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Empire Farm: An Ag Academy For Farmers (And The Rest Of Us)

Photos provided by FarmOn!

By Jamie Larson

We put a lot of stock in our commitment to farm-to-table living in our region. Of course we shop at farmers markets and have a CSA membership and always read the farm lists at the bottom of the restaurant menus. However, there is still a lot more we can do, things we don’t always consider, to support farmers and the industry that so defines the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley. That’s where Tessa Edick comes in.

From her beautiful and historic Empire Farm in Copake, New York, Edick started the FarmOn! Foundation, which supports the small-scale local farming industry though political advocacy, major business partnerships, farmer trainings in modernized practices and perhaps most importantly, educational youth programing to help insure that the next generation sees the value in agriculture and, you know, farms on.

Tessa Edick.

While the season may have shut down the outdoor classes and activities for now, FarmOn! is opening a holiday pop-up shop December 2-17 that will be filled with locally produced goods that support their cause and make for excellent gifts. The shop is also an excellent reason to just come see the bucolic farm and its newly restored 1810 farm house. 

“FarmOn! started with the idea that farmers needed a lobby,” Edick said between farm chores. “When you can’t fight big business directly you have to start in the community.”

“Source local but also allocate your dollars to the right people,” she continued. “I think in New York State we have an advantage because we have such a rich farming tradition, but you still have to be diligent about how and where you shop because consumers drive the narrative.”

Edick, who grew up on a dairy farm and later ran her own successful tomato sauce business, has had a home in Copake since 2000. After selling off her business in 2010 she decided to develop the historic farm down the road from her home. Originally a part of the vast land holdings of the Astor family, Empire was a horse farm and race track. For some time it was the out-of-the-way project for the black sheep of the family while the rest of the Astors played Monopoly with Manhattan real estate.

As wonderful as Empire Farm is to visit, it’s the work Edick is doing through FarmOn! to support other farms that makes it special. And it isn’t just about sourcing; it’s also about training the next generation to have the resources to succeed in the business of farming.

Edick’s first program was Milk Money in 2012 which has gotten 12 Hudson Valley school districts to stock their cafeterias with locally produced milk that’s fresher for the kids — and also purchased at a rate that allows the farmers a living wage (which they don’t receive selling off their stock to big dairy).

FarmOn! grew quickly because of her corporate acumen for bringing in big-name partners and funding. In 2014, the year Edick bought the farm, they partnered with the NBA for “Slam Dunk Your Veggies,” which created school victory gardens and encouraged agricultural entrepreneurship by having kids sell produce they grew (rather than sweets) as fundraisers.

“If you give kids a seed and they plant it and they grow a carrot, and then they make lunch with that carrot, you can change the way they look at food for the rest of their life,” Edick said.

The organization also worked with the Bronx Zoo to create a garden exhibit where visitors can learn about the food chain that underpins what we eat, from the worm in the soil to the chickens’ feed. The idea translated: “you are what they eat.”

FarmOn! also recently partnered with Google to create the Putting Farms on the Map program, which helps people locate and support the farms in their community. Google is matching all donations that come in through the site and donates $10 for every hour a volunteer works at the farm.

Edick said getting Google to come in has really made a difference in bringing tech together with local farmers. While farmers aren’t always the most tech savvy, she said anything that can make things run faster or help the bottom line is a win, whether it’s a management computer program or just updating an old flip phone.

There is also a lot of youth programming at the 220-acre farm itself where they don’t just teach about food and wellness, but the details of how to run a farm.

“We show them that this is not a hobby,” Edick said. “It’s a business that can and should be rewarding. We want to see a world where sustainable, responsible farming is profitable.”

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 11/20/17 at 08:45 AM • Permalink

Raven & Boar Farmers: In Search Of A More Sustainable Life

Photo by Ashley Sears

By Jamie Larson

Ruby and Sather Duke started Raven & Boar in East Chatham, New York, eight years ago with no farming experience, three little pigs, and hopes of feeding their young family and supplementing their income. But word traveled fast about the quality of their heritage breeds and the farm’s sustainable ethos, and now they supply some of the nation’s top restaurants along with some of our favorite markets and events like Basilica’s Farm + Flea.

Despite their deserved success and growing business (including an on-site processing facility currently under construction), farming is still farming and that means hard, seemingly endless work with razor-thin profit margins. The Dukes aren’t ones to complain, but having come to the profession with an outsider’s perspective means they don’t take the inherent hardships of the farm economy for granted. At first blush it might be surprising to hear a farmer say things like “there are too many farmers markets” or “people need to eat less meat,” but that’s what Ruby Duke is saying and she makes some persuasive points about how to make the life of farmers, not just their products, more sustainable.

Ruby Duke with daughter Freia on her back. Photo by Ruthie Brownfield.

“When we started all this we had no intention of being farmers,” said Duke as she waited at the auto body shop for her delivery van to be repaired — valuable time away from the farm. “We were living in Brooklyn in 2007, I was pregnant and we found this house near my mom’s.”

“In 2008 my dad passed away and two weeks later my daughter was born. Six months later Sather was hospitalized. It was a shocking year for us, physically and emotionally. As he recovered, we reflected on what we wanted our lives to be.”

The couple closed their Brooklyn furniture studio and moved it, and their lives, upstate. Though the circumstances were far from ideal, Duke says it was her husband’s secret plan all along.

Inspired by the farm and people they soon came to know at Hancock Shaker Village and a growing affinity for the animals, in 2009, the Dukes raised three pigs acquired from the Village. The plan was to keep one for themselves and sell the others to restaurant connections they had in NYC. It worked as planned and Sather loved getting his strength back. The next year they pre-sold 25 pigs.

A fully broken-down pig and little Kestrel Duke. Photo by Ashley Sears.

From the beginning, the Dukes did all they could to provide feed and conditions that would result in the finest quality cuts and charcuterie. They did a lot of research to provide the ideal diet and living conditions to raise healthy, happy hogs. One of their best tricks is feeding the animals leftover whey from cheese and yogurt produced at Maple Farm in Ghent and the Old Chatham Sheep Herding Company. This traditional practice from Italy results in a totally unique flavor, texture and the meat is naturally more marbled. These are all qualities ideal for charcuterie and sought after by the big name restaurants that immediately came to love Raven and Boar’s products, including Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill, which Eater named the best restaurant in America last year.

“We delivered our first order to Blue Hill in the fall of that second year,” Duke recalled. “They called the next day, which is usually never good, but they said it was so perfect they wanted two pigs a week.”

Needless to say, they had to up production. But they took their time — two years — to rev up to full speed while maintaining their standards. With the pig business as their base, they soon diversified, adding a full vegetable garden, chickens, rabbits and more to their offerings, becoming in no uncertain terms a full-blown farm in just a few years. They even came out with a handsome cookbook, Hudson Valley Charcuterie.

Sather Duke farming in winter. Photo by Danny Christensen.

But as hard as they worked and as successful as Raven and Boar looked, the Dukes were often just getting by. Still relatively new to farming, they began to ask themselves why.

“We were doing everything and then at a certain point we were like, ‘what’s our focus?’” Duke said. “The margins are so tight and the labor energy is so high. And we don’t pay ourselves a salary.”

And when your standards for product quality and sustainability are as high as Raven and Boar’s, every new upgrade to the business seems to add nearly as much expense as it does revenue.

A beautiful cut of pork saddle. Photo by Ashley Sears.

A few years back they realized that to get the most out of what they make they should be processing their meat on site. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, they raised money for their nearly completed farm kitchen. Of course, there were all manner of hiccups along the way but, when completed, the 2,000-square-foot facility will be a major development for the family and their community of excited customers.

“It’s extremely personally rewarding,” Duke says, “and it’s a growing creative process for all of us. But we are both in our 40s, working 18 hours a day. We’re not as young as we used to be. You start to think ‘what’s the end result?’ Is it for us or for our kids? A huge part of it is that we have to sustain our family. We have really high costs and sometimes that’s really hard.”

Raven and Boar’s limited edition cookbook “Hudson Valley Charcuterie.” Photo by Ashley Sears.

Duke says it’s imperative that people who want to have a farm-to-table lifestyle have a relationship with their farmers. While she’s pleased so many in this area do, she feels the dependence of the modern agricultural economy on farmers markets is becoming problematic. The main issue, she says, is that there are just too many farmers markets in areas that are too thinly populated. There’s just not enough foot traffic. She says in Columbia County, for example, you really only need three or four markets distributed in the more high traffic centers (Hudson, Kinderhook, Chatham and Philmont, let’s say.) People would have to drive farther but the consolidated markets would insure better sales.

“That would be way better business for the farmer,” Duke says. “Now, at farmers markets you’re not making any money, you’re just promoting your brand. Who’s guaranteed to make money at a farmers market when there’s low traffic? The market is. The organizers are for-profit enterprises in some situations,” she says, pausing the interview for a moment to take a call from her vet about the status of a weak baby goat. “When you do the math, you think, ‘how am I going to do this?’”

“People need to educate themselves to make a difference in the food system. They need to know their food, their farmer, their chef,” she continued, adding, in what might seem shocking coming from a pig farmer, “and people need to eat less meat… Less meat but better meat, meat that’s better for the environment and better for the sustainable farm system.”

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 06/11/17 at 02:29 PM • Permalink

At Cricket Creek Farm, There’s A Party In The Creamery

Shane Solar-Doherty cuts and weighs the feta.

By Lisa Green

Last year, when Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, Mass. put out a pre-holiday call for volunteers to help wrap cheese, I couldn’t sign up fast enough. I’ve long been a fan of this dairy farm — its artisanal cheeses made from raw milk, its outreach to the community, even its Instagram feed (who doesn’t love piglet pics?). The promise of payment in the form of cheese to take home didn’t hurt, either.

It was the first time the farm had group volunteer days. “I was blown away by how fast, focused and organized everyone was,” said Suzy Konecky, the long-time creamery manager who has recently left the farm. “In past years, we were wrapping cheese until the middle of the night for days leading up to the holidays, and this year we were able to finish up in the creamery at a reasonably hour and save our energies for actually selling cheese.”

Tony Pisano and Shira Lynn get the containers ready for the feta.

During the summer, Cricket Creek Farm sells its small-batch cheeses at farmers’ markets in Troy, New York, Northampton, Pittsfield, Lenox and Great Barrington, as well as retail markets in western Massachusetts, the Boston area and many local restaurants. In the winter, the emphasis is on the holiday markets, and although there is less milk production between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, the farm’s signature cheeses, Maggie’s Round and Tobasi, have been aging for a few months and are ready for holiday sales. Apart from holiday time, Cricket Creek has regular volunteers who show up on Thursday mornings to prepare cheeses for sale, but at this time of year, reinforcements are necessary.

A few weeks ago, the farm issued a Winter Volunteer Work Parties invitation on its Facebook page. And once again, I RSVP’d for another three-hour stint, accepting, in my mind, that the paper booties over my shoes and the required hairnet would not be my best look as I entered the sanitary, slightly humid creamery.

The regular Thursday morning volunteer sessions include volunteers of all ages. Photo courtesy of Cricket Creek Farm.

Since I came later on the second day, the bulk of the cheeses had been wrapped, but there was still the feta to package, so volunteers Tony Pisano, Shira Lynn and I took instructions from Shane Solar-Doherty, who was cutting and weighing the chunks of cheese. Shira poured brine in the containers; I affixed the tops and Tony tagged them with a date code. The bits of feta Shane sliced off to adjust the weights were fair game for us to snitch.

Other tasks at these work parties include counting and stacking repack labels for retailers; wrapping wedges of cheese (neatly, please); sticking on labels; writing thank you notes for mail orders; and, in the bakery, assembling the ice cream sandwiches. Nobody goes hungry while volunteering; the staff sets out cheese and crackers for snacking. In the two pre-Thanksgiving wrapping sessions last week, approximately 25 volunteers wrapped or packaged 300 pounds of cheese.

Photo: Cricket Creek Farm.

And did you know some cheese gets brushed? Last year, I was handed a stiff bristle brush and a disc of Maggie’s Round and told to scrub off the flakey white mold. It’s an important part of “affinage,” the ripening process — the after care, so to speak, that helps improve the flavor of the cheese.

“The actual cheesemaking takes just a few hours,” explained Teri Rutherford, Cricket Creek’s operations manager and volunteer wrangler. “Affinage is a huge part of what we do.”

The farm-to-table culture has become ingrained in our region, but I often regret that I am only partaking in the “table” end of the chain. My hours in the creamery at Cricket Creek bring me a little closer to the source and allow me to show my respect for farms and farmers.

And, of course, I am grateful for my reward — the cheese that will grace my Thanksgiving hors d’oeuvres tray.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 11/22/16 at 11:32 AM • Permalink

There’s Been A Black Currant Resurgence, And Here’s Why

By Abby Luby

How do you rescue a fruit from a century of obscurity, turn it into a local farming industry and sell it as a power drink? 

That’s the first question I asked Hudson Valley black currant farmer Greg Quinn, the mastermind behind the black currant resurgence, and a company, CurrantC.

“It’s always been a labor of love,” he explains. “You have to understand, currants are a totally different animal, different from grapes or raisins. For centuries they’ve been popular in Europe and aren’t well understood in the U.S.”

Quinn pours me his most popular product, a high energy, health elixir called All Natural Black Currant Nectar. When I took my first sip I was struck by its rich, tangy-sweet flavor. It was the quintessential thirst quencher fortified with antioxidants, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, and Magnesium. As I imbibed, Quinn told me the amazing tale of the black currant.

And boy, is he a great storyteller; energized and passionate, the right stuff needed to overturn an arcane law banning black currants. Seems in the early 1900s, black currant bushes were plagued with the fungal disease white pine blister rust that aggressively spread and killed white pine trees, a key staple for the logging industry who successfully lobbied for the ban. Congress allowed each state to adapt the law in any way it saw fit.

Quinn shakes his head as he explains that, although the federal ban ended in the 1960s, New York State kept the law on the books. In 2002 he took on the state and became a dogged fixture in the Capital halls brandishing updated research showing a new fungal-resistant bush which ultimately swayed the powers that be to lift the ban. Up until then, there were only about 15 New York farms growing small amounts of currants but five years later that number grew fourfold and some 67 farms reported growing black currants; 20 were in the Hudson Valley. 

The market demand was there and Quinn literally ushered in a new wave of agriculture. “This region is ideal for black and red currants,” he says. “The rocky, shale-infused soil plus the 1,000 hours of cold they crave makes it perfect.”

He became a full time black currant farmer on his Walnut Grove farm, a 145-acre farm in Staatsburg, New York that he and film producer Carolyn Marks Blackwood purchased in 1999. Quinn’s was the first commercial currant farm in New York State with 10,000 black currant bushes on 18 acres along with 60,000 seedlings sold to regional farmers. “I wanted to create a crop that farmers can actually make money on,” he says. “There’s a potential $20 million industry in black currants.”

Marketing and distribution of the highly nutritious currant was a walk in the park for Quinn. “Within five years after the ban was lifted we were selling our products in about 4,000 super markets country wide and in Canada as well,” Quinn recalls. “We also opened a bottling plant on the west coast.”

Quinn, 66, an avowed foodie, refined his palate in the 1970s as a military officer and translator stationed near the Bavarian border. A fearless opportunist, he opened a small restaurant and discovered Europe’s native black currant bushes growing in the kitchen garden, which soon became a tasty ingredient in sauces and dressings. Back in the U.S. Quinn plunged into cuisine and horticulture, careening between teaching botanical classes at the New York Botanical Gardens and enticing gardeners on Fox TV News as ‘The Garden Guy.’ A born storyteller, he penned eight children’s books about nature. His interest in black currants never waned; he saw the infinite culinary possibilities.

CurrantC is Quinn’s product line and CurrantC™ All Natural Black Currant Nectar, his signature product, is the original American-made Black Currant beverage. Other CurrantC products include frozen black currants, black currant concentrate, CurrantC Black Currant Syrup; many were selling to local and New York City restaurants, ice cream companies and home winemakers.

By 2008 Quinn was about to contract with Starbucks that would have exclusively sold his juice in the ubiquitous coffee shop. But then the economy tanked and it was a whole new ball game. “We were really on the threshold of going global,” says Quinn. “But the bottom fell out, the Starbucks CEO fired all of our contacts and everything fell apart.” CurrantC dwindled down to almost nothing, but Quinn was undaunted. “We knew we had a good product so we had to reinvent the company to an eCommerce model.” The online business kept CurrantC alive and as the economy improved, there was an uptick in the demand. “We’ve built ourselves back up and now we’re back in many local stores and restaurants,” says Quinn. “People who used to buy from us are coming out of the woodwork.”

According to Quinn, CurrantC products are now in Adams Fairacre Farms in Poughkeepsie, many local health food stores, and restaurants including Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, The Corner in Hotel Tivoli in Tivoli, and in Brooklyn, Meadowsweet restaurant. A CurrantC cocktail was served at this summer’s Spiegeltent at Bard.

Quinn has lived through an amazing business arc that began with a single taste overseas to a one-man fight in a political arena to growing and successfully selling a unique product. As he poured me another chilled glass of velvety nectar, he beams, saying that Meadowsweet is using CurrantC juice in a new drink. “They have named the drink after me. It’s called the Mighty Quinn.”

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/15/16 at 04:28 PM • Permalink

Matching Farmers And Wholesalers: There’s An App For That

Patricia Wind picks up produce from Chris Regan of Sky Farm in Millerton, NY. Photos: Farms2Tables.

By Stephanie Wyant

Rhinebeck resident Patricia Wind didn’t know it then, but a dinner conversation with her partner, Clifford Platt, in March 2014 lead to what is now a local food revolution. That night they created Farms2Tables, a solution for the “last mile,” a detrimental roadblock for many Hudson Valley farmers looking to outsource their products to restaurants, grocery stores, clubs and other markets.

Farm2Tables turned out to be so significant, in fact, that it recently won “Best New Product” at the 2016 International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York. Bringing the farmer-to-business transaction into the 21st century, Farms2Tables created a mobile app that allows farmers to connect with buyers and directly sell their products through their phones and tablets. Farmers display and describe what they have for sale, and set the price and availability. Buyers browse the app and purchase what they need, and it all happens in real time. Once an order is placed, Wind and Platt ensure everything gets from the farm to the buyer in less than 24 hours by delivering it in their fleet of temperature-controlled trucks. They also handle the invoicing and payment processing.

As a farmer myself, I’d been struggling with the challenge of delivering my meats to Manhattan while keeping everything fresh, negotiating traffic, and hoping that my GPS didn’t send me 20 miles off course like it usually does. When I found Farms2Tables, everything clicked, and wholesaling my products didn’t feel so daunting. Even better, the app exposes my products and those of more than 85 other farmers to 300-plus buyers who might not normally be accessible. Terrapin in Rhinebeck, Talbott & Arding in Hudson and Simons Catering in Columbia County are a few examples of the kinds of purveyors who are using the app.

Clifford Platt and Patricia Wind accepting their award.

It’s a brilliant connector, but mention that to Wind and she humbly smiles, giving credit to the hardworking farmers, themselves who make the business so successful. “The best part of my job is making a difference for the people who work so hard at what they do,” she says.

The owners’ meeting of the minds during that fateful dinner isn’t surprising considering their backgrounds. Wind studied computer science and hospitality management, and attended the Culinary Institute of America. Platt has a dairy farming background as well as degrees in engineering and law. With the app a proven success, they realized they wanted to bring these same great products to local consumers. Enter the F2T Box.

Similar to the Berkshire Organics produce baskets model across the river, the F2T Box is subscription based and all the details and transactions are accessible through its website. The boxes are available in three different sizes, packed with dairy, eggs, cheese, fruits, vegetables, proteins and sometimes even extras like butter and herbs (recipes included). Winn and Platt hand pick the farmers and products for their boxes, all of which are Farms2Tables network farms within 100 miles. There are six pickup locations in the Rural Intelligence region and a couple of workplace delivery stops. While some products can be eliminated and substituted to fit dietary needs, the F2T Box stays true to the idea of “local is ‘in season.’”

A packed truck on its way out for delivery.

Winn is also endeavoring to get her boxes to people who are low income with low food access. “We’re trying to get organizations to subsidize part of our boxes to make them more affordable and readily available,” she says. Since everything is harvested to order and never stored in a warehouse, farmers often send a little extra which, when not used in one of the boxes, gets donated to the Grace Smith House in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., part of Patricia and Clifford’s personal mission to help those in need.

With so much going on, I ask the couple how they manage their days and keep track of the two different businesses. “Four a.m.,” she states. The truck drivers are first on the list, so she starts her morning with phone calls, ensuring that everyone is ready to play their part in delivering fresh product. The rest of the day is a flurry of invoicing, processing payments, meeting farmers, sorting boxes, and about a million other details that would make any other person’s head spin. And yet, they plan to expand, looking to offer F2T boxes to the Boston market within a year or two.

“Our growth is a little scary,” Wind admits, “but I always wanted to have my own business and make changes for the better, so I’m excited for the future.” And if anyone can do it, I’d bet the coveted last sip of farm fresh milk on these two and the F2T Box.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/11/16 at 03:39 PM • Permalink

Snapshot Of Young Farmers: Hudson Valley Kinders & Kritters

Photo: Hudson Valley Kinders & Kritters

By Lisa Green

The goats at Hudson Valley Kinders & Kritters near Red Hook, NY, appear to be a contented lot. I’m no goat expert (not yet, anyway) and I try not to anthropomorphize too much, but when I mentioned my observation to co-owner Stephanie Wyant, she smiled in agreement.

“We give them a lot of love,“ she said.

Wyant, 27, and her partner, Paul Williams, 38, are representative of the young farmers in the Rural Intelligence region who are forging careers by doing whatever it takes to keep their farms (and dreams) afloat. They’ve been farming for about five years, but “got really serious about a year ago,” says Wyant.

For these two, there are the goats, and the businesses associated with them. There are the chickens, ducks and turkeys they raise and sell. Herbs and vegetables are fairly new, but gaining in importance. There is the hotel in Red Hook that Williams owns, which they run by themselves. And that’s not even all they do. There must be some kind of young farmers energy vitamin that keeps them going.

First, the goats. Of the 50 goats, 7 are Kinders, the dual-purpose breed that excels in both milk and meat production. First bred in 1986, Kinder goats can only be found in New York State at Hudson Valley Kinders & Kritters. The goats are incredibly friendly — if you sit on the ground you’ll soon find one crawling into your lap — and their medium size makes them easy to handle.

“We started with the Kinders two years ago,” says Wyant. “It’s a small herd, but we are breeding quickly and the herd will increase dramatically over the next two years. It’s difficult to start a large herd as first — there’s a limited stock in the area — so it takes time and patience to breed your own.”

Wyant and Williams are currently leasing 107 acres of land, but with goats, it’s not as simple as letting them out to pasture in the same spot every day. Since goats eat pretty much whatever’s in sight, Williams must move the electrified fence every day, a two-hour process to fence in a quarter of an acre.

Photo: Hudson Valley Kinders & Kritters

While some of the goats are sold for meat, the dairy goats work for their food. Hudson Valley Kinders and Kritters has an additional business, Green Machines, which hires out the goats, who munch on overgrown and invasive plants (including poison ivy), leaving nothing but natural fertilizer. The friendliest of the good-natured goats also serve as ambassadors of the species when Wyant takes them on the road. Recently, she brought a pair to the Red Hook Library. On June 18, she will be giving a master class on raising dairy or meat goats at the Germantown Library. They’re calling it Goat School. “I love passing on the knowledge,” Wyant says.

Photo: Hudson Valley Kinders & Kritters

Wyant didn’t grow up on a farm, but was a 4H-er in Red Hook and always dreamed of owning one. She had her own backyard flock of ducks and chickens, but in 2011 she and Williams increased the flock and started raising chickens. Now Wyant teaches “Chicken 101” classes and offers backyard flock kits for newbies. “People weren’t sure what breeds of chickens to buy, or where to buy them, or how to care for them,” she says. “We help them get their chickens and supplies, and offer lots of advice. They can rent or buy from us.” Delivery, installation and a one-hour training session come with each kit.

Wyant and Williams go beyond selling organic eggs at a farm. For a fee, you can adopt one of their chickens, choose a name for it, receive your personalized chicken photo and pick up your first dozen eggs. “People wanted to come see the chickens their eggs came from,” Wyant says. Adoption has its privileges. “We’re going to have an open farm day so people can visit their chickens and see the other animals.” They also raise turkeys for Thanksgiving.

The farmers, who are in the process of buying their own land, have a few acres at their home in Red Hook, where they keep their rabbits, ducks and chickens. This year, they’re expanding their garden so that they can sell herbs, sunflowers and heirloom varieties of vegetables — all fertilized with goat manure, of course.

And if that’s not enough, the couple runs the Hearthstone Motel in Red Hook. It’s Williams’ family business, and he’s been managing it more than 12 years. Now Wyant pitches in, too; like at the farm, it’s just the two of them making it happen. Wyant, who owned a marketing and social media firm for five years in Red Hook (and was named one of the top women in business in 2013 by Hudson Magazine) has retained some clients from those days, but she’s since combined her farming and media skills to focus on helping agricultural businesses with their websites, social media and general publicity. Her skills are evident in the Hudson Kinders & Kritters’ own website, as well as its lively Instagram and Facebook feeds. “I write all the copy, create all images, and manage all marketing myself. It’s one of my favorite parts of running the business next to hosting educational classes and events for the community,” she says.

Millie Vanillie and Cocoa-Bella with their mom, Cinnamon. Photo: Hudson Valley Kinders & Kritters.

As Wyant rattles off the many ventures she juggles every day, I look at her in awe. I ask her how she manages to do it all.

“We like what we do,” she says. “If I have to work at a motel, if I have to live in a tent, I’ll do it. This is my absolute dream. I feel like I was born to do this.”

Call it Vitamin L, for love.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/06/16 at 12:13 PM • Permalink

Churchtown Dairy: A New Breed Of Agriculture And Architecture

By Jamie Larson

Dreamed up by environmentalist Abby Rockefeller and the Foundation for Architectural Integrity, designed and built by architect Rick Anderson and operated by the farmers at neighboring Triform Camphill, the Churchtown Dairy in Claverack, New York is a wonder to behold. The round, domed barn and adjoining 1830s farmstead (dismantled from its New Hampshire origins and rebuilt here) is of a scale that seems to play tricks on the eye as you approach it from a distance.

“Abby came to me six years ago and said, ‘I’d like to build this dairy and’ — I’ll never forget this — ‘it needs to be beautiful,’” Anderson says.

The transplanted and restored old home and milking barn that make up half the complex are spectacular examples of period architecture, with whitewashed plaster interiors that highlight the exposed wooden frame and beams. Even so, the old section is a bridesmaid to the Churchtown Dairy’s main “loafing” barn. It’s not the largest round barn, even in Columbia County, but its completely open interior and starburst of skylights, which bathe the space in sunlight, make it feel more like a cathedral than a barn built for the winter dorming (and loafing around) of the farm’s spoiled herd.

The ladies, who pasture the rest of the year, spent last winter relaxing, surrounded by soaring columns of Florida yellow pine from trees selected by Anderson, and felled and milled specifically for this project. Massive natural edge pine beams truss the dome and zigzag down elegantly, seeming to follow the path of the light falling from the dozens of triangular skylights.

“I hate to compromise when I build,” remarks Anderson, who says Rockefeller worked with him on the design but gave him the ability and resources to accomplish it exactly as he envisioned. “It was great to have Abby give me a lot of leeway in the design. It’s hard to describe how beautiful that is.”

On May 21, the stewards of another beautiful, open indoor space, the Hudson Opera House, will hold their annual Spring Fling Gala in the barn; their big historic performance hall is currently being restored with the help of a recently received $8.5 million grant. Last Saturday the event’s large committee met for a tour of the dairy, complete with milk, wine and a delicious Talbott & Arding cheese tasting. The Churchtown Dairy will eventually have a cheese cave beneath the earthen ramp leading to the second story of the barn.

Though the Hudson committee members are accustomed to magnificent spaces like the Opera House and Olana, there were still audible gasps as visitors ducked below a low door into the second floor ring balcony of the round barn. Anderson, in attendance, answered a barrage of excited questions about dimensions and inspiration, materials and process. The unassuming architect answered them all matter-of-factly but with a noticeable little smile that let on he knows he’s made something extremely special. The Dairy has already hosted a few events; a huge, well-designed, interlocking wooden 80-foot diameter floor is placed over the ground to accommodate tables, chairs and dancing.

Anderson has worked for many years on Martha’s Vineyard, where he met Rockefeller and eventually began planning the barn complex. He says that the farm is just getting off the ground, with more barns, support buildings, a greenhouse, a smokehouse and many more animals to come. For now, though, he likes that the barn is really only getting attention through word of mouth.

Hudson Opera House co-director Tambra Dillon meets a week-old calf stalled beside the main barn.

“We’re taking our time and laying low,” he says. “For now, milk sales are our focus.”

While the dairy is elegant and grand, its farming mission is a humble one. Led by farmer Ben Davis, a small contingent of professional farmers and the developmentally disabled youth from Triform care for the dairy’s 28 cows and plan for what will be a full-service biodynamic farm. Currently they’re producing just raw milk, which by law they can only sell on the premises (from an honor system fridge and lock box). The Opera House guests were wary at first to try the unpasteurized milk that was in the cow only hours before, but the response was that it was great-tasting milk.

“It was quite a big change for us. It’s a huge upgrade,” says Davis, adding that Triform’s former dairy — of only four cows — was in need of replacement when their new neighbors asked if they would come aboard. “Their mission is really closely aligned with ours. We’re creating a self-sustaining farm built on balance and health.”

The presence of Davis and Triform as the dairy’s operators has another benefit. Their earnest, earthy approach helps to temper any perceived odor the barn may have of boundless wealth at play. That Rockefeller chose to use local farmers, dedicated to a deeply held commitment to hyper-sustainable biodynamic practices, gives the whole endeavor a humanizing foundation, which it deserves. The barn is beautiful but it is also functional and there is something nice about the fact that a happy group of cows will spend more time than any of us beneath the beautiful dome. 

For inquiries and information about event planning, email Anderson at sapodillabay@gmail.com. Milk can be picked up at the barn at 357 County Road 12, Hudson, NY.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 05/16/16 at 08:36 PM • Permalink

At Milk House Chocolates, The Magic Is In The Moo

By Lisa Green

Thorncrest Farm, home of Milk House Chocolates in Goshen, Conn. is the Kripalu for cows.

It’s hushed in the barn — no cranky mooing going on. A fiber diet consists of organic sweet hay. Sleeping conditions are cushy: beds of straw are lined with thick, rubber mats. The Thorn family — Kimberly and Clint, and their sons, Garret and Lyndon — are there to attend to each cow’s needs and wants, providing comfort and a stress-free zone. You can taste it in their milk and in the chocolate that comes from it.

Photos courtesy of Milk House Chocolates.

And those chocolates? Godiva pales in comparison. But then, Godiva doesn’t raise cows prized for their individual milk flavors. Kimberly, the chocolatier in the family, calls this “single origin cow chocolates.” Under Kimberly’s alchemy, each cow’s subtle flavor is used to its fullest potential. When you choose a piece of chocolate at Milk House Chocolates, the farm’s store, you’re getting sweet on Karissma, Creed, Daydream, Mist, Viola or one of the many other contributors to the cause.

Back at the barn, the Holsteins are grouped by flavor: there is the dark chocolate group (they’re served a darker feed); there’s the caramel group, others are relied upon for their whole and vanilla milks (infused with Madagascar vanilla beans) or the unexpected varieties of bons bons Kimberly dreams up. As for the group of two-year-old heifers, Kimberly’s trying to figure out what flavors they will eventually be good for.

You or I might not be able to taste the difference in the milks, but Kimberly [photo, left] can. Each cow’s milk has a different flavor and smell, she says. She can even detect if a cow’s feeling stressed or unwell by the acidity in its milk. A happy cow makes better chocolates; that’s why cow comfort is paramount.

Once Kimberly has determined which milk complements a certain flavor or leads to a desired consistency, the fun really begins.

“I’m looking for balance and creaminess, combining the cow with the experience, so you taste the milk, not the sugar, like you do in most chocolates,” she says. “I look at it like music. I play with the notes and want them to come out at different points in the tasting.”

When I sampled a Madagsacar Vanilla, I tasted Creed. Daydream contributed to the Dark Sea Salt Caramel. Mist’s milk is what goes into the Dark Chocolate Ginger Cream; her milk is more tangy — on the acidic side, which comes out in the dark chocolate, Kimberly says. The Curry Ganache — my favorite — incorporates a blend of Viola and Mist. 

“They’re two very different beasts,” Kimberly explains (and interjects that she calls them beasts fondly). “It takes their two different flavors to balance the curry and chocolate.”

The shop is small by design. Although Kimberly crafts her creative chocolates every day — there can be up to 72 unique chocolates in rotation throughout the year, depending on the cows in a milking phase — these are small-batch, all-natural chocolates, free of preservatives. She makes enough to fill the display case and mail orders. Everything stays fresh, and if she’s out of your favorite Dark Chocolate Tiramisu (made with Kimberly’s own mascarpone) or Milk Maid’s Irish Cream, don’t worry, there’s probably a Cointreau or a Dark Chocolate Lavender supply coming out soon.

Although there is a thriving mail order business, and some of the milk is sold elsewhere, most of the family’s business is from customers who come to the farm. Their following is obviously big enough,: they were recipients of the “Best Chocolates in Connecticut 2015” award by Connecticut Magazine.

After my intense chocolate tasting, a plain glass of milk seemed in order. The farm sells its Whole Cream Line Milk right there, and it really is unlike any other milk I’ve ever had. When I met the cows earlier, Clint explained that the milk never goes through a pump; it’s expressed directly into individual ca.1920s pails, which allows the milk to remain whole. Then it’s slowly pasteurized. And if he hadn’t told me that the cows are bred and fed for high-lactose milk, I would have thought there was sugar added to it. 

In the runup to Valentine’s Day, Milk House Chocolates is filled with special gift packages. A trip to the farm would be a delicious treat for you and your sweetheart (at any time of the year, actually). There’s nothing quite like meeting a cow and savoring her signature gift. 

To Karissma, Daydream, Victoria, Madison, Glory, Queen Anne, Kate and all the rest, I say “namaste.”

Milk House Chocolates at Thorncrest Farm
Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
280 TownHill Road, Goshen, CT
(860) 309-2545

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/08/16 at 01:20 PM • Permalink

What’s Germinating At Plantin’ Seeds? Farmers, Friends, Food

Brandon Scimeca preparing a Friday night bread and soup dinner.

By Lisa Green

It’s both refreshing and a little frustrating when an organization’s creators can’t deliver a definitive answer when you ask about their mission statement.

“We’re not sure what we are,” says Dale McDonald, when I ask her what the Plantin’ Seeds Farm Kitchen is all about. “It’s not a normal concept in any form.”

Perhaps, then, it’s helpful to look at this farming-focused venture in Canaan, Conn. by parsing out what it isn’t, with caveats. It’s not a restaurant — but it serves sublime farm-plate meals Friday through Sunday. It’s not a community center — but it holds lectures, classes and discussion groups. It’s not a market — but its mini grocery vends locally produced beans, grains, maple syrup, honey and coffee.

Plantin’ Seeds grew out of the conversations McDonald initiated with farmers after she bought Poms Cabin Farm in Falls Village, Conn. A former options trader, she had many questions about working the land, and invited local farmers to her dining room table to talk about ag issues. Caring deeply about food and farming, she wanted to bring the community into the conversation to — according to its Facebook page’s description — “explore and cultivate the culture of food, farming and farmers for benefit of the land.”

Photo courtesy of Plantin’ Seeds.

She found a storefront on Main and Railroad Streets, installed a gleaming commercial kitchen, and fashioned a cozy, homespun dining room that would inspire convivial gatherings. She called in a former farm manager, Tracy Hayhurst (lately of Chubby Bunny Farm) and a chef, Brandon Scimeca (formerly of Morgan’s at the Interlaken Inn) to cook and run the programs.

“It’s clear to me that we’re of the land, not on the land,” McDonald says. “Plantin’ Seeds is a holding space for the seeds of ideas. We’re all a part of the system and this is a place where we can raise awareness for farmers and provide a location where they can talk to each other and where people who care about these issues can get in on the conversation.”

In just over a year, the organization (funded by McDonald until it receives its nonprofit status) has managed to program an impressive calendar of activities. Workshops have covered eating whole foods, edible foraging and pie baking. Once a week, Plantin’ Seeds invites farmers to the kitchen and serves them a well-deserved meal, allowing them rare time to get together.

And then there are the breakfasts, brunches and dinners. Friday nights are bread and soup nights (one recent menu featured Korean-inspired broth with rice noodles, kimchi, poached egg, scallions, mushrooms, and pickled turnips with a choice of wild white shrimp or tempeh, plus homemade sourdough bread and dessert). On Saturday, there’s a farm plate meal inspired by the season’s bounty; Sunday features a vegan brunch. All of the ingredients are from local farms, of course. And here’s another reason it’s not called a restaurant: there’s no charge — all meals are by donation.

A recent Sunday plant-based brunch cheffed by Tracy Hayhurst: tartine with smashed carrots and side of green, pumpkin soup with orange and thyme, and gingerbread with pear granita. Photo by Tracy Hayhurst.

Diners can watch Hayhurst and Scimeca do their magic through the large kitchen window, but the two are the servers as well as the cooks. Bringing out the plates gives them an opportunity to spur talk about the food — and where it comes from — among the guests.

Also available at these times are the grocery items, which are offered to supplement what’s for sale at the local farmers market. They are sold at cost, with all of the proceeds going directly to the growers. Some of the dining room cupboard shelves are stocked with cookbooks by local authors and other food-related items.

Plantin’ Seeds is still germinating, and McDonald says she wants to know what people are interested in exploring.

Scimeca echoes the spirit of the open-ended project. “We’re excited about where we’re at, and where we’re going,” he says. “It’s about dreaming what we can be and seeing where it can lead.”

Plantin’ Seeds Farm Kitchen
99 Main St., Canaan, CT
(860) 453-4083
Friday 5-8 p.m.
Saturday 8 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/25/16 at 06:44 PM • Permalink

South Farms: Something Good Grows in Morris


By Jacque Lynn Schiller

Lately, I must confess, Instagram has been providing a map of sorts with its intriguing photos of new places to visit. A couple of months ago, venerable Chef Joel Viehland (formerly of Community Table) posted a photo of an old Ford AA truck with a logo for “south farms Morris, Conn.” painted on its side. Intrigued by the typography as much as the vehicle, I wondered what else might be going on at this homestead. Curiosity paid off, leading not only to a model of preservation and agri-tourism, but also a lively Sunday market, stunning event space and, just in time for fall, an impressive corn maze – a real map being essential to navigate in this case.

Ben Paletsky, business manager of South Farms Agricultural, shared the property’s Native American and farming history (including an outspoken, wall-building sheriff), tracing it to more modern times and Sam Paletsky, the Connecticut farmer who purchased it in the late ‘40s. It has remained in the Paletsky family for four generations.

Sam’s grandson, Ben, has committed to revitalizing the iconic 150-acre historic homestead and is the driving force behind making the family farm, now called South Farms, into one of the state’s most ambitious agricultural place-making endeavors. Partnering with lifelong family friends and fellow neighboring farmers Erica Dorsett-Mathews and husband Corey Mathews, Paletsky has launched a heritage breed meats business, which expanded to include the very fun Morris Marketplace featuring live music, an array of local vendors and even a sit-down lunch area.

“We felt that by selling our meats off-farm, our mission of connecting customers with the goodness of the farmland experience was compromised,” he says. “So, we invited a selection of awesome farms and artisans, both old and new, to come together with us at the homestead on Sundays.”

The community is receptive to the bucolic vistas and naturally inviting atmosphere, making it a true weekly gathering. “We want guests to feel welcome at the farm and stay for a while, not just grab and go, so we mixed in live music, free crafts for kiddos, and, of course, unbelievably good farm-fresh food.”

“Small towns need — correction, small towns thrive — when there exists a cultural centerpiece that everyone can appreciate, enjoy and rally behind,” Paletsky says. “We intended to design an experience at South Farms that would drive agricultural and economic growth while cultivating positive cultural involvement for the community and visitors to the area. Our guests embraced the idea and they have become some of the market’s best advocates.”

And what an amazing assemblage of area farms and artisans! CIA graduate Amanda Glover serves incredible made-from-scratch pastries from her converted Airstream trailer, Sweetie. There’s fruit and cider from March Farms, a neighboring multi-generational family farm and orchard. Fresh chicken – and turkey for anyone thinking ahead to Thanksgiving – is on offer from Pond’s Poultry. The list of vendors also includes fresh Bantam Breads, hot sauce from Dragon’s Blood Elixirs, organic veggies (and an awesome bloody Mary mix) from Waldingfield’s Farm and refreshing treats like Chet’s Italian Ice and Hardcore Cupcakes. Area restaurant Oliva’s provides prepared food and Winvian Farms boasts not only a veggie stand but also a mobile lunch.

Beyond food, there’s a revolving collection of artisans and merchants selling anything from jewelry, paintings and photography to alpaca wool, children’s books and soaps. In addition, every week the market features an area non-profit in order to help promote awareness of their cause. The goodness just grows, along with the corn.

Ever wonder how mazes are created?

Paletsky revealed the workings. “This year’s “I HEART MORRIS” theme is drafted out on computer,” he says. “We like to include a cool visual theme that looks awesome from the air (there are regularly hot-air balloons meandering above the farm) and one that’s challenging to explore. In the maze are several checkpoints to discover. Actually cutting paths into the maze requires using a sub-compact tractor outfitted with precision-GPS to make patterns with incredible accuracy. It’s pretty high-tech.”

Several of the much younger folks blazed through the labyrinth with ease, laughing when a dead end was encountered, ready to run through the whole thing again and again, says our reporter. Afterwards, she rewarded her route-finding skills with an iced coffee in the shade of the barn. (Photo at top of page is last year’s maze.)

Corn, you say? Oh yes, the eating kind and the get-lost-within variety. For the second year, South Farms has created a remarkable corn maze. Two, in fact, one a bit shorter for the not so adventurous. I heeded the advice from the ticket booth to orient myself by noting the position of the sun upon entering the path (seven-foot stalks and nothing but blue skies can throw off one’s sense of direction). The view of the barns on the hill is always pretty, but looks downright magnificent after triumphantly navigating the maze.

Which brings us to another aspect of South Farms; it also makes quite an attractive event space. This fall they’ll host a number of weddings, the weekly market will run through the end of October and they’ll likely have a few “pop-up” markets in the barn near the holiday seasons.

And they’re just getting started in terms of expansion. Pioneer Hops of Connecticut has co-located onto South Farms, creating one of the state’s largest commercial hops yards. There’s a plan for the portfolio of farm and agri-tourism businesses partnered with South Farms to expand in a lot of exciting directions and investments. 

“Our vision includes South Farms’ role as a cultural, educational and ag investment hub for Litchfield County and the state,” says Paletsky. “In parallel, we’re thinking about ways to maximize the use of our farmland. South Farms intends to create new models for farming in the state – models that highlight both business viability for agricultural production and connect non-farmers to the farmland experience.”

South Farms’ giant white barn just might mark the spot where inspiration leads to even more action.

South Farms
21 Higbie Road, Morris, CT
The South Farms Corn Maze is open for the season and will run through the end of October as well on Sundays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Morris Market
Sundays 11 a.m.-2 p.m. from mid June-late October.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/15/15 at 09:48 AM • Permalink

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