Farm to College: Spotlight on Davenport Farms

imgres-1We will start this discussion of Davenport Farm by hearing from Bruce Davenport (courtesy of their website and because I am a history lover).

  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.

Yours truly in front of the wide open fields of Davenport Farms.

  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.

--Bruce Davenport

Bruce Davenport in front of his family's farm stand.

As Bruce shared with me, he grew up farming 1000 acres of sweetcorn with his family and “the life sucked.” Currently he farms 100 with his brother, renting the rest to his neighbors and relatives. Their 100 acres is flat, wide, and open with views of the Catskills.

One of his renters raises cattle and I asked him if he uses their manure on their fields to feed the soil organic matter and it turned into a conversation about the difference in terminology between GMO and GE foods.

We don’t put the manure from the cows onto the field because that is pretty dangerous, you don’t want to do that just willy nilly. That has to be a planned thing you want all of your customers to live through it. Throwing e-coli out in your field, that is generally considered not to be a good thing.

The thing with farming nowadays is that you need to control as many things as you can possibly control. That is why that whole GMO thing came about – that is just one more little bit of control a farmer has over what is going. We don’t use anything GMO – actually that is a misnomer – we don’t use anything GE – basically everything out there is GMO.

GMO is genetically modified – that means anything that has been altered is GMO – like a hybrid or breeding anything. If it has been open pollinated like your Brandywine Tomatoes that is GMO. GE is when they genetically engineer the seed by putting in different genetics.

As a farmer, you need to control the environment as much as you possibly can because there is so much that you can’t control. The margins are so small in the business that you can’t let anything slip by.

He enjoys growing a variety of produce in the season, as he shares, “it allows you to be creative and I have the winters off.” Davenport has a farmstand in Stone Ridge that is open all year except the last half of December, January, and February.

Davenport Farms sells their produce to Whole Foods, Hannafords, Grow NYC, and Farm to Table’s Winter Sun Farms - which is how it comes to Bard College and The New School.

Cheers to knowing where our food comes from!

Farm to School is a series that highlights the sourcing of Bard College and The New School. These are written as part of my role as the Food Sustainability Advocate with Chartwells.