Many Polish people, including Cheryl Rogowski’s grandparents, settled in Pine Island to farm. “My mother’s mother was one of the first settlers in the Black Dirt region,” she told me. Acres of black dirt are largely what one sees through the car windows here, while driving on roads reminiscent of rural England.
In 1955 Cheryl’s father purchased the first acres of Rogowski Farm; Cheryl, the former controller at Sterling Forest, now runs it. I was curious to know what made Cheryl leave her career and return to the family business. “I’m totally in love with my farm; she possesses a magical beauty,” Cheryl answered. “When I make my daily rounds of the fields, I’m just amazed at the way the landscape constantly changes as only a living creature can.”
The farm is “certified naturally grown.” They exercise integrated pest management, a cost-effective system that uses a minimum of chemicals. “My father cleared this land by hand, using saws — without chemicals,” Cheryl said. “He used no machinery or even mechanical cultivation.” As the years went by, the farm began to use chemical spray, but stopped in the early 1980s. Cheryl explained chemicals were a necessity for large onion cultivation.
Today the diversified crops on the farm include only three to five acres of onion; years ago, at peak production, there were 75 acres with just that one crop. “This may be the last generation of onion farmers in Pine Island,” Cheryl told me. “The price we get today for onions is the same as it was 20 years ago.”
A straightforward, hardworking woman who doesn’t aspire to be anyone other than herself, Bev Tantillo was raised on a dairy farm in Vermont. She ended up marrying a farmer herself; they’ve been married now for more than 45 years. Her husband, Len, took over his family’s farm in 1968. All three Tantillo children, now married with families of their own, are involved in some aspect of the farm. In fact, Bev’s nine grandchildren, who range in age from 14 to 18, also work part-time in the family business.
Their 130-acre property includes houses, woods, swamps, and support land where wheat, corn, and rye are grown for sale to other farmers. On the farmland itself, the Tantillos grow pumpkins, squash, cherries, peaches, plums, pears, and rhubarb. “I don’t want to deal with berries,” Bev told me with conviction, explaining how delicate those fruits are, and how difficult it is to keep them in perfect shape so they don’t lose their appeal to consumers.
Every member of the family has a specific talent and each is involved in a compatible aspect of the business; perhaps this is the secret to their success. Bev loves being outdoors and enjoys interacting with customers at the farm’s retail store. Len runs the orchards and supervises the farming operation.
“I vowed I’d never marry a farmer; I saw the hard life when canning vegetables and grinding horseradish for my father as a teenager,” Bev recalled. But then she reflected how everyone in the family seems to love the farm. “There’s a freedom here,” she observed. When I pointed out she was the matriarch of a farm dynasty, she smiled and said, “I guess I am, but I really never think of myself that way.”
Paul Wigsten’s family has farmed in Dutchess County for four generations.It was a dairy operation until the early 1970s. “Wigsten’s Ice Cream was quite well known locally during the 1960s,” Paul told me.
Paul and his wife, Robin, transitioned into growing crops because “neither of us wanted to milk cows twice a day.” He does the tractor work, and Robin handles the financial aspect of the business.
The crops are on a five-year rotation schedule and at any time half of the farmland is in hay; the changeover keeps the soil healthy by continually using different nutrients. Compost and manure fertilize the crops and red worms, ordered over the Internet, add to the mix.
In addition to his farm work, Paul is the produce buyer for the restaurants at the Culinary Institute of America in nearby Hyde Park. With the price of California produce increasing, local crops have become more attractive. “I like the weird stuff. Mesclun lettuce was the rage a few years back; now it’s baby mix,” he said, explaining how food fads are as fickle as those in the fashion world. A case in point is the Ramapo tomato, a New Jersey variety that went out of production. Recently agronomists decided to bring it back. “They bred seeds at Rutgers, and I can’t wait to try it,” Paul said.
“I like to grow vegetables for restaurants that appreciate the unusual and are willing to pay the price,” he said. “You won’t find my Romanesco tomatoes at Wal-Mart.”
How does a woman in her late 60s take the reins of the family business — an apple orchard — and run the place?
After her husband became ill, Julia Philip gradually took over his responsibilities on the apple farm. “Maybe I’m just a bossy lady,” she laughed, trying to explain what she loves about her life of hard work. The farm consists of 100 acres, including 60 acres of fruit trees that produce around 5,000 bushels of apples and pears every year. The orchard is a dynamic, ever-changing universe unto itself, and the owner must learn to understand its rhythms. “You are continually thinking about the weather, and must be out there day by day to evaluate what needs to happen, what you have to do,” Julia said.
Now in her mid-80s, Julia has been successfully running the orchard since 1992 with the help of one employee, a jack-of-all-trades who comes from North Carolina from December through March to prune the 3,000 trees. The weight of the trees must be balanced by tapering them top to bottom, so the sun can reach the entire tree.
Years ago, the orchard had many varieties of apples: Cortlands, Macouns, Golden Delicious, Mutsu, and Macintosh. Nowadays, there are additional types, including Jonagolds, Rhode Island Greenings, Spartans, Empires, and a host of heirloom apples. “I grow what I would want to pick, and I don’t respond to fads,” Julia said, when I asked how she chooses what to plant.
“There is a sense of history here, and I enjoy being a caretaker of the land,” Julia told me. Passionate commitment to her farm is central to the life of this delightful woman with nerves of steel.
The name Battenfeld is synonymous with anemones — and Christmas trees — in Dutchess County. Since 1906, this 260-acre farm has been a family business, begun by current owner Fred Battenfeld’s grandfather and great uncle.
In the early 20th century, wealthy Hudson River estate owners brought gardeners from Europe to recreate the magnificent gardens they had visited abroad. At one time, the county was the violet capital of the country. “Names like Violet Hill Road in Rhinebeck and Violet Avenue in Poughkeepsie evolved from this cottage industry,” Fred tells me. Gradually, gardenias, then orchids, replaced violets as the most popular corsage flowers. In the early 1950s, the Battenfeld’s business transitioned into anemones. (The Christmas tree business also started in the late ’50s.)
In summer, planting is the main activity. When I visited in July, Fred showed me eight greenhouses filled with 140,000 sprouting green plants. From February through April, 50,000 to 60,000 anemones are sent to Manhattan, Boston, and Washington. “We take the flowers to New York City, and they are sent via FedEx all over the country,” Fred told me. In addition, more than 100 acres are dedicated to Christmas trees. With about 1,200 trees per acre, this means that each year there are thousands of trees to choose from.
“I enjoy being self-employed, having the flexibility to manage my time and decide what is important,” Fred said. His son, Lane, a member of the fourth generation of the family, will ultimately take over the reins and — maybe — allow him to slow down.
Time slows down in the magnificent rolling hills of the upper Hudson Valley where 700 acres of Ronnybrook Farm span Dutchess and Columbia counties. As I approached, a herd of cows huddled together as if they were about to cross the road — which they did, after my car passed.
In the early 1980s, Ronny Ossofsky added two farms to the original one owned by his family. Taxes were high and land was valued for development, not farming. But Ronny decided to take a risk: He took out a mortgage on the farm and on July 4, 1991 at the Greenmarket in Manhattan he sold three products — whole milk, skim milk, and cream-lined milk. Soon after, the New York Times wrote an article about Ronnybrook’s excellent products, and New York magazine touted its chocolate milk. The press attention flooded the farm with sales.
In 1991 Ronnybrook products were somewhat unique. “We started making milk and yogurt with no stabilizers or hormones; while not organic, it’s minimally processed,” Ronny explained, going on to say the milk is not homogenized. “Most people allergic to milk are allergic to the processing.”
Ronny’s dairy employs 20 people and sells 18,000 pounds of milk per week to the Hudson Valley Fresh label. Ronny believes grass-fed cows give the best-tasting milk: Each animal (he has 150-175 cows) eats about 120 pounds of food daily. Unless it’s below zero, the cows go out and graze every day. As we toured the farm, I noticed the cows heading into their individual stalls in one of the barns; each had its own space and, interestingly, Ronny said, every cow always returns to the same pen. “Hi girls,” he said, taking me through the barn. “If they could talk, they’d say nice things about us.”
Ronny maintains he will never grow into a large conglomerate — and never sell out to one.
The entire scene is reminiscent of an idyllic farm from another age. But a closer look reveals this picturesque operation has successfully meshed traditional agricultural practices with modern technologies, including a computer-monitored greenhouse environment and movable electric fencing. The cart we rode in was powered by biodiesel made from kitchen grease processed with methane and lye.
Fruit and vegetable manager Jack Algiere oversees six acres with amazingly diverse crops including lettuce, celery, carrots, fennel, beets, chard, spinach, onions, leeks, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bean sprouts, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, corn, beans, melons, sunflowers, and grapes. And what about controlling pests? “I’m there the day they show up, and I just pick them off by hand,” Jack said. “I walk the entire property daily and notice everything — what is ripening, what needs weeding, but also what insects are arriving.”
The farmers work with the environment rather than resist nature: Two hundred varieties of produce are generated year-round without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. The only addition to the soil is “black gold” compost, a pathogen-free mixture of leaves, grass clippings, livestock manure, hay, and kitchen scraps from the popular on-site restaurant.
The mission of 200-acre Sprout Creek Farm — to connect people with animals and nature, as well as one another — is immediately in evidence upon arrival. Margo Morris led me into an enormous farmhouse kitchen where there was a large towel-padded playpen with two baby goats. “If they nurse, they can develop an arthritis-like virus” passed on through the mother’s milk. “So, we keep them here, pasteurize the milk by heating it to 180 degrees, which kills the virus, and it’s then cooled and given to the goats in baby bottles.” When I wondered how she figured out this system, Margo told me: “I had to learn by reading, doing, and making mistakes. As a woman, I wasn’t taken seriously by neighboring farmers, and it was often difficult getting information from the local grapevine.”
Out of this experience, Margo revealed, grew a “feminine version of farming.” Agriculture, education, and environmental awareness come together here with enticing programs for both children and adults. There are goats, sheep, cows, chickens, ducks, and pigs, as well as all types of vegetables and herbs. Grasses and pasture are grown to feed the animals. Classes are offered to students from all over the region, and the children watch the entire process: Grass becomes the milk that is transformed into cheese, all on the kitchen table.
“We have no big foundation behind us,” admits Margo. “We just figure things out as we go along. And we are still figuring them out each day.”
I had heard over and over again how organic farming on a large scale is impossible — until I met Ray McEnroe, who farms 770 acres and is known affectionately as Raymee by his fellow farmers.
After Ray’s father died in the early 1980s, he and his wife bought their farm from his mother. Ray started out growing three acres of certified organic crops in 1988. Gradually he transformed his father’s dairy farm into the largest organic farm in the Hudson Valley; in season, there are now two to three tons of tomatoes produced every week.
There are also 150 beef cattle grazing on the hillsides along with 130 sheep and lambs. There are chickens, turkeys, and pigs. Ray loves being involved in the whole business — growing crops and watching the harvest, as well as dealing with the animals. “And I enjoy eating the asparagus, tomatoes, all the crops,” he said.
“To me, farming is all about clean food,” he explained. “If you have good soil and enrich it, plants will grow out of any infestation.” His large composting operation combines leaves, source-separated food waste from the farm’s restaurant (as well as from the restaurants at the Culinary Institute and the Omega Institute), and manure from the animals — “clean waste.” The process includes filling large caterpillar-like plastic bags that mulch in the hot sun. They are then opened — not one of the favorite tasks on the farm, according to Ray, who described the smell as putrid.
“Organic farming is not new,” Ray said, observing that before chemicals were invented, everyone farmed organically. “The government has brainwashed farmers into thinking chemicals and fertilizers are the way to go.” He is living testament to the fact that organic farming can be done profitably — and on a large scale. And he’s the first to admit he never thought it was possible.
The September 11th attacks and their aftermath were the major reason Dan Gibson resigned his corporate position and sold his home in the Manhattan suburbs. “My wife, Susan, and I were sitting on the porch of our Katonah home,” he recalls. “We saw a photo of this dairy farm for sale, and I said, ‘Let’s go look at it!’ ”
The Gibsons purchased the 450-acre farm in 2002, and asked Jim and Eileen Stark, a couple experienced in working the property, to join them as partners in a new venture: raising free-range cattle.
Dan’s dream was to raise top-of-the-breed, grass-fed and grass-finished, registered Black Angus cattle, a goal he has accomplished. He explained how many farmers raise cattle purely on grass for nine months, but during those last few months before slaughter they are “finished” with corn feed and antibiotics. It takes Dan three years to finish a steer; by then, he has wintered them three times. “We plant the best grasses — high in both sugar and carbohydrates — which makes for well-marbled, healthy beef.” There is a remarkable difference in taste.
Dan pointed over the hill to his pasture-raised chickens, and mentioned how people in New York City pay $5 a dozen for their superior eggs. “Free range means nothing: All chickens need is access to the outside for 15 minutes each day to be considered free range,” he explained. “Most free range chickens in this country never see grass, let alone taste it.”
I asked Dan if he ever looks back on his urban life and regrets his decision to leave it all behind. “I feel better about what I do now than anything I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “The farmers around here once laughed at my ideas, but now they say, ‘We knew you were on to something.’ ”
From the book Hudson River Valley Farms by Joanne Michaels; photographs by Rich Pomerantz. Copyright © 2009 by Joanne Michaels and Rich Pomerantz. Used by permission of The Globe Pequot Press.
This article was excerpted from Hudson River Valley Farms: The People and the Pride Behind the Produce, which will be published on Aug. 25 by the Globe Pequot Press ($29.95). Author Joanne Michaels (inset), former editor in chief of Hudson Valley, will have a booth at this year’s Dutchess County Fair (Aug. 25-28, & 30), where she will sign copies of her book. Various county farmers will join her there to answer questions about farm life.
Photographer Rich Pomerantz’s work regularly appears in national and regional lifestyle and travel magazines. This is the third book in which his photos have been featured.
All of the farms profiled in this article are open to the public and welcome visitors.