing so you don't miss any of these posts. As always, if you know of someone who might enjoy touring around with me on this blog, please pass it along.

On the Table: Farm Stands of the Hudson River Valley
After some supplemental Saturday shopping, Larry and I turned my Hudson River Valley harvest into a sumptuous Sunday birthday lunch that included barbecue beef short ribs -- long-braised and finished on the grill with homemade barbecue sauce.

An Homage to Blooming Hill Farm
Larry and I began our Saturday at the legendary Blooming Hill Farm where Larry introduced me to Guy Davis, surfer-looking, storefront movement lawyer turned farmer. We had a wonderful breakfast at Blooming Hill and the day ended with their five course vegetarian dinner -- a monthly tradition at Blooming Hill -- prepared by David Gould from Brooklyn's Roman's restaurant. Following this post will be my recipe interpretation of a culinary highlight of summer -- Gould's Summer Squash Soup.

On the Road and On the Table: Long Island's South Fork
I previously did a series of posts from Long Island's North Fork. As Labor Day weekend approached I visited Long Island's South Fork to shop for my annual birthday dinner for my brother Fred at the Long Island home of Fred and my sister-in-law Nancy. Join me for this.

On the Road: Lunenburg and Halifax, Nova Scotia Farmers' Markets
Recently Christina and I retreated to Nova Scotia. Highly recommended. I will share visits to two wonderful north of the border farmers' markets. These included the small town of Lunenburg - set-up in the parking lot shared by the hockey rink and curling club and the Halifax farmers -- established in 1750 and the oldest farmers' market in North America.


 
 
 

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