Twenty acres of Kernza, a distant cousin to agricultural wheat, has been growing at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub in the Esopus Valley. The Farm Hub is one of a network of farms across the country testing this perennial grain developed by The Land Institute, a Kansas-based non-profit researching sustainable agriculture. The local Kernza was planted last October in a test plot, and the first harvest was in July. With the crop harvested, the stripped Kernza field looked this week as though grass was growing on it.
For many decades, the rich alluvial floodplain between Route 209 and Hurley Mountain Road was mainly used to grow sweet corn. Above-ground plant life was typically eradicated after every growing season. The Gill family, previous owners of the land, planted winter cover crops, oats after early corn and rye after late corn, I’m told, and later switched to all rye.
Because Kernza, one of several grains being tested at the 1255-acre Farm Hub, is a perennial, the land doesn’t have to be disturbed for cultivation. “Tillage impacts soil health by reducing organic matter, soil structural integrity and soil biota, increasing the possibility of soil erosion either by water or air,” explained Jean-Paul Courtens, associate director of farmer training at the Farm Hub. Annual plants are prone to drought and nutrient deficiency because their root systems are developed over a relatively short period of time. Kernza, on the other hand, increases soil health, uses fertilizer much more efficiently, and due to its extensive root system is less prone to water stress, Courtens said.
An ale brewed in Oregon was the first widely available commercial product made with Kernza. The brewmaster at Hopworks in Portland has been making a beer this year made with equal parts of Kernza and barley.
“Wheat is 10,000 years old,” pointed out Zachary Golper, a Brooklyn baker who uses Kernza in his products, “and Kernza has only been around for thirteen. We’re not doing so badly.”
Kernza does well in cool, northerly climates such as in the Hudson Valley. Because it has less starch than wheat-based products, breads and pastas made with Kernza, according to one taste aficionado, “express the more malty flavors of sweet corn and barley.”
Considerations of taste are not the only hurdles to overcome. Kernza kernels are a quarter the size of wheat. Larger seeds need to be developed.
The professional training of young farmers may be the most important activity at the Farm Hub. With the age of the average American farm operator now about 59, up nine years over the average age 35 years ago, young farmers are desperately needed.
The trainees, two who started their second year in April and five their first, constitute a diversified crop from different backgrounds and different places. Their training curriculum at the Farm Hub is broad and ambitiously utopian. Ranking as high as the desire to be a farmer by profession is the sharing of the Farm Hub’s “commitment to equity and ecological stewardship in the food system.” These young people are being taught both how to cooperate with others and how to run their own business.
Among other qualifications, applicants must be personable team players with good communications and computer skills. They must also want to live and work in the Hudson Valley, have a valid driver’s license, and be able to lift 50 pounds. Called ProFarmers, the farmers in training earn about $30,000 a year and full benefits, and they have the option of modest free housing at the Farm Hub.
When we visited this week, several of the young farmers were out in the vast open fields harvesting cauliflower and broccoli, and loading them into stacks of small green plastic cartons in the back of a small truck. As part of their training, each young farmer also plans and works a half-acre plot of his or her own.
With a degree in environmental chemistry, Jess Clancy, who grew up near Chicago, worked for seven years in organic farming at Fishkill Farms. She wanted to combine her interest in science with social justice and environmental goals, she said in her application. “Then I fell in love with the work.” This is her second year at the Farm Hub.
Jesse Goldfarb, originally from the Hudson Valley, was a second-year ProFarmer who decided to work on his family farm in Accord this year. Though transitioning out of student trainee status, he will retain a connection with the education at the Farm Hub. Previously, he had worked with farmers in Rwanda to help increase farm productivity and managed a diversified research portfolio.
Andrew Casner is an extroverted Massachusetts guy who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and started farming in New York City. He sees farming as a way of connecting “to the biological systems I bore witness to in painting.”
From Chicago, Nailah Marie Ellis is a Culinary Institute of America graduate with interests in cooking and education. Her dream is to gain knowledge about all aspects of how to farm and to start a farm in the Hudson Valley with her sister, a veterinarian. She and Casner were cutting cauliflower this Monday morning.
Jesus Gonzales started farming as a teenager on the Gill farm and is currently working in the nut processing and packing division at Farm Bridge in Kingston. He wants to gain solid management skills and to become a farm owner and operator.
As a child in Kansas, Jayne Henson remembers family cattle drives, planting crops and maintaining farm equipment. Five years in New York, she wants to learn diversified organic vegetable production and to own a farm that provides internships to LBGTQ youths.
Two years ago, Brie Quinn left a decade-long career in finance to become a farmer. A native of New Jersey and a graduate of Oberlin College, she spent 2016 as an apprentice at a farm in Maine. Now she wants to create “a business that can provide accessibility to fresh food for people of all income levels.”
As they drive by these vast, fabulously rich fields that have been the centrally located core of Ulster County’s agricultural heritage for many centuries, people are wondering. They can’t help wondering.
For decades, the Gill family used to meet with their friends and neighbors at a family farmstand on Route 209. The farmstand operation didn’t open this fourth year of the Farm Hub’s ownership.
Some of the fields of the Farm Hub which last year grew vegetables and grains along the highway lie fallow. It seemed a comforting gesture a couple of weeks ago when the most visible fields at the northern end of the farm were plowed. But that age-old regular habit might not be the best agricultural practice for the land. The new owners, supported less by local farm revenues than by national foundation grants, seem to have a rhythm of their own in mind.
Brooke Pickering-Cole, communications director since the Local Economies Project (LEP) paid $13 million to buy the land four years ago, became interim director of the Farm Hub on June 1. The Farm Hub is now operationally separate from the LEP, which remains headed by the previous project director, Bob Dandrew.
Could not these auguries represent not the fruition of worst possibility but the hope of a better future? Might not another, better path be evolving?
Supposing the farmstand doesn’t reopen, and the Farm Hub instead sells its produce and grains to Davenport Farms, Bread Alone and Adams Farms? Though I’ll not forget my memories of the Gill family, I for one can adjust to this much disruption.
Suppose those eight young farmers in training and a couple of dozen like them each end up as well-trained stewards of plots of the richest land in this country. Or farm elsewhere in the Hudson Valley, as most probably will. Would those be unsatisfactory outcomes?
And suppose the Farm Hub continues to increase its connections to the Hudson Valley food community as an honest, conscientious and intelligent partner, while the LEP finds other meaningful investment activities that shine forth upon our clouded hills, together building a diversified new Jerusalem on pleasant Hudson Valley pastures amidst the latter-day dark satanic mills left vacant by the likes of IBM.
That outcome is possible. It is up to all of us who believe in it to try to make it likely.