Down to earth

Bruce Davenport in his field (photo by Lynn Woods)

John Gill is surveying his fields after last night’s heavy rain, and it doesn’t look good. Yesterday the creek that borders his property was clear, but this morning it’s brown from the topsoil that’s washed off his land. His fields are riddled with muddy puddles that have wiped out rows of corn seedlings. Gill worries about the strawberries planted behind the family farmstand. “If they sit more than 24 hours in water, they’ll die,” he said.

Gill is part owner of Gill Corn Farms Inc., 1200 acres of mostly sweet corn supplemented by 60 acres of vegetables that covers a big swatch of the Hurley Flats, just west ofKingston. The first thing I learn while riding around in his truck this morning is that the unpredictability of the weather is just one of the wild cards Gill has to factor into his bottom line.

Thousands of years ago, the Esopus Creek inundated the floodplain as gently and regularly as the Nile, but in recent years the floods have been more violent and destructive, said Gill. In 2006 he lost 400 acres of cropland to flooding. Every year, flooding, loss of acreage due to erosion, destruction by pests and other problems result in a 10 to 25 percent loss of his crops, Gill estimated.

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A blunt-spoken guy wearing shorts and a tee shirt, Gill has been working on the farm full-time since graduating from college in 1977. He still gets input from his 89-year-old father, Jack, and is assisted by his 29-year-old son John and brother-in-law Artie. The family’s two farmstands, one on Route 209 and the other onHurley Mountain Road, are operated by his wife Loretta and mother Charlotte. Among the items for sale are the baked goods of his daughter Danielle, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

Besides weather, profits are affected by the whims of the market: two salesmen sitting in Gill’s office sell the corn daily, working with a truck broker. Last year, because of a surplus, “we all lost our butts,” Gill said. “It’s supply and demand, and I can only store my corn for a week. We left 50 acres in the ground we couldn’t sell.”

On the other hand, in years where there’s a dearth in the Midwest caused by drought or other calamity he’ll sell his corn as far west as California. He’s even shipped it across the pond to England. But most of the 375,000 boxes of corn, 47 ears to the box, that’s packed onto pallets and loaded into trucks in the farm’s refrigerated packing house is shipped to points on the East Coast, Gill said. The proximity of New York City gives the Hurley Flats corn growers an advantage over corn farmers elsewhere in the Northeast, enabling them to reach a major market at lower cost.

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