Reaping the Harvest

Summer in the Finger Lakes is the reward we locals reap for spending dark, introverted winters huddled around our hearths, our shoulders up around our necks. By comparison, summer is mild, sunny, and outgoing. We enjoy boating, swimming, and fishing, and revel in the small-town hurley-burley of summer fairs, parades, and fireworks displays. The fires we huddle around in summer usually have hunks of meat, marinated fish or vegetables grilling over them.

But autumn is the lagniappe, the little extra something thrown in for good measure. For me, it’s the crowning glory of the year. Fall in the Finger Lakes is a time of high color and bittersweet high spirits as the trees put on their dramatic back-to-schoolwear against a backdrop of rolling fields, deep gorges, and even deeper lakes. And while the rest of us are waiting for the mums and asters to finish blooming, so we can put our gardens to bed, farmers are reaping harvests of wheat, barley, and spelt; apples, pears, plums, peaches, and grapes; squashes, pumpkins, cabbage-y greens, and dried beans—you name it.

Agriculture is a way of life for many in Central New York. Some of us were born to it; others escaped cities and suburbs for an opportunity to live amongst the undulating hills and lakes, in communities where friendship and mutual support are part of the daily exchange, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, because we know we’ll bump into the discouragee at the supermarket or the next PTA meeting. And though the romance of farming is tempered by unrelenting physical labor and maddening uncertainties of weather and markets, many Central New York farmers prosper, to the applause of those of us who enjoy our foods locally grown.

In fact, agriculture is a $3 billion industry in New York State and an integral part of its rich cultural heritage. New York is the second largest apple-producing state in the country, with apples and apple products contributing $123 million to New York’s farm economy. It is also the second-largest wine producing state in the U.S. And its grapes, tart cherries, and pears combine to contribute over $53 million in additional income to the fruit industry. That’s big business.

Among the most successful farm businesses in Central New York is AgriLink, which owns the Birds-Eye brand, as well as Silver Floss sauerkraut and Comstock pie fillings — brands you probably see in your supermarket, wherever you live. And while they have growers and processing plants all over the country, their main office is here in Rochester. They buy and process peas, beans, corn, cabbage, carrots, butternut squash, peaches, cherries, apples, and cabbage — in excess of $10 million worth of raw agricultural crops in this region alone.

According to Tom Facer, vice president of agricultural services, AgriLink contracts with growers, supplies seed, and schedules planting with the farmers, so that they can schedule harvesting as economically as possible. “As the crop gets closer to harvest,” says Facer, “we watch it carefully, go out in the field every day, schedule the harvester and trucker to be there, and the processing plant to accommodate them. . . our goal is to keep our processing plants full all season. They run 18 hours a day, every day, and we’ve got to have product there every hour,” he says.

Another national distributor is Venture Vineyards, grape growers, in Lodi, New York, with a 150-acre farm just above Seneca Lake. Harvest is a crazy, hectic time for owners Mel and Phyllis Nass. What with managing the crews that hand harvest their grapes, brokering the grapes, loading trucks, and keeping in touch with truckers around the country, around the clock, there’s hardly a moment’s rest. What did they do before cell phones were invented?  “During harvest we couldn’t ever leave home,” says Phyllis.

As Long Islanders, they’d spent weekends apprenticing themselves to nearby farmers. They came to the Finger Lakes on a camping trip, and fell in love with the area. He, a former IBM engineer, and she, a schoolteacher, found a farm overlooking Seneca Lake, and began raising table grapes—mostly the Concords, Niagaras, Wordens, and seedless grapes that grow so well in the Finger Lakes—and shipping them all over the country. Their grapes are now carried by mega-retailers such as Tops, Wegmans, Price Chopper, Stop & Shop, Wal-Mart, Publix, and Winn Dixie.  They even ship to California.  Says Mel, “They can’t grow Concords and Niagaras out there.” Venture Vineyards’ season starts in mid-July, with grapes they purchase from growers in Arkansas, and ends around Thanksgiving, with the last of the Finger Lakes grapes from their cold storage facility.

Down the lake a piece, their neighbor Jimmy Hazlitt and his son, Eric, are working land their family has had in grape cultivation for 150 years. Their Sawmill Creek Vineyards was among the first to plant some of the more fussy red vinifera varieties, such as Merlot and Pinot Noir, on the portion of Seneca Lake known locally, for its particularly mild climates, as “the banana belt.” Their grapes are in demand among Finger Lakes winemakers, and harvest brings controlled havoc to their several vineyards, where huge mechanical  pickers, peering down like tractors on steroids, lumber up and down the vineyard rows, their long mechanical fingers plucking grapes from their vines with surprising tenderness.

If the scent of freshly-plucked grapes is more than you can bear as you travel down Route 414, stop in at the StoneCat Cafe in Hector, about a mile south of Sawmill Creek, which started out in life as a fruit stand, and still sells the season’s fresh grapes, raspberries, and plums. You may also want to take a lunch break there, on the deck overlooking Seneca Lake, where Chef Scott Signori is committed to performing alchemy on locally-raised foods, many of them raised by his organic farming neighbors, Lodi’s Blue Heron Farm.

If apples are your game, head for Geneva’s Red Jacket Orchards, on Routes 5 and 20 in Geneva (across from Wal-Mart). They’re known in September for their peaches, and all summer and fall for their apples. Owned and operated by the second and third generation of Nicholsons on that land, their 500 acres of dwarf fruit trees, strawberry plants, and other fruits yield a dizzying array of products. In the early fall you’ll find tree-ripened peaches and plums, and, as the season progresses, 16 varieties of apples, from the familiar Macintoshes and Macouns to the more exotic Monroes, Madisons, Winesaps, and Twenty-Ounces, most of them available for sampling at the store. Choose your own fruit, piece by piece, in their cool, hemlock-lined fruit cellar, snag a container of one of their ciders or juices, or rummage through their extensive selection of locally grown squash, cabbage, cauliflower, squashes, and pumpkins, and locally made salsa, jams and jellies, fruit butters, vinegars, mustards, relishes, chili sauces, salad dressings, Amish cheeses, peanut brittle, and other candies.

When we spoke with Red Jacket’s Joe Nicholson, their new Apple and Rhubarb Juice had just been acclaimed in a recent New York Times article; food writer Florence Fabricant suggested mixing it with iced tea, lemonade, or, better yet, gin! A rhubarbini? But it is only one of many fruit-juice blends Red Jacket produces.

With its home base in Geneva, Red Jacket also keeps a storage house in Brooklyn to service its outlets in many of New York City’s greenmarkets. To check out their harvest calendar and to learn more about their products and history, log on to their Web site at www.redjacketorchards.com.

Not too far away, Drew and Melanie Wickham’s The Pick’n Patch, at 3619 Flint Road, just off Routes 5 & 20 in Stanley, New York, is a big draw for both school children and families with its petting zoo, straw-bale and corn mazes, pumpkin house (built almost entirely of pumpkins), and nursery-rhyme re-enactments that use pumpkins for the heads of Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, Litttle Miss Muffett, and Little Bo Peep, among others. The Wickhams sell more than 15 varieties of pumpkins, from the tiniest to those as large as you’d want to heft, and everything in between, including white pumpkins, miniature pumpkins, and pie pumpkins. They’ve also got a variety of squashes. And if the kids get restless, there’s a little train they can ride through the pumpkin patch. The Pick’n Patch is open September 20 through Halloween, from 9 a.m. to dusk.

There are also plenty of opportunities to reap the benefits of harvest, free of hard labor and uncertainties, and to enjoy the technicolor displays, and experience the hospitality of small-town New York on a smaller scale.

Along nearly any highway you’ll find farm stands offering just-picked fruits and vegetables, amber honey and maple syrup, and eggs still chicken warm. If you travel into Amish country, around Romulus, or Mennonite country, around Penn Yan, you’ll find stands offering fresh homemade fruit pies, cakes and cookies. Look for the frosting-stuffed chocolate cookies called “whoopee pies.” You’ll want to pick up a quart of fresh milk to wash down one of those frisbee-sized confections.

Or head to any of Central New York’s many farmers markets. According to Robin Ostfeld of Blue Heron Farms, who sells her produce at the Ithaca Farmers Market, September is the most bountiful month. Before the frost, she says, you have all the summer goodies — tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, basil — all the things that will be finished off by the first frost in late September or early October. Fall produce begins to appear too — arugula, broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower, leeks, potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips, carrots — the things that do best in cool weather. Ostfeld produces only organic vegetables, employing a variety of strategies to encourage beneficial insects and plant crops when the insect pests that feed on them aren’t very active. With brassica crops (vegetables in the cabbage family, like collards and brussels sprouts), she says, there’s no way to avoid insect damage if they’re planted for harvest in July. If they plant them for fall harvest, those insects aren’t very active.

She gets a lot of positive comments on her produce at the Farmers Market, and is the main supplier of rutabagas for the Ithaca Farmers Market big end-of-season event, the Rutabaga Bowl, where contestants vie to roll a rutabaga onto a small target from 50-or-so yards distance. Says Ostfeld, “The rutabaga bowl started out as a very spontaneous activity that some bored vendors came up with when it was very cold at the market.  People started playing with rutabagas and frozen chickens — they worked very well, too.” Last year there were more than 60 entrants competing in an event that was all but Olympian in tone and style. Well, almost. This year’s event is scheduled for Saturday, December 21 — don’t miss it.

But if you’d really like to communicate with your inner farmer, head for Newfield’s Littletree Orchards, just south of Ithaca, off Route 13, where, beginning in September, you can pick tree-ripened peaches, both yellow and white, Asian pears, and more than 20 varieties of apples, including Empire, Golden Delicious, Fuji, and our favorite apple, the Russet, which you’ll probably never see in a supermarket. Often ugly and sometimes misshapen, it looks like a potato with a stem.  But it has great flavor, character, and crunch, and maintains its crispness, shape, and color in pies and other desserts. Or you can pick pumpkins of all sizes, gourds, and flowers, including statice, zinnias, asters, sunflowers, and snapdragons, up until frost. While you’re there, check out Eve’s Cidery, an old-fashioned English-style hard-cider shop, offering a variety of apple and other fruit-flavored hard ciders.

Families picking at Littletree Orchards often make a day of it. Friends arrange to meet there, and locals bring their out-of-town guests to give them a taste of rural life.  Littletree custom blends its own sweet ciders, and kids and grown-ups alike have a hard time resisting the apple-cider donuts made fresh on demand.

And, while you’re at it, don’t miss stopping at Finger Lakes wineries. At last count there were over 60, with a few new ones popping up every year. At harvest festivals in places like Hunt Country Vineyards in Branch­port, and Casa Larga Vineyards in Fairport, you actually get to stomp grapes. Could there be a better way to celebrate the harvest?


by Peggy Haine
Peggy Haine writes on education, wine, and food, and raises Buff Orpington chickens and large-mouth bass on a Trumansburg farm. Until her retirement, she was a jazz diva and demolition derby driver.