Local Farms Are Finding Novel Ways to Do Business
It's not your grandma’s farm anymore.
Thompson’s Cider Mill produced hard cider for the first time this year.
photo by ken gabrielsen
Farms and orchards throughout Westchester are branching out in nontraditional ways, thanks to great interest in local food and progressive business initiatives from New York State that support small producers. Bucolic settings provide a backdrop for expansions into craft beverages, the arts, and even yoga classes, transforming these spots into destinations.
Stephanie and Katrina Pratt, who studied viticulture and enology at Cornell University, opened White Hill Vineyards with sister Kristamarie on their family’s farm, Wilkens Fruit & Fir Farm in Yorktown Heights, in October 2016. “We took home vines that we had grafted, planted some and decided, Why don’t we try this?” explains Stephanie, adding that land was available and the cost of a farm-winery license made small production on a farm more feasible. They chose grapes that would grow well in the Hudson Valley: Riesling, Cayuga White, Chambourcin, Geneva Red, and Cabernet Franc.
The only Westchester winery growing grapes, they press, ferment and bottle at the farm. First production was 500 cases. “We sold out of [Riesling] in the third day,” says Stephanie, “and are almost out of two other varieties — fewer than 30 bottles left.” The tasting room, a modernized space where apple cider was originally bottled for wholesale, displays the original equipment and pours generous flights. The vineyard draws new visitors to the 1916 farm (there are lawn games for children, too), and the Pratts are also experimenting with hard cider.
White Hill Vineyards in Yorktown Heights is the sole local winery growing grapes.
To enhance customer experience, Tom Gossett of Gossett Brothers Nursery in South Salem, offered store space to John Vuolo and his South Salem Winery in 2015. Vuolo was raised making wine with his grandfather and father in their basement. As a micro-winery, he produces less than 500 gallons of his all-natural, unfiltered, unpasteurized wine with only naturally occurring sulfides, and he has sold out every year.
It’s “Napa Valley meets the botanical gardens,” says Vuolo. Renovations are underway, so they can offer food pairings. Gossett adds, “I picture it as two nervous people on a date. What do you do? Here you have wine and then you can walk around,” describing their labeled trails as “like a garden library.”
Vuolo, who found it simple to procure his license, sources grapes from friends in Orient Point and the Finger Lakes, and then presses, ferments, and bottles them. Wines available include New York State Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon ($25/bottle). After the renovation, a business plan will create synergy between the winery, nursery, and other services offered by Gossett Brothers.
At North Salem’s Harvest Moon Farm & Orchard, the Covino brothers began producing Hardscrabble Cider in 2015. During the winter, when their other businesses are slow, they craft hard cider using a 10-variety blend of excess apples. (Even before making cider, as permitted, they sold other New York State-produced craft beverages.) They sell their ciders on tap, offer flights, host live local music series, and serve brick-oven pizza in the cider garden on weekends. They also plan to begin kegging, so they can become a seasonal tap handle in local bars. In fall, taps are set up next to the orchard, so visitors can sip while apple picking.
Kevin Covino estimates Hardscrabble will produce 4,000 gallons this year and describes their cider as “dryer than your typical cider.” Five kinds are made, some aged with fruits and even hops to attract beer drinkers ($16–$19.25/bottle). The brothers recapped their costs during the first year of operation. They introduced a farm dinner in July and offer yoga classes in the orchard on Saturday mornings.
Geoff Thompson, whose Thompson’s Cider Mill in Croton-on-Hudson is known for using artful blends of heirloom apples in his ciders (Thompson never uses fewer than 10 varieties) and celebrated its 40th season in 2016, aims to fill “the high end of the market” for hard cider. In 2002, a visitor, who coincidentally worked for the state’s agricultural department, suggested Thompson try making hard cider rather than dump unsold cider in his orchard.
Farm-to-table dinners at the artist-in-residence SPACE on Ryder Farm are accompanied by art performances.
After much experimentation, the state’s “incredibly progressive” initiatives, led Thompson to jump into the business. He conducted mass tastings and hired a food scientist from PepsiCo to develop defined recipes. Limited quantities of his new ciders will be available this month, with more later in the season; large-scale production from the 2017 harvest will be ready for late winter 2018. Thompson plans to ferment an English-style cider, a semisweet sparkling, and a fruit-flavored; he will continue making apple wine, similar to a Pinot Grigio.
A 2009 visit to her family’s idyllic, aging, 130-acre organic farm, Ryder Farm, in Brewster, gave then-actress Emily Simoness an unconventional idea. “It was just so clear that there was so much potential… so I did what any sensible person would do,” she says, laughing. “I would bring my scrappy artist friends up to the farm, we would rehabilitate the structures — and, in exchange, they would get to work on their art.” So was born SPACE on Ryder Farm, an artist colony that helps sustain the farm, in her family since 1795. SPACE pays rent, artists-in-residence help with the harvest or act as handymen, and public events also help to supplement funds. There’s the Sharing Space series, featuring local artists, including Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival; Seasonal Suppers, farm-to-table dinners alongside performances by artists-in-residence; and Roving Dinners, eight-course meals held at eight different locations of the farm, with eight excerpts from new plays written there. Six of those have premiered Off Broadway. “A lot of the content that is being created here,” says Simoness, “is going on to have a life.”
Liz Susman Karp, who lives with her husband and sons in Briarcliff Manor, enjoys patronizing local farms and is delighted to have new reasons to enjoy them.