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Farms, Fall, and Folly

October 21, 2015

Sometimes I’m floored by how a story on this little blog can take on a life of its own. Over a hundred people who came to the blog yesterday to read the post about Heather Ridge Farm also clicked on the Facebook sharing icon at the bottom of the page. Wow. Thank you!

Thank you for not just reading these daily musings, but for passing them along to others. It’s incredibly moving to see the invisible hand of a blog reader reaching out to help the effort of promoting our local farms.

So it’s in this spirit of thanks that I’m going to grant a reader request. Well, Jess X is more than just a reader. She was a source of great inspiration and cool in the early days of All Over Albany. And while she’s now in California, she still keeps tabs of things here back in her homeland.

Well, yesterday Jessica sent me this tweet:

Since we were on the subject of our local farms anyhow, I think it’s quite relevant. So please take a moment and scan the NYT article in the link, and then I can weigh in with my thoughts.

Fine, don’t read the story. I’ll give you the synopsis.

Apple picking season is madness for the orchards. As it becomes harder for small family operations to compete in the wholesale marketplace, these local businesses rely on farm-tourists for much of their revenue. And the implication is that many farms are losing their soul to entice them.

Of course, the NYT paints a pretty ugly picture of the agri-tourists too. But let’s start with the farms:

“If my father were alive the first year we had the apple festival, he would have had a heart attack,” said Susan Goold Miller, 61, of Goold Orchards in Castleton, N.Y., where the two-day festival typically draws 20,000 people and the talent has included a Shania Twain impersonator. “It can feel very far from our roots. But if you want to survive, you have to do this, the rides and the bounce house. It’s apples and entertainment.”

I’m not convinced. I think there are other orchards that have found different paths to survival. I don’t doubt the struggle. The struggle is real. But there are orchards I’ve visited and enjoyed that are not Disneyfied versions of themselves. It would seem that some survive by staying small. Indian Ladder Farms is working on a farm brewery. Golden Harvest launched Harvest Spirits Distillery. Hicks-Wilson produces some great cider. The Carrot Barn has a restaurant and country store. And all of these places do a better than average job with their apple cider donuts. Winning people over with food and booze is a strategy that goes back hundreds of years.

Bringing in more entertainment is a double edged sword. Yes, you may get more people to the farm. But you’re also getting the kind of people who are coming for the entertainment instead of a chance to get closer to their food and the land.

Here is a great excerpt from the article which demonstrates that point:

“One year, when we lost 98 percent of our apple crop, someone called and said, ‘Thank you for ruining our fall tradition,’ ” Ms. Goold Miller said. The crop failure was caused by a spring freeze. “I said, ‘Do you understand we might not be around next year?’ ”

One customer at Bowman’s groused that he had been unable to pick strawberries, a fruit that ripens in spring. At Indian Ladder, some visitors complained about needing to walk to separate orchards to pick different varieties of apples. On a day when scores of apple pickers fanned through rows of Macouns and Cortlands, some were intently focused on getting the ones they wanted.

“Be careful, Daddy’s knocking apples down,” a woman warned her two children as her husband picked at a tree not much larger than he was, causing branches to snap and a few apples to tumble down. “Back up,” she said. “Apples are falling out of that tree.”

Jerks. You get entitled jerks. But in good conscience, I can’t assign all the blame to these badly behaving consumers. Because when a business creates a theme park atmosphere, it’s not entirely unreasonable for visitors to treat the outing like a theme park experience. In the fantasy world of theme parks breaking off branches of a living tree has no lasting consequences, and it is totally reasonable to pick strawberries in October. Don’t forget, theme parks are the places where fantasies come to life.

My sincere hope is that the smaller orchards in our region who have not caved in to such shenanigans have smartly ignored the NYT article. Yes, there is increased pressure on the local farms. But I do not think the answer is to try and create a larger carnival than the orchard down the road. That’s a short term solution, and in the end will create more problems than it’s worth.

Fortunately, many of these growers are from good stock. This part of the story gave me hope:

“Three years ago, when the apple crop failed and Indian Ladder needed something for visitors to do, Mr. Ten Eyck added a few rides, which proved to be a big draw. Two years later, he insisted on taking them out.”

Bravo. I knew there was a reason I liked Indian Ladder Farms. Actually, I enjoy most of the orchards that aren’t overly commercial. Bowman and Liberty Ridge are two of the more popular in the region, but they are both at the bottom of my list. If I want a corn maze or go-carts, I’ll go seek those out elsewhere. When it’s apple picking season, give me great apples (grown with integrated pest management instead of routine scheduled sprays), warm apple cider donuts, and a cup of cider. If there are animals or hay rides, that’s a happy bonus.

Farmers, of all people, should know that you reap what you sow. Hopefully the NYT piece serves as a gentle reminder of that, and not as a call to action for more entertainment on the farm.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Dave permalink
    October 21, 2015 11:56 am

    I went picking at Indian Ladder the other week. There was a couple behind me in line to pay for a bag. I picked a couple apples with the family then had to go to the car for something. That couple was already leaving. They had come, snapped their selfies for social media, picked 4 or 5 apples, then took off…

    Apple picking has become an “experience.” I hate it. The crowds of shoving maniacs. Heck, two school busses full of tourists disgorged in the parking lot as I left.

    Sigh, I planted 2 apple trees in the yard so now I should be sorted for apples in 5 or so years. i will still probably take the kids to an orchard or two a season but it isn’t the same as in the recent past.

    I always figured apple picking was a timeless experience. But, inevitably, we have found a way to screw it up.

  2. October 21, 2015 11:57 am

    Having been on two of your cider donut tours where we visited some of these farms at harvest time, and having read the Times article when it appeared, I say let the farmers do what they decide is appropriate and let the public react accordingly, seeing as we live in a market economy and not North Korea.

    Yes, there were crowds and lines at some of the farms we visited, but I would posit that traipsing through apple orchards is a more wholesome family activity than, say, Fright Fest at Great Escape even if there are others in the fields. I later visited Elm Farm with my family and that was truly over the top, with a very long wait to pay and get inside and wait in more lines. So we used Yelp to find Smith Family orchard, the nearest place with cider donuts and no lines. But if a family feels that standing in lines is more enjoyable, more power to them. And I’m happy to see farmers earn an honest buck any way they can get it.

  3. October 21, 2015 1:34 pm

    I feel for the farmers. They are trying to make a living and keep their businesses going. Selfish, ignorant people will always exist unfortunately. That kind of behavior really gets to me. Hopefully this blog and other local outlets can draw more attention to the smaller operations for those who want a quieter experience. I really enjoyed picking at Golden Harvest. Great donuts, distillery sampling, and tasty apples.

    Just be glad the apples are still around. Most of the Marin County orchards were ripped out long ago and replaced with grape vines to feed the wine industry juggernaut.

  4. Shawn permalink
    October 23, 2015 11:02 am

    Great post! The struggle is real and in an effort to keep up many businesses seem to think they need to replicate what others do to stay compeitive. There is a market for that but it’s a tough road and it is a constant battle trying to keep up and out do others while doing something they probably don’t enjoy. I find these places are no longer special and almost painful to visit.

    I would much rather frequent a business that decided to be truly special while realizing they might not be for everyone.

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