story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
It’s harvest time. The culmination of cultivation. The summation of summer. And, unfortunately, the first whisper of winter.
But most of all it’s a whirlwind of entertaining activity, as a thousand farmers climb aboard a thousand spinning hamster wheels, trying to achieve the thousand things needed to bring in the corn, the cabbages, the grapes, the apples and peaches, the tomatoes and potatoes. Even the kale.
For us, it’s a sight to behold.
For farmers, it’s a boatload of work (and hopefully a boatload – even if it’s a rowboat – of money for months of hard labor and overdue bills).
The Finger Lakes harvest takes on a dozen different forms. Cabbages get sliced. Apples get plucked. Potatoes and carrots get dug. Corn and soybeans get combined. Tractors get fixed and fueled. Hands get taped and knees iced. Machetes get sharpened. Weather gets studied. Grapes get snipped or shook. Pumpkins get tossed. And at the end of the day, showers get dirty. Really dirty.
Starting in late August, the fall harvest goes on for at least two months. Some farmers focus on a few crops, such as field corn or soy beans or apples. Others spread their risks over a dozen or more crops for farm markets, CSA subscribers or grocery stores.
The fall harvest is not only an annual ritual, it’s also an ancient ritual. It’s been woven into our genes over thousands of years. And for you, me and the rest of us, it’s also a cultural expectation ingrained in us from childhood, when we toddled through apple fests, Halloween school parades and an endless parade of Thanksgiving dinners.
For farmers, the harvest represents more than a ritual. It is a real-time annual report published in three dimensions of crop accumulation. It’s also a performance appraisal. Is the silo full? The barn stuffed to its rafters? The tractor trailers filled and headed to distributors? The creditors paid?
Experienced farmers grow proficient. They know
that mother nature may be charging over the horizon to toss explosive storm clouds before the combine can be repaired. Farmers expect such challenges. Some thrive on them, while others suffer. But most endure to tell and retell harvest stories.
The Beauty of Crop Fields
Crop fields can be stunningly and unexpectedly beautiful. Sometimes the beauty is obvious, as when tens of thousands of sunflowers dance under a windblown squadron of cumulus clouds.
Other times, the most common of vegetables may stir you. Fields of cabbage catch my fancy. Their subtle shades of green, cyan, mauve and purple in precisely stitched knots running across fields look like abstract computer art. For me, there’s also a macabre side. Because those cabbages are called (and look like) “heads,” there’s a presumption that bodies are attached, suggesting you may not want to stroll by a cabbage patch on a dark and stormy night – they could be emerging. A light, tangy fragrance sometimes perfumes the air around a cabbage field. It could be worse. The Contrary Farmer ranks rotting cabbage as the fifth worst farm smell.
Also suggesting a computer origin is the new trend of growing apple trees in esplanade form. The goal here is efficiency (and lower insurance premiums as ladder spills decrease). Next to mature, full grown apple trees, still common in the vast Wayne County orchards, esplanade trees seem spindly. A 20-foot apple tree loaded with fruit appears majestic. It may be the most impressive agricultural feat in the Finger Lakes.
And while rows of bare grapevines against the snow seem artful, their current twists of leafy profundity and viney precision, punctuated by the purplish globes hidden within, promise that their future in a bottle will be worth waiting for.
The dull and stiff soy beans stretching to the horizon can’t match the wind-whipped waves that rippled through summer’s wheat and barley fields. But what happens when you toss in a harvesting combine that erupts great clouds of dust and spews a steady stream of soy beans into the companion truck? I get a comforting sense of well-being.
Where to Go When
You should see the harvest first hand. Take a couple of drives through the Finger Lakes from late August to mid-November. Each week offers a new crop being plucked, combined, dug or snipped and placed into storage.
Apple and grape harvests start in late August and run into October. Almost anywhere north of Route 104, you’ll see rows of apple ladders with workers perched atop. Know that only three states produce more apples than Wayne County.
Look for grapes along the big central Finger Lakes. There you’ll spot mechanical grape harvesters shaking and shimmying vines and streaming grapes into a bin pulled by a tractor. You may even see some hand picking at vineyards like those at Ventosa Winery.
From September to November, you’ll find grain fields across the region being scoured by combines.
Hops are harder to find, but if you’re curious, google them and expect to find them being harvested from August to maybe mid-September. You’ll see machete-wielding workers atop aerial platforms whipping their blades to slash and set free the twenty-foot tall, tied-up vines.
In the greater Penn Yan and Seneca Falls areas, you may come across Mennonites and Amish family crews driving a team of horses to power their 19th-century-like harvesting equipment. On fall Fridays, pumpkins, mums and more fill up horse-pulled wagons for Saturday tourists.
Picking Crops by Hand
Quite a few crops in the Finger Lakes are hand-picked. For some, such as apples and peaches, it’s the practical way. For others, like grapes, it’s usually a matter of choice, largely to improve the quality by choosing only the superior grapes and by preserving the integrity of the fruit through gentle handling. For smaller farms like CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), it’s the economical way.
Hand-picking on a large scale usually falls to migrant workers. Farmer after farmer will tell you how important migrant workers are to their success. Although the crops may be picked by hand, commercial operations embrace technology and machinery to process and store the harvest.
Ventosa Vineyards: Better Wine through Better Grapes
Ventosa Vineyards owners Lenny and Meg Cicere have committed to 100% hand-picking to bring out the highest quality and subtlest flavors in their wines, which are aged one to three years in oak barrels.
On their 23 acres on the northeast side of Seneca Lake, they make wine only from the grapes they grow.
Muddy Fingers Farm
At Muddy Fingers Farm, Liz Martin and Matthew Glen grow fresh, high-quality produce for CSA customers, farmer markets, and restaurants. With occasional parental assistance (Liz’s mom above), they handle all the planting, cultivating, cleaning, and selling.
G and G Orchards
New York State is second in the country in apple production. G and G Farms in Williamson is instrumental in helping achieve that position.