You might mistake Keith Duarte for the stereotypical sort of Millennial city-boy-turned-upstate-farmer you could associate with his newly planted Damn Good Honey Farm in the Town of Wawarsing. There’s a bit of the romantic about him. He’s young, and he has got a young family. He’s the first to admit that he’s new to the farming life. He and his wife Jennifer have staked their lives and their livelihoods on a modest couple of acres that they lease on grounds just off Route 209.
But the Brooklyn hipster similarities stop there. Keith Duarte is a local guy. He grew up just outside of Liberty, went to high school there. Jennifer grew up in the Town of Poughkeepsie. Keith still works full-time locally, as a certified athletic trainer at a number of local high schools. He’s the guy you see running out on the field when an athlete is injured.
The idea of farming, he said, is something that he has always wanted to pursue, but he has been cautious about doing so. It’s something that he and Jennifer have “moved to” over the past two years, when Damn Good Honey Farm took root – first in the backyard of their Kerhonkson home and, more recently, on a former dairy farm that harbors the Vernooy/Bevier House, a 17th-century stone home just off Route 209 near the Kerhonkson border.
“We take on a little bit more every year,” he said last week. His athletic trainer post is full-time; but if it makes a difficult job more difficult, it also supports his family while all farm-related income they’re able to generate goes right back into realizing their dream.
The Duartes settled in Ulster County, rather than Sullivan, because they’re looking to the future for their four-year-old son Hunter: The couple were impressed with the Rondout Valley School District’s emphasis on the progressive nature of agriculture in the region. The result of that emphasis – a greenhouse garden, an agricultural science lab, courses that could lead to careers in the restaurant business – made the county and the district seem an ideal fit for the family’s ambitions.
Their farming life started in their half-acre backyard in Kerhonkson. “What can you do on a half-acre? Well, you can get into beekeeping.” Duarte has warm childhood memories of his grandfather “working the bees,” with the result of having fresh honey. So, they taught themselves beekeeping.
The Duartes have been able to build on their honeybee foundation, providing honey and beeswax soap for sale, as well as seminars on different levels of beekeeping expertise. (All the summer’s classes have been fully booked.) They are also hoping to increase the number of people caring for bees. To that end, they will start a hive for you on their farm, install it on your property and provide ongoing support.
The Duartes’ immersion in apiculture has served as an apt symbol of what the entire farm-to-table, whole-foods effort is up against, and why it’s important. “The goal is looking at the trouble honeybees are in – they’re a perfect indicator of the overall health problems with our agricultural system,” he said. “We feel that, if we can have more people that have one or two hives in their backyard, that’s a much better situation than having 10,000 hives.”
Duarte has no doubt that the crisis represented by colony collapse is the result of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. “You really can’t isolate the problem, unless you live on an island or in the middle of nowhere.”
There’s evidence that the colony-collapse phenomenon is improving, he said, but not in the United States: “It’s gotten better in Europe, where they banned the pesticide they believe is really responsible; but it’s gotten worse here, where the chemical companies have too much of a stranglehold on our agricultural system and our politics,” he said.
So, for now, it’s one step at a time for the Duartes. In keeping with the way they’ve already built their business, he expects to launch a farmstand market down the road this summer, where other local growers market their goods as well as his. It’s all about making “whole foods” – or what Duarte calls “homegrown healthcare” – available to the region.
For more information about Damn Good Honey Farm, 150 Hilltop Terrace, Kerhonkson, visit damngoodhoney.com or call (845) 701-1999.