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Hudson Valley Apple Farms Wrestle With Slim Pickings

(Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

JULIA MOSKIN, The New York Times, 10/09/2002: STAATSBURG, N.Y. — THERE are hardly any apples at Breezy Hill Orchard here. A year ago Elizabeth Ryan, who owns Breezy Hill, a 45-acre farm in Dutchess County, walked aisles of Jonagold, Macoun, McIntosh and Golden Russet trees that groaned under the weight of their fruit. It was one of the best years ever, she said last week.

But this year has been one of the worst, for Ms. Ryan and all the fruit growers of the Hudson Valley. A few springtime days brought the area's trees into bloom, followed by six nights of killing frost. What little fruit survived was soon killed off by a spate of May hailstorms. And then came the summer's drought.

"See that McIntosh?" Ms. Ryan asked, pointing. "Last year, we harvested 200 bushels from that tree." Only a single red apple could be seen at its top.

In a normal year, apples are one of the most valuable crops in New York State, generating some $109 million in 2000. Generally, the apple growers of the Hudson Valley pick eight million bushels of fruit during the fall harvest; this year, farmers say, it will be well under two million, with the worst losses in the lower Hudson Valley (loosely defined as Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange and Columbia Counties).

Breezy Hill Orchards will make $400,000 less this year than in a good year, Ms. Ryan estimates. But she is both constitutionally optimistic and irrepressibly chatty — traits that may help explain her presence on the executive committee of the Hudson Valley Fruit Growers Task Force, an alliance dedicated to getting help for the growers. She went to Washington last month, pushing for a national disaster relief bill for farmers hurt by bad weather. It passed the Senate on Sept. 10.

Back in the Hudson Valley, Ms. Ryan encourages her fellow farmers to share everything from rootstock to recipes for cider doughnuts. Most farmers are solitary people, she said, used to working alone.

"We think of our farms as independent," she said. "But this year forced us to work together, and that's a good thing."

The sad song of the American family farm has already played many times in these parts. In Dutchess County, the usual enormous pressures —agribusiness, weather, banks and foreign competition (inexpensive apple juice concentrate from China is the big dark cloud on the horizon for American apple farmers) — are only part of the mix.

The farms in this area are among America's oldest, having sprung up to take early advantage of the Hudson River's transportation opportunities and the thriving trade routes that once linked New York City, Albany and Montreal. Real estate developers now pant after the rolling hills, sun-warmed sites and old-growth trees that make the farmland so alluring.

Dutchess County, just a couple of hours by car north of Manhattan, is increasingly becoming a bedroom community for New York City. Its population is exploding, as are the serious threats to farming that growth brings, among them car traffic, a rising demand for water and high land prices. In the last five years, New York has lost farmland faster than any state but Arkansas, according to a study released last week by the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit farm preservation organization.

Ms. Ryan has been growing fruit here for 20 years. She said she realized long ago that traditional farming alone — that is, the production of crops and their sale to wholesalers who take them to market — would not support her business indefinitely. She was an early enthusiast of New York City's Greenmarket program and is now turning her formidable energy to the question of how to be a farmer when you have no crop to sell.

This year, she and many of her colleagues will rely on the pies and jams, the harvest festivals and petting zoos, the hayrides and corn mazes that, along with other bells and whistles, used to be incidental to the real work of the farm.

The bells and whistles are now about all they have to offer.

Despite the loss of 85 percent of his crop, Peter Barton of Barton Farms in Poughquag, N.Y., is forging ahead with the pick-your-own program he has had success with in the past, this year distributing bins of apples from other New York State growers throughout the orchards and adding enticements like a haunted house and a five-acre corn maze in the shape of the Statue of Liberty.

At his farm in New Paltz, in Ulster County, Rod Dressel tended kerosene heaters all night during the spring frosts to protect enough fruit for the pick-your-own crowds; other panicked farmers paid for helicopters to hover over parts of their orchards, keeping the air circulating around the trees.

And to offset her own losses, Ms. Ryan is offering elegant candlelight dinners in her orchards, cooked by chefs from New York City restaurants and the nearby Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. It has been, she said, a difficult year.

But then it has never been easy. Ms. Ryan, a 1982 graduate of Cornell's College of Agriculture, farms without pesticides, even though that has not endeared her to supermarket chains and wholesale distributors. She grows plenty of mainstream McIntoshes and Golden Delicious, but her fruit tends toward the lumpy, the tart, the russeted (russeting is the rough brown crust that covers the skin of some varieties) and the unapologetically old-fashioned.

Even the few Red Delicious apples she grows are small, striped and pleasingly sour.

"I am proud to say that I grow for flavor," she said. "Not for looks."

Appearance is as much of an issue in the apple industry as at a junior high school dance. But consumers complain that apples look more and more nearly perfect, while delivering less and less taste. Growers retort that consumers claim to care about flavor, but in fact will buy only cosmetically near-perfect fruit.

This year buying good-looking apples from the lower Hudson Valley may be close to impossible. Some of the fruit may have pockmarks from hail or the deep scarring that comes from splitting in the cold and healing in a drought. The skins may be speckled, or may carry the circle of russeting farmers call a frost ring. Apples will also be smaller than usual, as a result of the drought.

The good news is that they will have spectacular flavor. Stress makes for great fruit, Ms. Ryan said. "Winemakers will tell you that the hardest years bring the best wines," she said, "and it's true for other fruits as well." The apple pies made from these crops will be amazing.

THE city's chefs, loyal as ever to local agriculture, are in mournful agreement.

Gray Kunz, formerly the chef at Lespinasse, who now cooks at private events, is using only Hudson Valley apples in his desserts right now. "The fruit is unusually concentrated and complex, and you can really taste the differences between varieties," he said.

"I'm certainly not going to start buying my apples at Hunts Point," said Maury Rubin of City Bakery, referring to New York City's wholesale fruit and vegetable market, which stocks apples from as far away as Washington. "When I can't get local fruit, I'll do more chocolate, more custards."

Peter Hoffman, who owns Savoy on Crosby Street, said, "I can't believe that we might not have an apple dessert on the menu in January — that's when this year's local crop is going to run out." Kept in cold storage, the crop usually lasts well into May. "But as long as they're selling, I'm buying," he added.

For the apple farmers of the Hudson Valley, that statement offers hope.

So does the continued support of the Greenmarkets, Ms. Ryan said. There, despite the difficulties the growers have faced, you will see bins of picture-perfect McIntosh apples alongside battered Winesaps. To keep the farmers afloat, Greenmarket policy — which normally requires vendors to sell only what they have produced themselves — has been relaxed. According to Lys McLaughlin, executive director of the New York City Council on the Environment, which oversees the Greenmarkets, growers are temporarily allowed to buy and resell fruit from other orchards, so long as they come from the New York region.

Ms. Ryan said this easing of the rules will save farms that otherwise might have gone under this year. For many local farmers, she said, Greenmarket sales are not just a part of their business, but all of it.

Ms. Ryan says she has grand plans to save her farm, including an expansion of her cider business. She might even turn the operation into a ferme-auberge, as the French call a farmhouse inn, with paying guests who eat, sleep and even work on the farm.

"People love apple trees," she said. "Whether they have apples on them or not."