Monthly ArchiveApril 2008
Local Farmers 13 Apr 2008 07:11 pm
10:00am is coffee break at the Wilklow farm. On the day of my early spring visit I followed the crew of farmhands to the kitchen near the main farmhouse, where Sharon Wilklow and her sister Dorothy were baking treats to sell at the weekend market. They’d laid out an urn of excellent coffee and a small feast of fresh-baked quick breads, muffins, and cider donuts. During break I listened in on the news of the day: Sharon & Fred’s son Albert was getting married in a couple of months, and he had on hand the floorplans for the house he’s building nearby, on land adjoining the farm. The kitchen looked out over the slopes of the apple and pear orchards, and Sharon described how in few weeks the view from the window will be filled by blossoms. The white blooms will fill the kitchen with their fragrance as they traverse across the hillside, the trees of each variety flowering in its turn.
After break Fred took me to a small shed nearby. Inside, a half dozen piglets scampered in hay in the warmth of heat lamps. They’d only recently been purchased from the farm nearby where they’d been born and weaned. Their little bodies were small as footballs, but they’ll gain three pounds a day and in mid-July weigh 200 pounds or more. On this chilly first day of spring, they were still living full-time inside their warm shed, protected from the weather. But as they grow, and as the weather warms up, they’ll roam in about in a wooded pasture. There they’ll have shade and nice cool mud, and will root for food in the soil beneath the trees.
We also paid a visit to Fred’s steers, a herd of six or so Angus in a pasture down the road from the main farmhouse. At 2-1/2 years of age, they were just about ready for market. In fact two more steers were already at the meatpackers, ready to be picked up. That’s as much beef as Fred will sell in six or eight weeks.
It had rained the day before and the pasture was muddy, but the grass would soon grow in and the steers will have as much of it as they care to eat. Their diet is varied though, to produce the kind of beef that Fred likes best and that he feels his customers like best, since not everyone likes beef that’s strictly grass-fed. So in addition to grass in summer and hay year-round, each morning and evening the steers get a non-medicated grain mixture. They usually get only as much as they’ll finish off, and no more, so that Fred’s not buying grain for the wild turkeys to swoop in from the surrounding woods and finish the leftovers. For an additional snack, the steers also get the leftover apple pumice from the cider press, and I watched them devour a load of the sweet stuff as Albert dumped it into their feeder. The steers do the farm a favor by eating up the pumice, as it doesn’t break down well and so can’t be dumped or buried. Before he raised steers, Fred was at bit of a loss for good ways to dispose of it. Now, the cidermaking leftovers can be incorporated into the farm’s ecosystem and at the same time contribute to a diet that produces flavorful, quality Beef. Fred’s not concerned if it’s not a diet that will bulk up the steers as large or as fast as possible. As he tells it, “I’m not looking for maximum growth, I’m looking for good growth.”
On this first day of spring, at the very early beginning of the growing season, the farm was still operating with its small year-round crew, with only enough hands to run the cider press and the farmers markets. But already the summer crew was beginning to re-appear, returning to the Hudson Valley from their homes in Mexico and Jamaica. Fred sponsors them, and houses and pays them, according to the rules of the H2A visa program, and at the peak of the season he’ll have a crew of have 20 farmhands. Most of the crew return to the farm year after year, some for as long as 20 years or more. They are knowledgeable and invaluable members of the farm’s operation, employees who know when each apple variety opens and which trees ripen first.
With the help of this crew, Wilklow Orchards maintains a presence in four New York City greenmarkets: Borough Hall, Grand Army Plaza, Fort Greene, and beginning this year, a new market in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan. Market days are long, and they require a lot of hands to be off of the farm during peak season when the farm’s work is never done. The Staten Island Ferry Terminal market is especially demanding: they need to be set up and open for business by 7:00 to catch the morning rush, so they pull the truck in at 5:30. And by the time they’ve worked the evening rush and packed up, it’s 8pm. It all adds up to a workday that begins at 3am, when the truck leaves the farm, and goes until 10pm when they finally arrive home. During the hotter weeks of the summer the day is even longer, since they can’t pack the truck the night before and must get up an hour earlier to get the goods out of cold storage.
But days spent at home on the farm are long days too, typically stretching from sunrise to sunset. These days they’re starting at 7am or so, but by July they’ll be in the fields picking berries at 5:30. In describing this routine, Fred quotes a professor from his college days: “Anybody can put in a 40-hour week doing something they don’t like because there’s time to do what you want after work. But if you’re putting in a 100-hour week & you don’t love it, you’re in trouble.”