The population of the Rondout Valley is growing, and less land is devoted to agriculture than in the past. Still, people continue to farm its rich soil, as they have for thousands of years. The BSP talked to several local farmers to find out more about what it's like to do what they do, and what the present scene might tell us about the future of agriculture in the valley.
Along with Saunderskill and Kelder's Farm, Davenport Farm is one of a few remaining large farmsteads in the valley that have been owned by the same family for generations. Bruce Davenport, its present-day owner, grows produce on about 175 acres, “strawberries, asparagus, spinach, corn, cucumbers – a little bit of everything," he said.
Having the expertise to run a farm of that size is one thing; selling the harvest also requires a lot of time and energy. To make a living not just for himself but for 25-30 employees, Davenport cannot rely only on small, independently owned grocery stores. “In general, it’s been getting harder … because supermarkets don’t really care about carrying local produce as much as they say they do," he said. "Here in New York we have to pay twice as much for labor and twice as much for just about everything. We can’t get the money we need for what we sell, because they can get stuff from Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and California cheaper.” According to Davenport, "local" produce could mean anything within 600 miles. “Which means they can go to Canada and buy produce and put it out on their shelves as local." Some supermarkets advertise themselves as supporting local foods, “yet they will not take a delivery from a farmer. You have to go through their warehouse. In order to go through their warehouse, you have to deliver trailer-truck loads," something only industrial-scale agriculture can do. Supermarket produce managers "get to decide what they buy and what they don’t buy … It’s so much easier for them to get their list from the warehouse and just order from the warehouse."
However, Davenport continued, "we do have produce managers who are great, don’t get me wrong – who want to buy from us, and are all about local, really local. That’s what keeps us going ... Hannaford Brothers, ShopRite, Tops, Whole Foods – those are the better ones that we are actually able to do business with.”
He's also happy to have "an excellent customer base" patronizing his own store, Davenport's, in Stone Ridge. “They pay a little more for pretty much everything across the board” because a small market like Davenport's can’t get the wholesale prices that the big stores get for grocery items. “We appreciate them coming in and buying from us. But our business model has been a little bigger than that, since we have a lot of family members in the business.
"It’s hard for us to watch all the farms going out of business all around us. There used to be 6,000 acres of sweet corn grown in this valley, and now there’s [he estimated 600-700] ... The farmer goes out of business, or dies, and there’s no succession. That’s a lot of generations of agricultural knowledge that’s gone and it’s never coming back." The rest of the corn still grown here is feed corn for cattle, he said. Davenport himself rents some land to a farmer from across the river who grows feed corn. "I’ts coming around to all being field [feed] corn, and field corn is an even more depressing subject, if you ask me," Davenport said. He talked about the poor nutrition people get from eating beef from cattle or pigs that get fed nothing but field corn in feedlots. “The government’s been subsidizing to make it cheap to grow corn…. It all started for a good reason, but there’s no good reason anymore."
Talking about the way food is grown at Davenport Farm, he said, “We’re out here on a hundred and some acres, doing it the way our parents have done it. My father always said to eliminate all the variables … that means irrigate whenever it needs water, use crop protectants whenever appropriate, don’t leave any variables to Mother Nature [that you can eliminate]. We have all the equipment because we’ve been buying it for generations. Organic growers, they’re so much more subject to the whims of nature than we are, and WE can hardly make a living." He has seen people quit the business, imagining them saying something like, "I work so hard and I got nothing to show for it. My shoes have holes in them, maybe I’ll do something else."
“Our business started out just like those guys, two, three, four generations ago. But it’s pretty challenging now … to a large extent because we’re trying to do business in New York state. We have so many strikes against us right off the bat."
Erin Enouen owns Long Season Farm in Kerhonkson with her husband, Sam Zarofsky. They are presently farming 12 acres. Of that land, "we lease most of it, and own a little bit," said Enouen. Using organic farming techniques, they grow "a diverse assortment of vegetable crops. Everything from arugula to zucchini, and all the vegetables in between!" Not every field is producing food every summer. "The fields that are not planted in vegetables are planted in cover crop for the year. We do this to help with our crop rotation and build healthy soil."
Long Season has a smaller-scale business model than Davenport's or the few other Rondout Valley farms of 100-300 acres. "We sell our produce year round on Saturdays at the Kingston Farmers Market, on Sundays at the Beacon Farmers Market, in the winter through our winter CSA program, and through several wholesale accounts we deliver to weekly from June through October: Damn Good Honey Farm in Kerhonkson, Health and Nutrition in New Paltz, Village Grocery in Kingston, and Ravenwood Farm in Kerhonkson."
"We limit the planting size of crops to what we can sell," Enouen explained. "We tend to have a market for all our crops because we focus on what is tasty and productive in our region. I do discontinue crops if the margins are slim, or if the price we have to charge to pay our expenses and payroll to produce them is beyond what I think is reasonable. For example, this season we are not growing storage onions. We grow scallions and fresh onions, but not ones requiring curing and storage.
"The pandemic encouraged people to cook at home, and we saw many returning and new customers eager to try new things,” Enouen said. “While kale is our highest selling unit and has been since our start in 2014, we now see higher sales of other cooking greens such as collards and escarole. We've also dedicated ourselves to growing specialty chicories and radicchios, and now have a dedicated group of customers who enjoy these bitter(sweet) salad greens now, too."
Also in Kerhonkson, Keith and Jennifer Duarte started Damn Good Honey Farm in 2015. They make it work with just 3 ½ acres, but as Keith pointed out, “Bees, they go out 3 miles from the hive," and it's impossible to say how much land they really draw sustenance from. "We grow about 2 acres of produce, and another acre and a half with our pasture-raised chicken.” Their biggest product, however, is their raw honey and honey products.
The family doesn't depend solely on the farm for its income. "I work full-time off the farm," said Duarte. “I’m the athletic trainer for the Rondout Valley School District." Jennifer runs the market and makes honey-and-beeswax soap and skin care products.
They have no employees to pay presently, but "we’re expanding. This year we put in a greenhouse, and we’re currently in the process of building a kitchen.” They don't have a CSA; instead, they sell their products out of their own store on Route 209 (and online). “We also support a lot of other local farms and carry their products,” added Duarte, including Long Season Farm, Back Home Farm, “we get eggs from Three Sisters Farm and Muddy Farm, both in Kerhonkson, a lot of other small producers, Tree Juice maple syrup, they’re friends of ours – we’ve got dozens of products made locally in the area.”
In High Falls, Will Leibee has been growing vegetables organically at Back Home Farm for four years now on a total of 20 acres, which he owns. Like Long Season Farm, his produce gets distributed "through our CSA program, local restaurants and groceries," said Leibee.
Does he thinks it's any easier to be a small-scale organic farmer than trying to do it on hundreds of acres? "I don't think anything in farming is easy!" he returned. "I just grow small scale because that's my personal preference." What he grows is also a matter of what he likes: "I just grow diverse veggies that I love to eat myself and think our customers would love too if they had access to them," plants that are grown with "hands of love," he said. Asked what he envisioned in the future for Rondout Valley agriculture, he said, "I love to see small farms start and hold on. It's a hell of a ride!"
For an overview of long-term trends, we asked Matthew Igoe, executive director of the Rondout Valley Growers' Association, for his perspective.
“The big trend in this area – the older generations are doing their best to keep the younger people in their families interested in farming and keeping the farms going. In some cases that’s working really well, in some cases the next generation doesn’t want to farm, and that land isn’t necessarily being kept as farmland. Sometimes it’s being sold off for housing or other purposes. Those big farms at scale, nobody can buy those anymore. A farmer can’t go out and start a 300-acre farm anymore. No one has 300 acres available this close to the city ... The newer farmers who are coming in are either people buying the older farms who generally have a bunch more money and don’t really need to farm, or they’re leasing land because they can’t afford to own … usually they’re diversified crop farms, vegetables and fruit," and might also have some animals for meat. "Occasionally you’ll find a new livestock person," he said, mentioning Acorn Hill Farm goat milk and cheese, one of the small agricultural operations that lease land on the former Arrowhead Farm in Kerhonkson.
“I haven’t taken a survey," Igoe said, "but I would say the trend is toward sustainability of some kind ... a small farm, there isn’t much inclination to use pesticides, especially if they’re living on it … a lot of those new farmers coming up have a different mentality that those bigger farms. If you have a giant farm and you’re trying to run it with your family, you can see why they use pesticides and herbicides and those conventional farming practices. It makes sense, because you have a much bigger piece of land but a limited supply of people to work it with."
"Very few very small farms are stashing away cash for retirement," he observed. “They’re very much living in the moment, trying to make ends meet."
The future? “It’s really hard to say … It doesn’t seem anywhere near as predictable as what happened before, when people owned the land they farmed." Traditionally, farms have been handed down from one generation to the next. "It’s really hard to see how that would work on leased land … all of the ones I know of where a kid has taken over – they’ve owned that land.”
(Note: This is the first in a series of articles on agriculture in the Rondout Valley.)