RIGHT: Workers pack apples in the modern facility built two years ago at Crist Bros. in Walden, New York. The packing plant serves only their own production from more than 500 acres. LEFT: This is the orchard of the future—except the alleys are too wide, according to Cornell University’s Terence Robinson. This 3- by 14-foot tall spindle planting has been hedged into a narrow fruiting wall.
PHOTOS BY RICHARD LEHNERT
They call it “The Big Apple,” but for the farmers of New York’s Hudson River Valley, it might better be called “The Big Stomach.” New York City, with a population of 8.3 million and 12 million more in the metropolitan area, lies at the south end of the valley, where the river—still fairly clean despite 400 years of economic activity—dumps into the New York Harbor.
The valley is quite homely in winter, a dark landscape of leafless oak and hickory. Its residents apparently didn’t choose to brighten up by planting a few evergreen conifers, but there’s a different kind of brightness these days—one that comes with fruit trees and fields of vegetables.
The Hudson Valley has long fed New Yorkers. The Hudson River, a deep-water shipping channel of 175 miles from New York City to the capital city of Albany, saw some of the nation’s first steamships. They carried food, such as apples in barrels. Now, a well-developed highway system carries produce from valley farmers into a distribution system that includes the massive Bronx distribution terminal at Hunts Point and, since the 1950s, a publicly supported network of 55 city Greenmarkets, where farmers meet their customers face to face.
The city didn’t really stay where it belonged. People moved north into the valley, which is now heavily populated and a good market in itself.
There’s a new appreciation of farmers these days. The buy-local movement has been a huge shot in the arm. Millions of people who’ve never seen a farm now trek north to spend a few hours or a day picking their own apples or cherries—and paying a premium for what would seem to be a dubious privilege.
The bursting of the housing bubble has also revitalized agriculture. Many of the valley’s farms have sold their development rights under New York’s program to preserve farmland, but that’s become less necessary lately. The price of land around Poughkeepsie, 100 miles north of The Big Apple, has retreated from about $10,000 an acre to about $7,000.
One grower tells of selling land for $10,000 and then buying it back cheaper. Not to be outdone, another grower told of selling land to a speculator, farming it rent-free for several years, then getting it back for virtually nothing when development opportunity faded and the new owner wanted out.
There are signs this is true—in some places, new sidewalks and paved roads dead-end into house lots with no houses. When the bubble burst, it burst.
Hudson Valley farmers have always enjoyed demand for their local food, and 75 years ago, they asked their land-grant university for more support. The local horticultural society bought land and built buildings, then donated them to Cornell University to create the Hudson Valley Laboratory. It has been renovated and updated many times since.
While there are rumors the university administration in western New York is rethinking its commitment to the state’s eastern fruit production area, in the wake of a funding crisis in research and education generally, the lab today is vibrant and staffed by some of brightest lights in the nation’s horticulture.
At the end of February this year, 112 people got a firsthand look at the valley’s vibrant agriculture and the fruit growers making it happen during the International Fruit Tree Association’s postconference tour. Growers from the United States were joined by Canadians, Chileans, Mexicans, and Israelis for two intense days, visiting the Hudson Valley Lab and nine growers in the Poughkeepsie area, about two hours north of New York and three hours due west of Boston, where the main IFTA conference had been held.
The valley has a mixture of farms—some small with farm markets and pick-your-own operations catering to local customers, some that haul their produce to farmers’ markets in the city and suburbs, some large wholesale operations that are among the best-known in the country, some that are just plain colorful.