First growth

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It used to be a sure sign of spring around here when the shutters came off and at least one of the Gills, I think it was usually Karen, would again be at the family farmstand on Route 209 in Hurley. It’s great to see you again. How are you doing? How’s the family? How was your winter?

The roadside sign said Hudson Valley Farm Hub when the stand opened for its first day last Wednesday. Though no Gills were to be found, their presence was not only palpable but also edible. On a table were small packages of Danielle Gill’s cookies, in chocolate chip, peanut butter and oatmeal chip flavors, proudly labeled Made for Hudson Valley Food Hub. Though I suspected immediately that these cookies were probably not calorie-free, I couldn’t resist. As I type this, I’m drinking a cup of tea (Lipton) and biting off a small piece of an oatmeal chip cookie. It’s a concoction to die for, moist and flavorful.

I have it on reliable authority that Loretta Gill is managing the farmstand this year. She happened not to be there when I visited.

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Some of the fresh produce, such as the radishes, asparagus, Swiss chard, collard greens and several kinds of lettuce and kale, was marked “homegrown,” meaning grown on the Farm Hub, explained Kara Lacomb of Kingston, who was working there. Most had probably been started in a greenhouse or cold frame and transplanted outdoors on the 1,255-acre farm when conditions allowed. I was told that the broccoli came from Davenport’s. The local strawberries were from Dressel’s.

The neat rows of growing vegetables are from the fields off Hurley Mountain Road, I was told.

 

 I ain’t no foodie, mind you, but for me there’ll always be something comforting about eating produce which you’ve seen growing. My personal story includes watching my father tend a very small suburban garden in Manchester, England. It was wartime, there was food rationing and nighttime bombing. The British, an indomitably stubborn people, called these little home plots of land Victory Gardens, and so they proved to be after, with American help, they turned the blitz on Fritz.

Fresh produce right out of the field is wondrous to behold. In the case of this farmstand, I could detect little if any price premium. I was able to buy a startlingly fresh redleaf lettuce for a dollar and a half, and a vibrant bunch of kale for three dollars. An asparagus stalk didn’t bend when I picked it up, so I munched on it. The snap peas were terrific — had to buy those, too.

Everything is labeled. Farmstand worker Kathleen Reynolds of Kingston told me the regular mushrooms were local, but the Portobellos were from elsewhere. At this time of year, some of the stuff distributed from Red Barn Produce’s Highland warehouse is from California and Florida. “Our whole thing is bringing farmers together with end users,” Red Barn co-owner Kevin Tarr told New Paltz Times reporter Sharyn Flanagan in a story back in November. “That basically sums it up. We’re a hub for farmers.”

At $2.69, the delCabo brand sugar plum grape tomatoes were “certified organic,” a designation which it takes time to get. According to Brooke Pickering-Cole, manager of community relations, the Farm Hub is using organic methods for growing produce, but hasn’t yet decided whether or how itself to seek the designation. Pesticides have not been used on the farm-market fields, Local Economies Project director Bob Dandrew told me. The packaging on the grape tomatoes, identified as from a company in California and Oregon, bore the legend “Product of Mexico.”

There was a time, and it was not so long ago, when Hudson Valley late-winter larders were emptied of everything but bins of stored winter vegetables, Ball canning supplies (with lids and bands at the ready), and likely quite a few cans of beans as well. Add to that various loaves of fresh bread, at this farmstand now supplied by the ubiquitous Bread Alone.

There are certain foods I can’t resist. I shelled out $1.29 for a small container of lemon yogurt, certified as from an organic culture, from Maple Hill Creamery in Stuyvesant. Even at $5.69, I couldn’t pass by a small container of goat’s milk cheese with horseradish in it from Nettle Meadow in Warrensburg; the fresh and undiluted taste of both main ingredients made this my standout buy. My biggest extravagance on this opening day, the hot plum chutney from Beth’s Farm Kitchen in Stuyvesant Falls (Hudson Valley made and grown, said the label), set me back $8.99. The list of ingredients on the jar is what sold me: plums, sugar, cider vinegar, raisins, onion, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds and red pepper flakes.

 

 I badly wanted to see where the wondrous lettuce and amazing kale grew. If the farmstand on Route 209 is the distribution side of the enterprise, the fields off Hurley Mountain Road are the growing side. (Remember the prescient words of Herman Knaust, who pioneered a document storage business, Iron Mountain, in Hudson Valley mushroom caves in the nuclear-bomb-scary 1950s, “Mushrooms are a growing business.”)

With rich alluvial flood plain on one side and steep and abrupt hillsides on the other, the Esopus Valley is breathtakingly beautiful. I saw a field with the growing vegetables stretched before me, only a small portion of the seemingly endless expanse deep valley topsoil. Hundreds of times larger than my father’s tiny Victory Garden, it was a glorious sight. Understandably, management doesn’t want anyone to take a self-guided tour.

Each of the neat rows of growing produce extended maybe a couple of hundred yards in the direction of Hurley Mountain Road, and the field seemed about a quarter-mile deep in the direction of old Hurley. I’d guess the planted rectangular expanse covered five or six acres. Bob Dandrew later informed me that the entire market-garden portion totals ten acres, less than one per cent of the total land of the farm.

Beyond the field to the west where the workers were putting wooden stakes in the ground, and to the north a solitary small green tractor raised soundless dust as it passed back and forth, back and forth.

I saw a field with the growing vegetables stretched before me, only a small portion of the seemingly endless expanse of Esopus Valley topsoil. Contrasted to my father’s tiny Victory Garden, it was a living cornucopia, a breathtaking sight of self-actualizing plenty as far as the eye could see.

I walked past rows of wax beans, peas, Swiss chard, corn, broccoli, cabbage and kale. I passed row after row of squash blossoms carefully marked with the words green scallop squash, green zucchini, yellow straight-neck squash, round green zucchini, round yellow zucchini, green scallop squash, golden zucchini and specialty summer squash. Then came the tomatoes, with varieties like Primo Red, Striped German, Carolina Gold, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Tasty Evergreen, Greek, Big Mamma, Yellow Cherry, Pink Bumblebee and Royal Roma.

And so on through the vast universe of plenty. I found the experience oddly reminiscent of browsing in the book stacks of an immense library.

Some beds were covered with plastic with holes for the plants. Some were watered by drip irrigation. Others, like several rows of potatoes (Keuka Gold, Adirondack Blue, Fingerling), consisted of root crops.

Eggplant, peppers, collard greens, kohlrabi, okra, row after row of varieties of lettuce and kale, rows of peas, beans and corn, leeks, cilantro, hot peppers. You get the idea. Experiment with different varieties, retain a diversified selection, and learn what works and what doesn’t.

You can get the produce from these fields this year at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub farmstand. It’s open through Oct. 31 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.

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