If you haven’t gone strawberry-picking at Dressel Farms, overlooking the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge in New Paltz, then you haven’t really lived. It’s a rite of passage, a ritual, a raison d’etre for Paltzonians and agritourists to stuff their baskets and bellies with some of the greatest homegrown strawberries in the world.
“In the 1960s and ‘70s, we couldn’t plant enough strawberries,” recalled Rod Dressel Sr., the patriarch of the fourth-generational Dressel Farms and roadside market. “We had over nine acres of strawberries, and we’d get wiped out. It was a fad then. If you didn’t pick strawberries at Dressels, well then, you’d missed out on something big,” he said with a laugh.
Like all fads, it took a downturn; but like all that is truly worthwhile, pick-your-own strawberries picked back up in the last decade and have always been a hallmark of Dressel’s, which is primarily an apple farm, owned, operated and run by family members and the 50-plus seasonal and year-round farmworkers whom they employ.
The Dressel farm legacy began when Rod Sr.’s parents, living in upstate New York and working on a dairy farm, learned of an opportunity in New Paltz to work on an apple farm. “There was a social event in Poughkeepsie that my aunt attended where the [former] owners of this farm, Ruloff Dubois and his wife, were also attending,” said Rod Sr. Apparently, the Duboises had employment opportunities on their farm, and, after speaking with Rod Sr.’s aunt, he sent a handwritten letter to Rod Sr.’s parents offering them a job.
“We still have the letter,” said Tim Dressel, Rod Sr.’s grandson, who, after graduating from Cornell University in 2007, moved back to help work and grow the family farm. “It’s a hoot,” said Rod Sr., noting the funny specifics about how many chickens they could bring, one pig, a bevy of interesting “health” benefits being offered.
The family moved to New Paltz in 1923, where they worked and raised their two children on the farm. Then, in 1941, Ruloff passed away and Rod Sr.’s father became the manager of the farm. In 1950, just after Rod Sr. graduated from SUNY Cobleskill, Mrs. Dubois passed away and his parents purchased the farm.
As his son, Rod Jr., and grandson Tim would do years later, Rod Sr. came back to the farm, the place where he was born and raised, and worked alongside his parents to help grow the business. In 1959 the Dressels constructed their first cold-storage facility to give their apples a longer shelf-life. “We were very fortunate to have neighbors around us who sold their parcels to us because they wanted to see their land remain in farming and as open space, so our farm grew to 125 acres,” said Rod Sr.
While Dressel’s is known for its pick-your-own apples, strawberries, peaches, pumpkins and great baked goods, cider donuts, apple cider and an ice cream stand, unlike most of the farms along the Hudson Valley Apple Trail, its primary business is still wholesale. As Tim gave the New Paltz Times a tour of the packing facility, it was stunning to see what a large operation existed behind the very modest roadside farmstand. “We pack and distribute anywhere from 125,000 to 150,000 bushels of apples a year,” said Tim. Dozens of varieties are shipped to supermarkets up and down the East Coast, as well as worldwide. “This year it will be a lot less because of the damage [three nights of an early frost that wiped out 75 percent of the crop], but we’re still going at full speed right now.”
In fact, the Dressels recently installed a state-of-the-art cooling system, Frigadon, in ten controlled-atmosphere rooms that are sealed tight and can be changed by one-tenth of a degree from Rod Jr.’s phone anywhere in the world. “People think that we freeze the apples, but we don’t,” said Tim. “We put in a controlled cooling system that lowers the oxygen and puts them into hibernation so that they stay fresh.”
While all of that picking, packing, cooling, loading and transporting are going on, there is still a myriad of farm-loving fun going on for locals and visitors, particularly during the harvest season. Strawberry season begins in June and runs through July; then there is peach season, followed by pick-your-own apple and pumpkin season, complete with free hayrides, farm animals, a picnic area and a corn maze.
Like every generation of farmers, Rod Sr. and his wife Ethel, who passed away last year, grew the farm, built the roadside market, added ice cream, cider donuts and pies and the pick-your-own strawberries and apples. The stand was built in 1970, and to complement that they started pick-your-own apples. “The crowds that came were overwhelming!” recalled Rod Sr. “It was wonderful, but we couldn’t handle it. Rod Jr. and our daughter had gone off to college, and it was just Ethel and I.”
They closed for a few years, but once their children returned to the farm from Cornell, they opened it back up, and Rod Sr. created a special pick-your-own orchard that had all of the varieties of apples culled together in a manageable way for visitors to pick and enjoy. Now that Tim and his elder sister Sarah have graduated, they are back on the farm working, while their younger sister is an avid soccer player and a senior at New Paltz High School.
“I love the science behind it,” said Tim. “When I went to school I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a farmer. But the more I learned and the more I was away from home, I was drawn back in, because the farm provides so many opportunities for me.” In response to those opportunities, Tim retained a hard-earned New York State license to produce and sell brut cider or apple wine, which he hosts tastings for and sells at the orchard. He named the business the Kettleborough Cider House, which was the original name of where the cidery now stands. “I worked with Whitecliff Vineyards and was able to produce a delicious dry apple champagne,” he said. “The Culinary Institute will be using my wine for the upcoming Cider Week. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s been so well-received.”
Asked what sets them apart from other farms, Rod Sr. said, “Besides the incredible view? It’s being available for our customers; having a laid-back, relaxed family farm atmosphere. We want people to have a real farm experience.” Noting that Dressel’s will not become a farm-carnival, he said, “We love to introduce people to farming, have them learn about it, get fresh produce and enjoy a beautiful relaxing day at our orchard and leave with a smile.”
It’s hard not to leave Dressel’s without a smile on your face, as well as some delicious apples, cider and of course, cider donuts! For more information, go to www.dresselfarms.com or call them at 255-0693.