Ever since the French Huguenots planted some of the nation’s very first grape vines in what is now New Paltz in 1677, the Hudson Valley has been chock-full of farms. By the end of the American Revolution, the region was mostly an agricultural area, with farms concentrated along the Hudson and other local waterways. Wheat, as well as other grains, were the major crops back then — but hops, maple syrup, vegetables, dairy products and livestock, even tobacco, were also produced here.
But 200 years later, the region’s rich agricultural heritage was in danger. Family farms across the nation were rapidly disappearing: In 1900, 42 percent of the country’s population lived on a farm, but by 1990 that number had dwindled to just two percent. The tide began to turn, however, when California’s Chez Panisse opened in the early 1970s with a menu using all local foods. By the 1980s, the idea of sustainable farming, organic products, and the slow-food movement started to creep into the American consciousness. Today, the term farm-to-table hardly denotes a trend anymore — it is simply the norm for most new, high-quality restaurants. And the epicenter for all this homegrown hoopla? The Hudson Valley.
With its proximity to New York City, as well as rich soil and micro-climate conditions, it’s no wonder that the region is reclaiming its agricultural importance. Last year, the Culinary Institute of America even instituted a Farm-to-Table program. All bachelor’s degree students at the Hyde Park college will spend one semester at the lush Napa Valley, California campus. There they will study with famed chef Larry Forgione (dubbed “the godfather of American cuisine” and the longtime head chef at Rhinebeck’s Beekman Arms); harvest food on three CIA farms; then prepare and serve it at the Conservatory, a “crop-up” restaurant that is open to the public on weekends. As Chef Forgione likes to point out, farm-to-table is “a way of life,” not a tagline.
So what exactly are we growing and producing here? Oh, lots of things. Glynwood’s 2010 report, “The State of Agriculture in the Hudson Valley,” notes that “the farming culture here is unusually rich and varied.” While dairy farms continue to dominate (New York has the third highest dairy sales in the nation), farmers are also producing fruits, vegetables, poultry, and meat (including even ostrich and emu meat).
But that’s not all. The local maple syrup industry has gone into overdrive in the past few years, with Dutchess County powerhouse Crown Maple Syrup attracting attention coast to coast. Milling-quality grains are being grown throughout the region, including at Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners. The apple industry has been strengthened by the creation of “Cider Week” and other opportunities to help orchards thrive. Southern Orange County’s fertile Black Dirt region — composed of the remains of a shallow swamp that formed after glaciers melted away more than 10,000 years ago — produces world-famous onions, leading Pine Island to be nicknamed “the onion capital of the world.” But the newest crop to cause a sensation? Hops. Spurred on by the booming craft beer industry, hops farms are making a dramatic comeback. Dutchess Hops, the Valley’s first commercial hops farm, holds a Hoptember Harvestfest on September 13.
Whether you’re a farmer, fruit grower, distiller, chef, restaurateur — or someone who just loves to eat — the Valley’s agricultural renaissance is playing an ever-expanding role in what you’ll likely find on your dinner plate tonight.