THE HUDSON VALLEY HAS LONG been held as one of the premier growing regions in the United States. Early Colonial farmers were self-sufficient and produced enough food to support their local communities, but the real boon came when the expanding city of New York outgrew its capacity to sustain itself, leading Hudson Valley farmers to ship apples, peaches, and other fruits and vegetables by steamboat down the Hudson River to larger, hungry markets. The Hudson Valley became an agricultural workhorse. Hudson Valley apples rose to prominence, fetching previously unheard of prices in Manhattan and other cities.
However, the agricultural ascendancy of the Hudson Valley would not last forever. Railroads, and later highways, supplanted waterways as the primary means of shipping in America. The Hudson Valley’s proximity to the city, which was critical to its initial success, later became less relevant, as the ever-decreasing cost of transportation brought large industrial farming operations in the Midwest and California closer to East Coast cities.
Farms of every size had a hard time selling apples wholesale to brokers while still maintaining a profitable business. Many orchards tried to innovate while others were swallowed up. Suburbanization slowly took over the fallow fields across the country, as struggling farmers accepted buyouts for their land to make way for developments and strip malls.
Preserving the Orchards
Located within sight of the Shawangunk Ridge, Stone Ridge Orchard in High Falls was poised for development. Over the last century, portions of the orchard were carved out along the road as owners sold lots of land when money was tight. This practice was echoed in the Hudson Valley’s “Banana Belt,” the hillside above Marlboro and Milton, known for its eastern, river-facing views that catch the morning sun, making it one of the warmest parts of the river valley.
In the 1970s, Stone Ridge Orchard underwent reconstruction, and many of the large, older apple trees were replaced with smaller trees that were easier to manage. By the turn of the 21st century, successive challenging harvests and lackluster sales had eaten away at the orchard as cash flow dwindled. In 2007, developers locked in on the 114-acre parcel for development. The proposed Marbletown Green project was to include a 350-home development in place of the historic orchard.
Following public outcry, the Marbletown Green project was eventually withdrawn. After nearly a decade of discussion, Elizabeth Ryan, owner of Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider and Breezy Hill Orchards, who had managed the property for years, purchased the orchard. The sale was made possible by the American Farmland Trust who
had purchased the rights to ensure that the orchard would never be threatened by development again. Non-profit organizations such as American Farmland Trust, Scenic Hudson, and Glynwood, an agricultural non-profit based in Cold Spring, have been at the frontline, working hard to preserve the valley’s farmland.
According to the American Farmland Trust, 31 million acres of agricultural land nationwide were developed between 1992 and 2012. Curbing this rate in the Hudson Valley, which loses thousands of acres of farmland each year, has been a top priority for Glynwood. For over 20 years, Glynwood has been at the center of education, training, innovation, and advocacy. They broke ground with their cider project which has given new tools to cider makers across New York State which has close to 100 cider producers—the most in the country.
Megan Larmer, regional director of food at Glynwood said the cider project was inspired by the desire to save the Hudson Valley’s historic orchards. “Over the decade, we’ve worked with growers, cider makers, chefs, and researchers to create a vibrant cider culture that connects residents to these orchards so they will be valued for generations to come,” Larmer said.
Planting for the Future
Cider makers across the region have begun to plant cider-specific apples to bring structure, weight and tannin to their ciders, something lacking from the existing varieties in many older orchards. In 2015, Angry Orchard made the Hudson Valley its home at their Cider House in Walden, in the center of a 60-acre orchard. The orchard, once filled with unwanted apples such as Red Delicious, was replanted in favor of tannin-rich, bittersweet English cider apples like Dabinett. Angry Orchard’s investment in New York has helped preserve agricultural land, not only on their home farm but throughout the state. Long-term contracts for apples are keeping trees in the ground and ensuring stability in an unstable industry.
In 2016, Angry Orchard undertook one of its most ambitious programs in collaboration with Glynwood. They sponsored trial plantings of 5,000 trees across 15 orchards in an effort to identify the apple varieties best suited for the Hudson Valley. Every spring, Glynwood collects data to monitor how these trees are growing.
Considering the investment that goes into every bottle, cider remains an incredible value. There is still much to learn about growing and harvesting cider-specific apples, and the associated costs of such apples are higher compared to traditional eating apples. This means that the fruit in every $20 bottle of cider costs more to grow than the grapes in an average $20 bottle of Chardonnay.
For much of the 20th century, farms throughout the Hudson Valley sold fruit to packing houses that would combine the apples of many farmers and market them for sale in New York City. But declining prices and the demands of reinvestment pushed many to convert their orchards to retail businesses.
Instead of bringing apples to the people, the people would come to the apples.
The Growth of U-Pick
Today, U-Pick orchards dot the Valley, attracting a loyal following every year in search of strawberries in late spring and the last of the Gold Rush apples at winter’s door. Apple picking has become an annual tradition that has as much to do with cider donuts and hay rides as it does about fruit.
Among the U-Pick orchards that came to embrace cider is Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction. Josh Morgenthau, third-generation proprietor, introduced cider in 2016 and made many improvements at the farm to ensure that cider remains an integral part of the orchard’s future, as it is at family-owned Kettleborough Cider House and Pennings Farm Cidery.
At Fishkill Farms, cider-specific heirloom apples are planted alongside the popular Honeycrisp and Ginger Gold apples. While guests won’t be picking and feasting on the future cider crop, they can sip on estate-grown cider with a plate of Jamaican jerk chicken, overlooking the trees that bore the fruit.
Orchard Hill Cider Mill on Soons Orchards draws visitors from across the region seeking their classic method sparkling cider and world-class Pommeau. Visitors can belly up to the cider bar in their tasting room after picking their favorite apples.
Inspired by the Spanish tradition of cider making, Peter Yi and his sister Susan started Brooklyn Cider House in 2014. While they were building their restaurant and production space in Brooklyn, they purchased Twin Star Orchards just south of New Paltz.
Here, Yi is looking to infuse decades of beverage experience with consumer’s annual habits. Weekend pizzas and the occasional pig roast means visitors get more than just fruit at their orchard, making it a place to visit in spring and summer, and not just fall.
Yet for many visitors, these activities are the only time they’ll spend on a farm all year. This puts cider in a unique position to engage people differently than other alcohol or farm businesses. Breweries can use hops and grain grown thousands of miles away, and no one visits a winery expecting to snack on the grapes that go into the bottle, but cider brings people up close and personal with the raw materials.
Old Orchards Renewed
U-Pick orchards lose one out of every three apples to careless pickers, which often come the rest on the orchard floor, rather than in the bags of visitors.
But that is not the only underutilized fruit. Cider makers like Bad Seed Cider and Naked Flock utilize apples that were not destined for retail sales due to their size or cosmetic irregularities. These apples would often cost more to grow and process than a farmer could sell them for. For instance, Hudson Valley Northern Spy apples that once ended up in commercial applesauce only fetched a fraction of the price they would at the farmer’s market. Now, thanks to cider, Northern Spy apple trees have a new life.
Doc’s Draft Cider in Warwick has been a leader in the Hudson Valley since they first opened their doors in 1994. As one of the first cideries and then first fruit distiller in the Valley, they established many of the foundations that the modern cider community is built upon. They proved that there could be an alternative to the traditional U-Pick or wholesale farms—that value-added agricultural goods might be the future of the family farm.
The agricultural promise of the Hudson Valley lies in products like cider, cheese, charcuterie, and other value-added products that are both environmentally and economically sustainable. With support from organizations such as Glynwood, they are part of a changing landscape that keeps the wealth of the Valley tied to its agricultural heart. Cider is the perfect vehicle for orchards in the Hudson Valley to build upon for the next generation, turning the hurdles of development into assets.
Cider from the Hudson Valley is some of the finest in the world, which alone is enough reason to drink it up, but it is even more delicious when you consider that every glass of cider can help preserve the agricultural landscape and future of the Hudson Valley.
By Dan Pucci