Producing an ear of corn in the Rondout Valley is like completing a work of art thousands of years in the making. About 25,000 years ago, a glacier that covered the northern half of our continent began to recede. As the ice melted, mighty rivers scoured their way to the oceans. These rivers could have easily been a mile or more wide and hundreds of feet deep, and they carried the stones and soil the glacier had picked up on its journey across the continent. As the water slowed, the stones, now worn smooth from constant grinding were deposited in the riverbed. As the riverbed filled with the stone, the river widened and began to slow. Mixtures of ground rock, or sand and clay particles were deposited to form the soils we see in the Rondout Valley today. There are still rivers running through our bottomland, now fed by seasonal rains and mountain springs.
Some 2,000 years ago people who recognized the value of these soils inhabited the Rondout Valley. They found that they could plant seeds in clearings on these bottomlands to produce food to help sustain their people though the long winters. No longer entirely dependent on hunting and gathering their food, these people were now able to stay in one place for generations, and they called this valley home for thousands of years. Evidence of their existence can still be found in the form of arrowheads, fire pits and bone pipes.
In the last 300 years, our society has gone through drastic, remarkable changes. The basic concept of farming: seeds, seed bed preparation, planting, and tending to the needs of the crop is still the same, but in those 300 years our society has gone from agrarian to industrial. Luckily for some of us, even industrialists need to eat, and tilling the soil and planting the seeds are still the best way to produce food. In an industrial society, people and businesses become specialists, producing products and performing services based on their special talents and/or the availability of a natural resource.
Farming across the country is no different. In the southwest, the farms enjoy abundant sunshine, and a long growing season perfect for fresh market fruits and vegetables. The Midwest, with its vast acreage, shorter growing season, and limited water supply is best suited for grain crops. The Northeast, including the Rondout Valley, has a relatively short growing season, but the excellent soils, available water, and access to large markets offer its farmers many opportunities. The Rondout Valley has been New York City’s breadbasket for 200 years, and continues to produce a great variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Our farm has been in our family for four generations. My great-grandfather and grandfather produced fresh market crops (tomatoes, corn, peppers, etc.) and storage crops (cabbage, potatoes and onions) for both the local markets and New York City. With the advent of refrigeration my father was able to specialize in sweet corn, the crop that seemed to grow the best in this valley. At one point, he grew over 1,000 acres of corn. At that time there were nearly 6,000 acres in the Rondout Valley planted in sweet corn, and ten large sweet corn operations shipping its products countrywide. There are still three large corn operations in the valley, and Rondout Valley corn is still considered by many to be the best money can buy.
Today, due to high fuel prices and increased concern for food security, there has been a surge in demand for local produce. We grow many of the same crops my grandfather and great grandfather grew, and sell to the 21st century version of the same markets they sold to. It gives me a good feeling to know my brother and I, like many other farmers in the Rondout Valley, are continuing a long-standing tradition of raising crops in the same soil our forefathers farmed. And when I find an arrowhead in the field, I’m reminded that these soils have been the cornerstone of cultures for millennia.
Amazing amounts of acreage were cultivated on our farm using horses and what we now consider small tractors.