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Open Season on Apples & Pears at Philip Orchards

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Three generations of Philips: John, his nephew Rhys, mother Julia, and sister Leila.

“You always think this year’s apples are the best ever,” says Julia Philip of Claverack. “Or you always think last year’s apples were better. Depends on your nature.”  Julia knows nature.  Now 83, she has been running Philip Orchards year round since her husband John Van Ness Philip Jr., a writer and editor at McGraw Hill and elsewhere, died in 1993, leaving her the farm that had been in his family for the better part of 300 years.  With weekend help from her children and their children, Julia has not only managed to keep the Philip Orchards afloat, she has kept up with the latest growing practices.  Using Integrated Pest Management (invited insects eliminate unwelcome ones, thus greatly reducing dependence on chemical pesticides), Philip Orchards apples, pears, and plums invariably win multiple blue ribbons at the Columbia County Fair.  This year alone, clever Julia snagged six. 

The term “family farm” suggests one thing in the Midwest, quite another in the Hudson Valley.  In the Midwestern model, it is the sole support of a nuclear family, very much a hands-on enterprise.  In the Hudson Valley, from the earliest days, many farmers were educated gentlemen who made most of their money (often quite a lot, in fact) doing other things.  Property was passed from generation to generation.  The challenge to each: to earn enough from the land to make it self-sustaining. 

Such has been the case over the centuries with the Van Ness Philips.  In 1732 they bought the southermost sliver of 600,000-acre Rensselaerwyck, a vast parcel that the early Dutch family, the Van Rensselaers, had purchased from the Mohicans.  Today, the Philips still own one hundred acres of that original 296-acre tract.

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“I have lived here for fifty years,” Julia says of Talavera, the house one of her husband’s forebears built in 1802.  Deliberately snubbing the stodgy Dutch style, William Van Ness chose instead to erect a testament to his own prosperity in the more modern Greek Revival style.  A little more than a century after that, Julia’s father-in-law, an engaged farmer and New York attorney whose wife was a Stott (owners of the Stottville woolen factory that had supplied the Union Army), switched from growing once profitable hay, in trouble by then, thanks to Henry Ford’s Tin Lizzie, to orchards. New York and Boston were primary markets for fruit, and the McIntosh had caught on in England, as well.  The farms of the Hudson Valley, with their easy access to the railways and the port of New York, were a convenient source. 

The Philips have been growing fruit there ever since.  In 1966, Julia and John shocked their farming neighbors by leading the way on U Pick, eliminating the middle man so their customers could get fresher fruit at lower prices by picking it themselves.  Despite dire warnings that amateur pickers would damage their trees, the Philips followed their progressive instincts.  Within fifteen years, it had become a widespread trend. 

This year, according to Julia, a cool spring and heavy rains have resulted in a nearly perfect crop—most varieties are large and sweet.  The exceptions: Bosc pears fell prey to a frost at their peak of bloom, and many of the Red Delicious apples turned out to be disappointingly small. Julia’s advice, pick them selectively.

Philip Orchards
270 Route 9H, Claverack; 518.851.6341
Daily 8 - 6
September 5: Bartlett pears, Jonamac apples, blackberries, raspberries
September 12: McIntosh, Cortland, Spartan apples and Italian plums
September 19: Empire, Honey Cristp, Idared, Macoun, Greening, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, and Matsu apples; Anjou and Harrow Sweet pears
October 3: Northern Spy, Rome, and Lady apples

The story of the Philip family is told in a wonderful book by Leila Philip, Julia’s daughter, who teaches creative writing at Holy Cross in Worcester. 
A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm; Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family (Viking/Penguin)
The Spotty Dog Books & Ale
440 Warren Street, Hudson; 518.671.6006

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 09/08/08 at 12:39 PM • Permalink