When I first picked up Hudson River Valley Farms: The People and the Pride behind the Produce by Joanne Michaels, I thought it was a typical self-promoting regional book, meant to be sold at gift shops throughout its depicted geography. But I discovered within the farm profiles a commentary on agriculture in New York State.
Before I explain, let’s start with a brief geography lesson for those of you unfamiliar with New York state. Loosely speaking, the Hudson River Valley connects New York City in the south with Albany in the north. The book starts at the southern end of this valley and follows the Hudson River north, profiling many of the farms located in this valley. A map is included, allowing you to locate each farm and its relationship to the others and to the two major New York cities.
The Challenges of a Modern Farm in a Changing World
I thought I’d use quotes from various farmers to illustrate some of the themes the book presents to the careful reader.
…if it weren’t for the New York State agricultural exemption, the family farm couldn’t exist.
Kathy Longyear, Longyear Farm.
The closer one gets to New York City, the more land costs and the higher the real estate taxes. Without a tax exemption, many farms in the Hudson Valley wouldn’t be able to pay their taxes. Farmers closest to NYC inherited their land and repurposed it, changing the focus to take advantage of what city dwellers would pay most for. There is a constant struggle to hold onto the land when you can make more by selling it than working it.
Agri-tourism is the last refuge of agriculture.
Steve Osborne, Stoutridge Vineyard
Not everyone has the personality to have a public farm.
Thomas Hahn, Hahn Farm
Another way many farms increase their profit margin is to invite the public in–and charge them for it. Some offer you-pick opportunities, others provide tours, hay rides, mazes, community supported agriculture, classes, or a restaurant. One enterprising orchard operates a Lease-a-Tree program. These non-traditional activities have their own challenges, everything from liability issues and creative marketing to the need to smile when you don’t feel like smiling.
Diversity keeps us going, but breaks our backs.
Chris Cashen, The Farm at Miller’s Crossing
I think you need to be possessed to farm, you have to have a calling.
Maria Mikkelsen, Willow Tree Flower Farm.
One Ulster County farmer leaves at 2:30am to get to his NYC market. Another gets up at 3am to spray his trees, if that’s when they need it. On many farms, one or both partners has an outside job to supplement the farm’s income. Farming is more than physically demanding; it challenges the farmer mentally, emotionally, and financially as well. In every farm profiled, you can see the attention to detail and innovative thinking that enables these farms to survive when so many others have not.
Both Tour Guide and Documentary
The primary function of Hudson River Valley Farms is to entice you to visit these farms, and it does that admirably. The photography is wonderful, and directions to all farms, plus the markets they sell at, are provided, as well as the map mentioned previously. If you live or travel to the Hudson Valley region, you will want to consult this book for the opportunity it provides to obtain local food carefully grown. But this book also provides a glimpse into the challenges and concerns of farmers trying to make a living in the face of encroaching development, rising energy costs, and increasingly stringent regulations. If these kinds of agricultural issues interest you, this book merits a place on your reading stack, even if your armchair is far from the Hudson River.
Thanks to Rich Pomerantz, photographer for Hudson River Valley Farms, for providing the review copy.