Monthly ArchiveOctober 2009

Local Farmers 29 Oct 2009 10:15 pm

Fishkill Farms – Fall 2009 (Part 2)

Read part 1

Julia, who runs the weekend stands for Fishkill Farms at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall and Carroll Gardens greenmarkets, led me around to the back of  Fishkill’s Farm Market to meet Josh Morgenthau.  Josh and his girlfriend Hannah Geller (who sometimes writes for Serious Eats) talked with me for a long while in the farm’s small office before Josh took me on a tour of the farm. Josh, who has the scruffy, bearded look of an urbane, young back-to-the-land farmer, is about the age his grandfather was when he started the farm. He speaks deliberately, forming his thoughts carefully,  with a knowledge of farming that’s surprising from someone who’s been at it only for a year. He’s a Yale-trained artist, and when he returned to Fishkill a couple of years ago (he’d visited here throughout his childhood) it was to paint, not to farm. However, it happened that the farm manager they’d hired didn’t work out, and they couldn’t find a qualified replacement, so Josh stepped in to run things. To prepare himself for the job he went for advice (and sometimes even for equipment) to other knowledgeable, environmentally conscientious growers like Steve Clark of Prospect Hill Orchards, and he read every book he could find about growing apples. Michael Phillips’ The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist stands out for him as a wealth of information on sustainable apple growing. For insight into conventional growing, Josh relied on Cornell University’s Pest Management Guidelines, and on  Cornell’s Extension Service, whose agents visited the farm many times over the season.

By all accounts this was a pretty rough year to start in as farm manager. To begin with, tragically, the farm’s historic barn burned down early in the season – a devastating loss both of equipment and storage and of farm and family heritage. Then there was the prolonged rain and cool weather that dominated the early part of the season, and the much-reported tomato blight that, in Josh’s words, “clobbered” their tomatoes.  Josh estimates that Fishkill produced probably only half of the vegetables of a normal season. But where some farms, particularly organic farms, lost their entire crop of tomatoes and plowed under many of their other crops besides, because of the tenacity of Julia and her crew the farm brought a steady flow of produce to the market, including a good number of tomatoes. And in the orchards they’re currently enjoying a good crop of apples as well.

Fishkill’s vegetable beds are fully organic, but the orchards, Josh says, are a “tough nut to crack” when it comes to growing organically.  To begin with, half of the orchard’s 40 acres are given over to McIntosh or apples in the McIntosh family – a legacy of the orchard’s history of catering to the wholesale market. These varieties are popular favorites, but are also among the most dependant on conventional fungicides, as they’re particularly susceptible to apple scab, a common and pernicious fungal disease.

They’d like to transition these parts of the orchards over to newer varieties that are just as tasty as the McIntosh but less susceptible to disease. But there is typically a long waitlist for seedlings, which then require several years before becoming productive apple trees. Economically, it’s a very difficult decision to de-commission trees at their producing peak, and many of the McIntosh blocks of the orchard are at that stage. On top of that there is the mandatory three-year wait once an orchard begins using organic methods before it can gain full certification — during which time they’ll be farming with more expensive organic methods but still only able to charge conventional rates on the wholesale market.

And even those portions of the orchard that are run organically need to undergo considerable spraying, particularly in a wet year like this one. It’s a point that Josh takes pains to explain. “The prospect of a no-spray orchard in New York State is pretty much non-existent,” he says, since the wet, relatively cool climate is particularly hospitable to the fungus that causes scab.  “Even the really devout ecological growers, intensely managing a couple of acres with compost or rotations of animals in the orchards will still spray at least several times a year.” At Fishkill, Josh sprays sulfur, the most commonly used organic fungicide, to combat scab. And he uses Surround, a spray made from a kaolin clay, to deter insects. The clay-based spray is completely non-toxic (it works by simply gunking-up the legs or mouth parts of insects that would otherwise damage the fruit), but it leaves a white reside that customers often mistake for a harmful chemical.

“It’s one of those funny things where there’s a gap between the reality of the farm and what people know,” says Josh.  Closing that gap, communicating directly with customers about their growing practices, is an important goal at Fishkill, especially where they’re striving to use sustainable growing practices but don’t yet have — or may not be trying for – organic certification.  Certification is always important, because it gives the customer an easy, recognizable way to know that the food was raised without synthetic inputs. But it also forces the farmer to adhere to an externally-determined set of practices that may or may not be best for his farm. Organic pesticides can, in fact, be more toxic than their conventional alternatives, and given the fact that organic growers often have to spray more frequently, they can be, cumulatively, more environmentally disruptive.

That said, in some blocks of the orchard a strictly organic regimen has seen promising results, and organics remain an important part of the strategy of sustainable growing at Fishill. But organic growing and organic certification are not the ultimate goals in Josh’s vision for Fishkill. “The key to being truly sustainable,” he says, “lies in replacing the trees with new varieties, and working over time to boost the immune response of the trees themselves, so that we can rely less on spraying, organic or otherwise.” This means encouraging populations of beneficial insects, and adopting techniques like pasturing sheep and chickens in the orchard, where their manure will not only fertilize the trees but will also help to decompose the fallen leaves, where the worst diseases overwinter.

Such practices are still fairly experimental. They aren’t required for organic certification but are guided instead by principles of Integrated Pest Management. IPM is grounded in ecological ideals, and aims to significantly reduce or completely eliminate the use of pesticides, but also allows the farmer the freedom to determine the pest control strategies that work best for his farm.  Since IPM is less recognizable and less easily explainable than the familiar organic label, the ability to talk directly with customers about it, to describe exactly what Fishkill’s growing practices are, is crucial. It works well to do that with the pick-your-own traffic that provides much of the farm’s business, but it doesn’t help in the wholesale market, where much of their crop is still sold. Still, Josh is confident that his approach is best for Fishkill’s orchards and will in the end be better for the farm’s business. “Having certification is always important,” Josh says, “but it’s ideal if you can communicate with your customers directly. Then you’re not a victim of fads. Right now there’s an organic bubble and people are already saying it’s going to burst. But if you have that direct relationship, whatever happens in terms of the market isn’t going to damage you.”

Local Farmers 18 Oct 2009 01:53 pm

Fishkill Farms – Fall 2009 (part 1)

The booth for Fishkill Farms at the Borough Hall Greenmarket is not one of the market’s larger setups — it’s dwarfed by the sprawling pavilions of Wilklow Orchards and Phillips Farms across the plaza. So although I’ve enjoyed their excellent produce this summer, I was a little surprised when David Sherman, the market manager, suggested that I pay Fishkill Farm a visit and write about them, as I’d done last year for Wilklow Orchards. Why would he recommend them over all the other farms at the Cadman Plaza market?

It turns out that Fishkill has a quite distinguished history. It was started in the nineteen-teens by Henry Morgenthau Jr., a distinguished public servant and Father of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. The son of a prominent lawyer and ambassador, Henry Morgenthau somehow became interested in farming, studied agriculture at Cornell, and started Fishkill Farms while in his twenties. He went on to serve in a number of agriculture-related posts under Franklin Roosevelt, both in Albany and in Washington, before becoming Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury in 1934. FDR himself, as Fishkill’s website recounts, was a frequent visitor to the farm.

The farm has remained in the Morgenthau family since its beginnings.  It began as a diversified farm but early on developed a focus on apple orchards. Over the last decade and a half, after the retirement of the farm’s long-time manager, the orchards were leased to outside growers and primarily produced apples for the wholesale market. But recently the farm is again being diversified and is again under the direct oversight of the family. Josh Morgenthau, Henry’s grandson, has taken over management of the farm and is working to revive it and move it toward organic and sustainable growing practices.  Along with its 40 acres of apple orchards, Fishkill now produces peaches, pears, cherries, plums, berries and a wide range of fully organic vegetables. The farm continues to sell apples to the wholesale market, but today also sells directly to customers at a number of farmers markets and through a robust pick-your-own business.

Julia, who runs the Brooklyn Greenmarket stands (Borough Hall on Saturdays and Carroll Gardens Sundays),  arranged for me to visit, and she was there to greet me one recent Thursday morning after I’d made the drive up the Taconic. Fishkill is in the eastern Hudson Valley about ten miles east of Beacon, an hour and a half north of Brooklyn.  It lies just off the northern slopes of the Hudson Highlands – the Appalachian Trail passes by only a few miles to the south – and low, outlying mountains surround the farm in all directions. At the end of the farm’s long driveway is the cheery, bright red building that houses the farm market.  The market is the center of the farm’s pick-your-own business, and is also well stocked with cheeses, jams, and other products from farms and business in the area. It sits on a low hilltop, with the farm’s orchards and vegetable gardens  spread around and below it.

Read part 2 of my visit to Fishkill Farms.

NYC Greenmarkets 09 Oct 2009 04:16 pm

Brooklyn Greenmarket Bike Tour This Saturday

From Jessica of CENYC and the Greenpoint Greenmarket:

We are hosting our annual Brooklyn market bike tour this coming Saturday, October 10th

Meet Greenmarket farmers, nosh your way through some of Brooklyn’s finest farmers’ markets, and go on a fun bike ride with Time’s Up Environmental Group and Greenmarket!

The air is crisp, the leaves are changing colors, and the farmers’ markets are on the cusp of Fall.  All this means that now is the best time to EAT! Work up an appetite as we bike the Saturday Brooklyn Greenmarkets and eat Fall’s bounty.  The tour begins at the Greenpoint Rooftop Farm, where farmer Annie Novak will give us a tour of this stunning 6,000 sq foot farm sitting atop a warehouse in industrial Brooklyn.  Afterward, we’ll head to the McCarren Park market for coffee, breakfast and bike tune-ups (provided by NYC Bikes) before riding to the Brooklyn Borough Hall market for some cider pressing and cider doughnut eating. Next we’ll go to the Ft. Greene market for a worm bin composting demonstration by the Ft. Greene Compost Project folks. We’ll end our insider’s tour at Brooklyn’s largest Greenmarket, Grand Army Plaza, with a cooking demonstration hosted by Jacques Gautier of Palo Santo and market-inspired lunch in the park with a couple of Greenmarket farmers.

Space is limited, RSVP to

For more information, visit  Cost, $15.
When: Saturday, October 10th
Starting Point: Greenpoint Rooftop Farm, 44 Eagle Street
Ending Point: Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Time: 8:30 AM – 3:30 PM

NYC Greenmarkets 03 Oct 2009 03:01 pm

Concord Grape Apple Pie

Concord grapes are in season here in the Northeast, and their aroma in the booths at the farmers markets is close to intoxicating. So when I was invited to participate in an apple pie bake-off at the McCarren Park Greenmarket in Greenpoint, I could only think whether I might be able to make an apple pie that incorporated these gorgeous purple grapes. I was sure I remembered somewhere seeing a recipe for Concord Grape & Apple Pie. On Epicurious? No. In one of my cookbooks? Nope. Finally I found it on Cathy Erway’s well-known home-cooking blog “Not Eating Out in New York.” Since this recipe seems to exist no where else, Cathy gets credit for inventing it. Score one for the home cooks!

As she describes, she grappled (grape-lled?) with the dilemma that concord grapes have seeds. Not wanting the tedium of de-seeding a pound of grapes, she opted to leave them in, not minding the bit of crunch they added to her pie but realizing also that not everyone would enjoy them. In my Google searches for apple-grape pie recipes, though, I came upon a page from the website of the New York Folklore Society, containing what appeared to be an old-fashioned, upstate New York recipe for Concord Grape Pie. This recipe describes a technique for removing the seeds.

This same grape pie recipe was also written up in Saveur Magazine, and interestingly I found a version of it in a cookbook that I keep on my shelf but don’t use very much: Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking: A Mennonite Community Cookbook. That, along with the fact that the origins of the upstate New York pie apparently came from “an old German woman” makes me curious. Does Concord Grape pie have some Amish provenance? Does it, like me, come from Pennsylvania Dutch stock?

But I digress. The technique for removing the seeds from the grapes is a little like the method I used earlier this summer for making berry sodas. First you pinch the thick purple skin to squeeze out the surprisingly green pulp inside. The skins are set aside in a bowl, while the pulp goes onto the stove. It’s simmered down for a few minutes until it’s soft, then strained through a sieve. The seeds are tossed, and the strained hot pulp is stirred back into the reserved purple skins.

Through all of this, the grapes give off their musky, autumn-sweet aroma. The process of separating and then recombining the purple skin and the green fruit made me think of what making wine must be like. These definitely were not your ordinary, thin-skinned seedless supermarket grapes.

For the pie, I simply mixed the grape mixture with a roughly equal amount of apples that had been peeled, cored, and sliced. I added quick-cooking tapioca to bind the liquids, and lemon juice, sugar (only a little), and a pinch of nutmeg for flavor. Once the filling had been added to the pie shell, I dotted it liberally with butter (this step is important: I forgot this step for one pie and it failed to set. It was tasty, but very runny). Then I covered it all with a top layer of pastry dough, into which small slits were cut to allow steam to escape while baking.

The end result was a beautiful red-purple pie with a delicious grape fragrance and flavor. I’ll definitely make this pie again. I’m also very curious to try a full-on, traditional Concord grape pie, and I think soon I’ll be able to. The farmer I bought my grapes from, Stone Arch Farms & Bakery in the Union Square Greenmarket, said that soon be bringing old-fashioned grape pies to the market. I wonder if his recipe came from an old German woman too.

Read my recipe for Concord Grape Apple Pie Here.

NYC Greenmarkets 02 Oct 2009 09:58 pm

Apple Harvest Day at the Greenpoint Greenmarket

There will be apple pies on hand to taste this Saturday at the Greenpoint Greenmarket, in celebration of Apple Harvest Day. Members of the market-going crowd will judge the pies and hand out the prize.

I plan to be there with a variation of an apple-grape pie that Cathy Erway seems to have invented and wrote about last year. Don’t worry though – I’ve found there are methods for removing the seeds from the grapes. Supposedly this pie tastes exactly like grape Bubble Yum — and yes, I mean that in a good way.

You can also watch cider being made on an old time cider press and we there  will be plenty of cider to drink courtesy of Red Jacket Orchards.

Happy Autumn!