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.”