When apple-picking season comes around, residents of southeastern Ulster County’s rich orchard country have many appealing u-pick venues from which to choose. But those who place highest priority on minimal use of chemical pesticides on the fruit that they ingest know to head for Stone Ridge Orchards (SRO), located west of High Falls on Route 213. While not yet officially certified organic, the operation headed up by Elizabeth Ryan is “eco-certified” and prides itself on using low-impact alternative growing practices like Integrated Pest Management instead of regular spraying. “Fifteen thousand people pick apples here every fall,” Ryan says.
The price to be paid for cutting way back on dosing your trees with bug-killer is that not all of your crop is going to be cosmetically perfect. Apples that are a little oddly shaped or blemished either go to waste or must head for a different market where looks are only skin-deep. Here in the Hudson Valley, which in recent years has been trying to establish itself as a hotbed of artisanal brewing and distilling, that destination for homely-looking apples is mostly cidermaking.
Ryan had already been producing small-batch hard cider at her Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg for many years, marketing it under the brand Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider, when she purchased the 114-acre SRO property from the Hauspurg family in May 2014. The Hauspurgs encountered great difficulty in making the operation financially viable, with several crops ruined by adverse weather within a period of a few years, and in 2007 proposed to build a housing development with 400 townhouses and a new town center on the site, to be called Marbletown Green. Public reaction to this plan from town residents was immediate and vociferously negative; so the family reached out to Ryan — who was then looking for a new base of operations while Breezy Hill was rebuilt following a disastrous fire — and asked her if she’d like to rent the place.
Now no longer a tenant but an owner, Ryan has ambitious plans for SRO, but they don’t involve a huge development. “Everybody else wants to make it bigger; we want to make it smaller!” she says with a laugh. Well, not smaller than it actually is now: With the help of a grant of $135,000 recently awarded by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), Stone Ridge Orchards will begin construction this summer on a new structure. A large, open-sided wooden shed will serve as a Food Hub, housing a weekly farmers’ market, a cider-tasting room, a “community kitchen” and a dancefloor and stage for community events.
“We’ll be moving some of the hard cider operation here,” says Ryan, explaining that demand for Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider has skyrocketed beyond Breezy Hill’s capacity to fill, now that hard cider has been rediscovered as a popular beverage. She recently signed a distribution agreement with Craft Beer Guild Distributing of New York, headquartered in New Paltz, and its Brooklyn-based affiliate, Union Beer Distributors, and now needs to crank up production beyond the “artisanal small-batch” level. The ESDC grant will help her streamline her operation by installing innovative “green” canning equipment that will make the product less expensive to ship through lighter-weight packaging than the glass jugs currently in use. The cans will be easier to recycle as well, she says.
Ryan, who already hosts a number of events for community organizations at SRO each year, envisions the Food Hub as a place where Rondout Valley farmers, not-for-profits and others can gather to learn, share and have fun. The kitchen will serve not only as a place for reprocessing leftover produce into value-added products for sale or batches of food to be donated to local soup kitchens, but will also make the market shed an attractive self-catering venue for events like the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association’s annual Barn Dance fundraiser.
“We are doing it very much with a whole-community point of view,” she says. “We want it to be a celebration of farmers, fermenters, makers; we want to enhance our sense of place.” Putting her money where her mouth is, Ryan plans to move her personal place of residence from Dutchess County to Stone Ridge this year as well.
When it comes to now-trendy concepts like sustainable agriculture, agritourism, farm-to-table cuisine and locavorism, Elizabeth Ryan has always been way ahead of the curve, and it’s hard to imagine someone better suited to the task of undertaking this large-scale but ultimately grassrootsy transformation of a commercial orchard operation into a community hub. Ryan grew up in what she calls “Willa Cather country” in Iowa, where “you didn’t eat what you didn’t grow.” Then came the Green Revolution, and she watched her grandfather’s farm expand from 90 to 1,200 acres as Midwestern farmers enthusiastically embraced the concepts of “bigger is better” and “better living through chemistry.”
Rejecting the Big Agribusiness ethos, Ryan headed to Cornell University to study physics, but found herself irresistibly drawn into the cutting-edge School of Agriculture there, where she began to meet like-minded young people who wanted to return to low-tech, science-based practices that today would be called sustainable agriculture. She took a two-year hiatus in the late 1970s to go to Washington, DC to set up the city’s first farmers’ markets, working for the Responsible Agriculture Project, and then returned to finish her Pomology degree at Cornell.
She first came to the Hudson Valley in 1982 to work with the Benmarl Winery in Marlboro to craft and lobby for New York State’s Small Farm Winery Act, which began changing the gameplan to make it easier to license farm-based artisanal winemaking, brewing and distilling businesses. She purchased Breezy Hill in 1984 with her then-husband, and became one of the founding members of the New York City Greenmarket in Union Square at around the same time.
While successfully running several agricultural businesses, including a cage-free egg farm called Knollcrest (though she says, “We still make our money a dollar at a time”), Ryan has continued to devote much of her energy to advocating for changes in state regulations that make it unnecessarily difficult for small family farms to stay in business. She has been an active participant in governor Andrew Cuomo’s annual Taste NY Wine, Beer, Spirits and Cider Summit — a pet project of ESDC — and in the Glynwood Institute’s international learning exchange between Hudson Valley cidermakers and their French counterparts, who hold the keys to this region’s hoped-for eventual appellation for the production of Calvados or apple brandy.
With this extensive background in what might be called “alternative agriculture,” Ryan knows how important land preservation tools like Purchase of Development Rights and conservation easements are to the effort to save America’s family farms from development pressures. She enlisted the Open Space Institute and Scenic Hudson in her campaign to acquire SRO and keep it a working orchard, and managed to obtain a bridge loan to complete the purchase through the Equity Trust’s Hudson Valley Farmland Affordability Fund.
Now the grant funding and a right-of-way deal brokered by Scenic Hudson will make it possible to establish a connector trail between Route 209 and the O&W Rail Trail through the orchard, enabling hikers and cyclists to bypass the very busy and dangerous western stretch of Route 213. “It will be a jewel in the crown of the entire O&W Rail Trail line,” Marbletown town supervisor Mike Warren recently predicted in a letter to Ryan. And as the proposed Hudson Valley Cider Trail comes to fruition (if you’ll pardon the pun), you can bet that Stone Ridge Orchards will be a mandatory stop for visitors.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Ryan has some community events to organize while her fruit trees are dormant and the bees who make the honey for her meadmaking operation are hibernating. In May, SRO will host a 660-year-old English tradition that she has already revived at her Breezy Hill site: apple tree wassailing, a ritual that involves singing, Morris dancing and a big bonfire to honor the trees and coax a good crop out of them. It’s looking like a bountiful harvest for Stone Ridge Orchards will turn out to be a bountiful harvest for the entire community.