Hudson Valley's Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training is a cooperative effort of local organic and biodynamic farms organized to enhance educational opportunities for farm apprentices. This blog covers what host farmers and CRAFT presenters have shared with the future farmers in attendance of Lower Hudson and Mid Hudson workshops.
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Picket white fence, brand new car, front lawn greened and mowed to perfection, the children, the husband or wife, the comfortable career, all the plastic gadgetry one could desire complimented by food stuffs made from the same - the suburban high life. Westchester and neighboring counties of the New York Megalopolis abound with this consumer-version of the American Dream. But this past Summer hidden away in the back streets on Starr Ridge Road, Hanover Street, Kitchawan Road I found the real deal. The American Dream where one could make the choice to succeed and create something of him or herself. These back roads are where one finds the embodiment of American idealism - our farmers.
I tell no tall tale. I met a living American hero: Elizabeth Ryder. Greeted by friends as “Betsey,” she hosted us newbie farmers at her family’s historic homestead Ryder Farm Cottage Industries to conclude the 2010 CRAFT series.
Betsey found herself upon an opportunity like none other in the late 70s. She was invited back to the land on which her very own roots grew, to continue the family farm and take it in a new direction. Organic agriculture replaced the overgrowth from 50 years of neglect; cultivation replaced ostentation where a once fashionable tennis court surrounded by rose bushes now housed a sprouted tree and would become another garden space. Over the decades, with help from the Soil and Water Conservation District and certainly many laboring hands, a management plan was developed to revive the arable and grazing lands within the 120 acres.
Three decades latter Ryder Farm is a community, boarding nearly 30 resident workers collaborating to grow everything from diversified vegetables, luscious flowers, storage crops, farm animals, and compost piles. To qualify for agricultural assessment benefits Ryder Farm needed to produce a greater agricultural bounty. Thus, operations have doubled to cultivate new ground with purchasing another walk-in cooler and green house to support the expansion. Goods are marketed through a 75 person CSA, Green Markets stand in Union Square on Saturdays, and Pepsico Farmers Market on Tuesday.
For as much as the law has confronted Ryder Farm in opposition giving Betsey quite some headaches over the years, she too has reaped benefits offered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Watershed Agricultural Council such as receiving funding to install a manure composting pad and open pasture to grazing cattle.
Expanding also included inviting Doug, a young and eager recent Warren Wilson graduate, to cultivate a full acre adjacent the property’s two bee hives. He grew diversified vegetables in 450-foot long rows he would like to re-map into 8 more manageable quadrants, and experimented with grains with little success but a worthy learning curve. He focuses on non-perishable crops, particularly dried beans. Doug’s produce is distributed through a buying club and sold to local restaurants, like the Flying Pig (Mount Kisco) and Sweet Grass Grill (Tarrytown).
We walked through the gardens to begin the workshop. Minus the perennial flowers section, which was overwhelmed with weeds, the rest of the garden space is covered with black fabric. Overcoming the challenge of keeping the wind from rustling fabric against the fragile annual plants takes priority over weeding. The fabric comes in 300-foot lengths cut to size for her 150-foot long beds. Rolling up and rolling out the re-usable fabric each season which lasts from 7-12 years requires careful inventory. Just as the wise tale goes, gardens do not grow so well by Black Walnut trees and the garden edge beneath this tree seemed prone to disease and poor growth, but all else was flourishing.
Since laying out the black fabric, rodent pests and ground hog pressure has dropped. In this beautifully kept, weed-free environment such animals become too vulnerable from predators above to roam about. A 5-foot high electric fence with 10-feet more of mesh strung above keep out the deer. Being that the fence is in desperate need of repair, it is more likely the deer have been trained to stay away as opposed to physically kept out. With a cheerful smile, she asked the group for advice defending against the Mexican bean beetle. Each year they return without fail. The first bean planting makes it through, the second struggles, and the third is feasted upon.
The focus of the workshop was her name brand “Flowers From My Garden” bouquets. Plant only what one can harvest and consider picking wild flowers, she began. Standardization in harvesting and bouquet prepping methodology (for efficiency) and sanitization of buckets and clippers (for quality control) give “Flowers From My Garden” added-value in the competitive NYC market. In a dance called “Swirling” the staff bunches 150 to 200 bouquets on Friday evenings. As each person swirls about the table lined with buckets of freshly picked cosmos, zinnias, goldenrods, tyconias, cats whiskers, Echinacea, yarrow… - a rainbow of blooming flowers - during past Swirls a band of friends would be invited over to play at the “Flower Party.” We each partook in our first Swirls and walked off past the tractor shed, the man-made stone and concrete stage being constructed, through the nuptial garden whilst goats purred in the background with our bouquets in hand.
In the final potluck we would be sharing together, Betsey offered her own pearls of wisdom, a glamorous-less take on things. Betsey is a full-time emergency room nurse at Danbury Hospital atop of fully orchestrating marketing and farm management here. Working is to pay for living and the goal is for the farm to pay for itself. This is how farm families have always survived.
In part it is Betsey’s spirit and humble attitude towards what she does that makes her an American idol. With gratitude that is unique to find and admirable at the least Betsey said, “I do not own the farm. The farm owns me. Find something you enjoy doing and build a community.”