Keepin’ It Local, Folks!

The following article was written by Karin Ursula Edmondson for the Catskill Mountain Guide magazine (January, 2008). It is posted here with permission from the Catskill Mountain Foundation. For more information, please go to Catskill Mountain Foundation

“I think we fundamentally need to change the way our society works,
and how we interact with the natural world around us…
the model that we currently function under has become so focused on economic development, over and above everything else, that it doesn’t include
any accounting for impacts on water and air and health and communities.
It is not sustainable. It is not an accurate depiction of the health of communities, landscapes or human beings…(our) mission now is to be part of helping society to change the way we look at measuring what is a healthy community…”

– Andy Turner, Executive Director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension
of Greene County & Agroforestry Resource Center

The old adage Tis not what you know but whom has resonant meaning in rural life.
Within a week of moving into a two bedroom cottage (with working field stone fireplace) in North Lexington, a neighbor and friend of mine dropped off a burn barrel for me. The profundity of my happiness and thankfulness would have prompted city folks to assume Mike had left a pair of Jimmy Choo’s or a Hermes Birkin bag in my driveway. Neighborly relations matter in the country. Folks know each others’ business – good and bad – but that is a direct result of living in a small community where going it alone doesn’t work all that well. In the country 911 response time is longer than in the city. Chances are a neighbor (with or without a shotgun) will arrive faster than the state trooper. Community counts in the country. Essayist Wendell Berry enobles rural communities, especially local culture as the antidote to the apathy, alienation and cultural ennui that saturates modern life. Local folk are in each other’s business. “When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover, they fear one another.” (Berry, Wendell. What Are People For. North Point Press, New York. P. 157.)
Sustainable farmland and rural social cohesion are intimately related. Perhaps, the ever increasing alienation from one another spurs a profound and urgent need for interaction with a real live warm human being and accounts for the burgeoning popularity of farm markets, farm stands, even a haute barnyard cuisine? A farmer answers questions about crop and livestock management methods on the spot. No seeking and asking an elegantly bored sales associate or listless stock boy about domain, provenance, method of production or otherwise. Farmland is an integral part of the rural community whole. Like any other component of a rural community – butcher store, hardware, mechanic, general – a small family farm could not exist outside of the cohesive fabric of the community. Thus, in essence, when there is talk of saving a farm the core of the matter is saving rural character and with it, a community in a rural place – similar to the Marbletown Green debate a few months ago in Stone Ridge.

Stone Ridge Orchard

Stone Ridge Orchard occupies land that has been farmed in one manner or another for two hundred years – essentially a vital part of the adjacent village of Stone Ridge. Since the early 1800s the farm land has been part and parcel of the Hasbrouck House, a stone house in the Dutch style, estimated built between 1800 and 1820. Benjamin Hasbrouck farmed the 170 acres quite prosperously. Some of his crops: potatoes, winter wheat, rye, corn, buckwheat, oats, apples, honey. Livestock included: meat cattle and milch (Dutch for milk) cattle, swine and poultry. The town agricultural statistics reveal that when farmed, the land increased in value over thirty-three years. Interestingly enough, after Benjamin’s death and the subsequent property transfer to a wealthy New York City relative – a pool builder by trade – who turned the property into a country seat, the land value dropped. “…the pool was the last major addition to the properties. In many ways it may have well been the most significant addition for it transformed the lands from a working dairy farm into country seat.”
1839-1840 – farmed land value $5,250
1854-1855 –farmed land value $8,000
1870 – farmed land value $15,000
1874 – farmed land value $14,000
1901 – not farmed land value $11,000
What does one do at a country seat anyway? Cocktail? Socialize. Perfect the air kiss? Golf – probably. Nothing productive. Nothing creationary. This warrants attention. Perhaps, real estate of a certain kind – that builds airy manses prettified with cookie cutter exotic landscaping – might only appear to have substantial value in the now. But what about long-term? If no one works the land, how much value does the land retain? The corollary: if a nation cannot feed itself, what happens to the security of the nation?
Since 2000 Mike Biltonen, a Cornell educated farmer, orchardman and pomologist (apple expert) has managed the Stone Ridge Orchard leasing the land (his lease expires in 2008) from the current owners of the Hasbrouck House. This past summer, the owners, citing “lack of profitability’ of the orchard, made overtures to sell the orchard land so that Marbletown Green might be built. Marbletown Green being a euphemism for yet another (yawn, sigh) large-scale and un-green housing development. Marbletown residents rallied in opposition and managed to defeat the sale. However, the owners still wish to sell the land even though comparing profits from an orchard to profits from a real estate deal is like comparing currants to wine grapes. Impossible and a bit, ludicrous. Even with an impressive and lengthy client list (3 pages typed in 10 font) that includes every one of the Whole Foods and Balduccis in New York City (and White Plains and Greenwich), premier New York City restaurants like Blue Ribbon, Café Gray, Cookshop, Craft, Grammercy Tavern, Manhattan Fruitier, Pure Food and Wine, Murray’s Cheese, The Spotted Pig, The Riverdale Garden and revered educational institutions Columbia University, Vassar Collage and the Culinary Institute of America – Stone Ridge Orchard’s profits cannot compete with the monies received from a real estate transaction of 116 bucolic acres a mere ninety minutes north of New York City. In 2007 Stone Ridge Orchard has been featured on Sally Spillane’s Garden Show on WKZE and CBS News and Whole Foods Union Square produce department journeyed to Stone Ridge for a tour of the orchard and farm.
“This land needs a dedicated farmer who knows what the orchard and the farm needs. My vision is to see that it remains so for another 200 years,” says Mike. Intuiting that the Stone Ridge community opposition against the housing development is indicative of something deeper, more elemental, Mike is now seeking to raise funds to purchase the land and create the Shawangunk Region Farmland Institute (SRFI) to synergize with the orchard. SRFI’s mission is energized around three values: Continuity, Cohesion and Community. “The recent debates on development has clarified for all of us that the larger issue at hand for our township is not one large-scale housing development. It is how our township handles its need for economic viability without sacrificing the rural values of continuity, cohesion and closeness that make Marbletown unique.” Mike hopes that SRFI will serve as a “creative option to larger global dynamics” in rural American communities. “As part of its journey I believe that Stone Ridge Orchard should become a commercial-educational beacon [a subset of SRFI] for farming in a region where development and economic pressures are forcing farmers out of business and dramatically reducing the agricultural land base. By transforming Stone Ridge Orchard into an example of a highly productive and innovative commercial farm, the solutions to the problems that many growers face can be clarified and refined so that there is viable future for all farms and farmers for the indefinite future.”
Mike’s plans for Stone Ridge Orchard are multi-faceted, reflecting the cross-disciplinary planning team – farmer, ad agency, architect and landscape designer – involved in its realization. Think Tank 3, “a modern day think shop based in NYC created specifically for clients who want advertising, respect design, believe in branding but not blanding” is helmed by folks “who care about the issues and love food and believed in what Mike was doing.” Think Tank 3 President, Harris Silver: “One of the first things we did was frame the issue and create a positioning for Stone Ridge Orchard. Buy Local is used by everyone from local farm stands to the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture and is now so generic that it lacks any real meaning. There are issues that consumers don’t really understand – like organic which has been co-opted by corporate interests. Consumers have this unrealistic notion of organic farmers as barefooted people taking care of plants and don’t understand that organic crops –as defined by the USDA and practiced by large-scale so-called organic farms – can be sprayed by “approved” pesticides and can be grown in a mono-culture. Food miles and food safety were two other issues we needed to address. We wanted to clarify reasons to buy local, to illuminate the deeper understanding that although the food might not be certified organic, consumers can trust it and to convince people that the choice between organic and local sustainable agriculture is a critical choice to make. The positioning for Stone Ridge Orchard we created was ‘Know Your Roots.’ We are now starting to think it might be much bigger than a tagline for one orchard but perhaps a movement that other growers and maybe even manufacturers and restaurants can rally behind. A trusted seal of approval for food, if you will. Whatever happens Stone Ridge Orchard will be credited with starting the whole thing as they should be.” And sales, profits, viability? “The orchard has seen double digit growth in sales with the new packaging in cider and berries. And tomato sales are through the roof.” Stone Ridge Orchard was the first orchard account for Think Tank 3 and despite “frequent sleepless nights this past summer, being a part of saving the orchard is very satisfying. Everyone here loves the work, loves working on the account. And the feedback we get from this work is just fantastic.”
The long term plan involves adapting the existing orchard buildings to other purposes including an open air farmers market with an en plein air plaza, dormitories for folks interested in taking pomology classes that will allow them to work alongside Mike in the orchard, a certified kitchen for value-added products (salsas, chutneys, jams), a cider exhibit hall and the building of a new production facility that would also house SRFI. A new building will be constructed to green specifications and the entire complex will incorporate current sustainable living technology like rainwater collection cisterns, a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar panels and chickens. “The chickens serve two purposes,” says Mike. “It’s hard to get really good eggs these days and, chickens eat a harmful pest called plum curculio weevil that lives at woodland edges.” Plans include community gardens. Landscape design elements will take their cue from the orchard’s organizing axial geometry – the inherent agricultural rhythm of the evenly spaced apple trees. Apple is the orchard’s raison d’etre in the now and so shall the apple tree embrace the community gardens – an old stock apple tree marking each corner of the garden – a nod to the classic French potager. Discussions have been held to recycle old apple crates and pallets through artistic metamorphoses into benches and tables. But the core of it all centers around the necessity that Stone Ridge Orchard remains a productive, working farm that grows great tasting ecologically grown food.
“There has to be an open time line to make changes agriculturally, taking out old orchard, building up soil, diversifying, extending the growing season via hoop houses and cold frames high tunnels. There will be numerous varieties within each category. All will be heirloom to the greatest degree. All will be grown organically or biodynamically, even though we will not be able to certify all crops organically grown next year. Creative farming is what it’s all about. It’s been hard for me to diversify away from apples since I love growing them. Creative farming and creative farmers are those that think and operate out of the box yet definitively not with a ‘petting zoo’ mentality, but in a cohesive ‘what’s best for farming, my neighbors, and the community’ sort of way. Many of our actions in farming are constrained by the environment around us. In a time when global climate change and other forces are changing how, what, and where we farm, there is much that farmers can do to ameliorate those issues. Ultimately, it means changing the nature of farming.”
Stone Ridge Orchard’s 2008 crop list includes apples, Asian pears, basil, bok choi, apple ciders-still & sparkling, nectarines, peaches, Italian plums, red, yellow and black raspberries, red currants, spinach, strawberries, sweet corn, Swiss chard, tatsoi, tomatoes, melons, beets, broccoli, carrots, popcorn, mizuna, thyme, coriander, parsley, hot and sweet peppers and summer and fall squash. Mike plans to move to biodynamic from organic on much of the acreage, and hopes to obtain NOFA certification within three years on all of the apple acreage. Mike is also keen to extend the growing season with high tunnels, develop disease resistant apples and “generally allow nature to manage pests more than we have.” Some methods of natural pest management include smothering weeds, complete composting of apple leaves, cover crops under the tree canopy. “Our production will all be organic or biodynamic in nature by 2011. Apples will be the center of our universe for the indefinite future, though in ten years time I envision Stone Ridge Orchard a highly diversified, innovative fruit and vegetable farm that grows and markets for commercial scale customers. I do not want Stone Ridge Orchard to become either a museum piece or a classroom per se. It needs to reflect its past and reveal its future while realizing that the bulk of the region’s people will be still buy their food in grocery stores, and that the vast majority of folks will never set foot on a farm that grows their food. Though we seek to resolve those problems, too.”

Contact Information
For folks interested in receiving information about investing in the Shawangunk Region Farmland Institute (SRFI) – still in the formative stages – please call Mike Biltonen directly at 845. 687. 2587 or email him at mike@stoneridgeorchard.com . Stone Ridge Orchard will launch a redesigned Online Store in March 2008 where folks can order produce in season, cider, and apparel. Stone Ridge Orchard is located on Route 213 in Stone Ridge, New York 12484. 845. 687 2587. http://www.stoneridgeorchard.com

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About Farmer Mike Biltonen

Mike Biltonen is lifelong farmer with a passion for great tasting, sustainably grown food. He also has an opinion and this blog is his soapbox. But mostly he just likes to farm. Enjoy!
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One Response to Keepin’ It Local, Folks!

  1. Chrisso says:

    Great to hear from the home front! I grew up in Woodstock, passed through Stone Ridge twice daily on the bus to school every day for years; upstate New York, and the Hudson Valley particularly, is an amazing place. Even more importantly, living in an area as fertile as the Hudson Valley, people should be jumping all over the Local Foods movement, and it seems like they are starting to. A tool that should help anyone interested in pursuing local, sustainable foods: The Eat Well Guide, an online database dedicated to helping people find just those restaurants, farms, CSAs, and farmers markets in their area. Check it out at http://www.eatwellguide.org – and if you don’t find any local listings, you can suggest listings that you may know of in your area. I just started an internship with the guide, and I have found it extremely useful. Shout out to my Hudson Valley.

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