Returning for the fifth time this Saturday afternoon, September 23, the annual Harvest Hoedown & Local Food Barbecue is the “main community friendraiser and fundraiser” for the programs of the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association (RVGA), according to Deborah Meyer DeWan. But it will also be a farewell and welcoming party of sorts: the first time that DeWan will not be at the helm. In August, after nearly six years of running the organization, she yielded her post as executive director to Carol Reiser. “I’m thrilled to pass the torch to someone with new ideas and a different background, though still grounded in not-for-profits,” DeWan told the New Paltz Times.
The transition has been a long, gradual and orderly one; DeWan began discussing the process with RVGA’s Board of Directors more than a year ago, enlisting their support in the search for a successor, she said. Having shepherded RVGA out from under the fiscal umbrella of the Open Space Institute to obtain its own 501 (c) (3) certification and solidified other matters of legal and organizational structure, she waited until she thought felt confident that RVGA’s core programs — Farm to School, Farmer to Farmer, Farm to Food Pantry and Farm to Community — were running smoothly and community partnerships thriving before initiating the transition. Some new, younger board members were recruited, a reliable crew of volunteers trained and, last year, an administrative and outreach coordinator hired.
“I sought to achieve certain things for the organization, and I’ve accomplished a lot — achieved a lot of my goals,” said DeWan. The next step, she thought, was to find a new leader with “fresh eyes” and the capacity to take financial support for RVGA to the next level. And in Reiser, she thinks that she has found the perfect candidate. Whereas DeWan’s Masters degree is in Environmental Studies and most of her professional background in land preservation, water issues and community planning, Reiser has agronomy in her bones. She grew up in a rural part of Ohio in a family who always shared the bounty of their huge garden with less fortunate neighbors. “It was part of the way I grew up. I was taught very early that not everybody has what we have,” she told the Times.
Fired by the desire to find ways to joint the Green Revolution and feed the world’s hungry, Reiser began studying the genetics of fruits and vegetables at Ohio State University. But when she discovered, almost by accident, that she had a knack for marketing on behalf of secretive agronomy researchers and scoring donations for underequipped college programs, she ended up taking her Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Communications. Before long she found herself in the world of not-for-profit fundraising, working in corporate, foundation and government relations. She raised more than $60 million during the 25 years she spent in Albany.
But after her husband took a position at SUNY Ulster, Reiser began looking for a new job closer to his that would enable them to relocate to Cottekill permanently. She and DeWan had met at conferences when the latter was working as a consultant to Hudson River Heritage, and they developed a healthy respect for one another’s skillsets. So when the RVGA director search got underway, it quickly became clear that Reiser was a terrific match.
DeWan is sticking around on a volunteer basis, helping out with the Harvest Hoedown in particular, but feeling ready to move on, knowing that RVGA is in good hands. With her grown daughter Tara now living in Italy, she said, “I wanted to give myself more flexibility. I plan to reflect on the things I’ve done, the things I care about. I’ll continue to serve.” No one who is familiar with DeWan’s tireless energy and level of commitment will doubt that “retirement” isn’t her style; but devoting more time to her hobby/meditation of painting is definitely in the cards, she said.
Harvest Hoedown 2017, which takes place at Marbletown Park on Tongore Road in Stone Ridge from 4 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, September 23, will once again be a feast of locally raised foods, farm-themed activities and live music, a farmers’ market and a bake sale. “I cannot speak highly enough of the team of chefs that’s been assembled,” said DeWan. “What a great way to celebrate the harvest!” Rich Hines and the Hillbilly Drifters and the Shoe String Band will perform; fiddler Liz Slade will call the square and contra dances, with plenty of instruction for newbies. Kids can sit on real tractors, decorate pumpkins or carve zucchini into racecars to compete in the Zucchini 500. Whereas last year’s Hoedown celebrated the contributions of older farmers, this year’s theme will be recognizing the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit of younger “legacy” farmers and newcomers to farming in the Rondout Valley.
By this time in 2018, things might be a little different for RVGA: Reiser’s plan of action includes evaluating programs already in place as well as the “return on investment” from labor-intensive fundraising events like the Hoedown. Farm tours might prove more popular, both with host farmers and with agritourism-minded visitors, she suspects. Reiser will be talking to local farmers and taking their concerns to legislators and public officials, as well as pursuing new partnerships and diversifying the organization’s sources of support. “This is a very exciting time to be joining RVGA — a dynamic organization focused on farmers, the community and a healthy food supply chain; and I look forward to contributing my knowledge and experience to help carry out its mission and support the farm community,” Reiser said.
Harvest Hoedown goes on rain or shine. Tickets purchased in advance at select Rondout Valley farmstands and farmers’ markets, or online at www.eventbrite.com/e/15th-annual-rvga-harvest-hoedown-local-food-barbecue-tickets-35180491798, cost $26 for adults, $6 for kids aged 12 and over. Tickets purchased at the gate on the day of the event will cost $31 for adults, $11 for kids. For more info, visit www.rondoutvalleygrowers.org.