After the harvest: on a stretch of Route 22, farmers find ways to adapt to a post-dairy economy

A cornfield at McEnroe Organic Farm. (S.J. Waterman)
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All the Hollywood and marketing consultants in the world couldn’t scout a better site—for visibility, accessibility, natural beauty—to locate a farm stand than on the stretch of New York's Route 22 in Dutchess County between the villages of Amenia and Millerton, both contained within the town of Northeast.

Situated there is the 1,000-acre McEnroe Organic Farm, while a couple of miles north, a lazy curve in the road brings 220-acre Silamar Farm into view. Both farms command fields stretching west and east, on either side of the two-lane, two-way road. They’re directly en route from Manhattan to the Tanglewood music festival and an easy digression on the way to Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts.

The rolling green has been farmed for 200 years—a couple of miles east, there’s a county-designated “Historic Farms District,” some of which is still plowed today.

It’s a varied socio-economic cross-section and architectural medley. There are trailer parks, country homes and enormous estates. Lovingly restored and renovated nineteenth-century farmhouses can be seen near dilapidated specimens that now sit derelict.

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“There are farms and then there are farms,” 74-year-old Julie Schroeder (pictured at left), owner of Silamar Farm, which she and her late husband purchased in 1964, told me.

She is a spry and spirited holdout, proud to be able to keep going without the outside investment that has become a mainstay in farming. Schroeder’s investment in 1964 dollars “helps makes it possible to keep going.”

She and her late husband Harry paid $52,000 for the entire property, originally two farms that had been cultivated for a century.

When the Schroeders moved in, Northeast was dense with dairy farms. Schroeder estimates that when she moved here there were 40 dairy farms in the town. But this far south the dairy business is a matter of going-going-nearly-gone. Today there are four left in Northeast.

Dairy farming is high-overhead: cows have to be milked twice daily; farmers must pay the cost of transporting milk to processing facilities.

Statewide, according to a 2010 report from the state comptroller's office, milk and other dairy products is on the rise, with billions of dollars in revenue accounting for more than half of the state's total agricultural sales. New York State in 2007 was the third largest milk producer in the country. But those farms are further upstate now.

And even up there, the state's agriculture industry is suffering from developments in the dairy sector. According to the report: "Low wholesale milk prices have cut deeply into profit margins for New York’s dairy farmers, forcing many into foreclosure."

Just a hundred yards south of McEnroe’s on 22 are the remains of a dairy farm, the farmhouse demolished recently after a series of fires. All that’s left standing are three silos. There are many similar sights in the vicinity.

The Schroeders themselves gave up their cows 12 years ago, to keep the farm.

"The work is difficult and profit margins are tight— less than 20 percent of farms generate more than $100,000 in farm income," notes the 2010 report. "Many farmers supplement their incomes by leasing their land for mining or wind turbines, or relieve financial pressure by selling farmland for residential development."

In general, down here, the profile of the farms is changing. Statewide New York is a small-farm state. With farmland using nearly a quarter of the state's total land area, generating sales in 2007 of $4.4 billion and employing tens of thousands of people, the average farm in New York State is still less than 200 acres in size, about half the national average.

What's changing most down here is the profile of the farmer, and the way the land is farmed. Specialization is on the way out; diversification is in. Some working farms that have been owned by families for generations are being sold or leased to what you might call a new breed of gentleman or gentlewoman farmer, willing to take the risk, to diversify, and to adopt new agricultural practices. Other longstanding farms in the area are adapting to the changing realities.

AS WELL AS ITS OWN PRODUCE, SILAMAR’S retail store sells products like locally made cheese and ice cream. As the season dwindles, however, the store doors are locked and a selection sold outside on a self-service basis. Customers don’t cheat; sometimes they don’t even bother to reimburse themselves with change.

Work goes on in the fields at Silamar, where garlic is planted for a June yield and a final harvest of Swiss chard, kale, and herbs is made.

 

Last Saturday, the store reopened to sell Christmas trees and wreaths, also a mainstay for family farms in the area. Then the entire operation lays off until late February, when hibernation ends, and “we start playing catch up,” Schroeder said. That includes starting from seed in greenhouses the vegetable plants that will be transplanted to the fields in the spring.

Dressed in insulating layers, bangs peeking out of a wool cap, Schroeder tools around her farm on a golf cart, one of four the farm uses to harvest produce. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law in a converted barn on a rise above the fields.

There are splendid recreational as well as working farms to be seen in these parts that are avocational projects of large landowners.

McEnroe’s is a prime and flourishing example, but also something unique. It’s non-profit as well as organic, started in 1988 by Douglas Durst of the Manhattan real estate dynasty in partnership with Ray McEnroe, whose family had farmed here for a century.

They grow produce, raise pasture-fed livestock (including 400 turkeys that recently met their ends for the Thanksgiving table), as well as growing all their own feed. They also have a retail market as well as a take-out kitchen that cooks with what the farm itself produces.

“I am blessed with some of the best and freshest ingredients one can acquire,” chef Wade McEnroe (pictured right) told me. “It makes my job simple.”

McEnroe, 26, began feeding the family cows at age four. Erich, one of four older brothers, works here as well. Both have degrees in culinary arts from the State University of New York in Cobleskill.

McEnroe inveighs against America’s excessive salt and sugar consumption and uses both sparingly. His fare ranges from his mother’s meat loaf to an increasing assortment of vegetarian items and a vegan green smoothie made with homegrown aloe.

He finds that on weekends, he can take culinary risks more easily. The second-homers from NYC are more open to experiments. They want to know what he’s got that’s new.

Recycling has traditionally been the lifeblood of farming. McEnroe empties vegetables that had been simmering for stock into pails meant for the farm’s pigs. McEnroe’s also uses its own biodegradable waste (as well as importing more from the nearby Culinary Institute of America) to nourish batches of composted soil, which finds its way to New York City's rooftop gardens. (They also maintain a presence in Manhattan at the Union Square farmers’ market during warm weather months.) Oil used to fry doughnuts is recycled for use in radiant heating.

Over the winter, the McEnroe farm keeps the yield going, scaled down to about a quarter of what it is during the peak season. Crop production now centers on cold frames—“putting it under plastic,” the transition is called. Given proper insulation, some crops even grow better in colder weather: In the kitchen, winter squash and zucchini now go into the vegetable stock. Instead of salsa with tomatoes, the kitchen begins to make corn salsa, then pumpkin guacamole. Winter slaw replaces cole slaw, made with dried cranberries and less mayonnaise.

CORNFIELDS, NOW SHORN DOWN TO STUBBLE, spread a checkerboard around Northeast.

In the Historic Farms District, Donald Totman, 60, has rented the 250-acre Daisi Hill Farm for nearly three decades from a family that has owned the land for several generations. Why is his corn so good?

“We pick it twice a day,” he told me. “And we pick for taste, not for looks. A supermarket wants the corn to look good. I maintain that your wife should be pretty and your corn should taste good."

"I don’t know if that’s a quote I’m proud of," he then added, laughing.

Across the road, amid Daisi Hill’s cornfields, is a smiley-face made out of pumpkins, icon of the agritourist business that he’s using to diversify the farm’s appeal.

There’s a petting zoo and, in the fall, a pumpkin catapult. But Daisi Hill has been on furlough until today, when it reopens to sell Christmas trees.

New strategies are part of the full-time commitment farming requires. To an outsider, it would seem to require as well a certain degree of love for the work itself.

“I probably make 10 cents an hour, but it’s a nice way to live,” Schroeder said.

There’s certainly a respect for agriculture embedded in her neighborhood. In Millerton, a farmers’ market pulls in growers from across state lines; it decreases down from a weekly event to irregular intervals through the winter inside at the Gilmor Glassworks.

The Hudson River HealthCare community clinic in nearby Pine Plains offers a special, very low rate to farm personnel.

“It’s the only perk,” McEnroe told me, laughing, “other than good food, and getting to see the sun come up in the morning.”

Last year he was in Manhattan for the winter, attending a food science class at the New School and cooking at the Fat Radish restaurant on Orchard Street. He may go back to work part-time in Manhattan; it’s a good way to widen his repertory of recipes and exchange ideas with the cosmopolitan culinary community he'll need to serve when they come up for the spring, summer, and fall.

But McEnroe is not making a permanent migration.

“I like up here more,” he says. “There’s a lot more space and fresh air to breathe.”

All photos by S.J. Waterman.