Spending the afternoon touring the Hudson Valley with Chuck Abraham of Old Saw Mill Farm felt like an encyclopedia of all things agricultural and historical knocked me over the head.
He knows the story of every farm on every corner in Red Hook, Tivoli, Germantown, and Hudson. When he is not talking about the farms, he is teaching you about where Archer Daniel Midland gets their flour, scion wood for apple trees, green gasser tomatoes vs vine ripened tomatoes, and pesticide residue in the stems of apples, how many chickens are raised to feed the fast food industry, or how to transport organic produce. It is exhaustingly wonderful.
Abraham has been in the food world since he purchased a small software company that specializing in food distribution in 1974 (back when personal computers were the size of a train car). He and his family purchased Old Saw Mill Farm in Germantown when he retired. “I started out to help my friend Bob [Robert Rider Farm] - then I realized he didn’t have a lot of stuff and I could sell a lot more. I used to do a lot more when I was in my early 70s, easy.” He leans over and laughs, his eyes twinkling.
He works with farms around Dutchess and Columbia County to aggregate their goods and bring them to Bard and other institutions. “It’s the little guys that need me to help them. I try to get the highest price I can for the farmer - because they deserve it.” The afternoon I spent with him, we visited Potts Farm, Robert Rider Farm, Abraham’s Farm - Old Saw Mill Farm, G.W. Saulpaugh & Son, and Micosta.
Potts Farm in Tivoli is owned by James Potts, a 4th generation farmer cultivating 85 acres of peaches, plums, cherries, and firewood. He was packing plums into his cooler and picking peaches when we visited. Potts and Abraham talked about labor. Abraham shared with me that he has “an arrangement whereby the fruit pickers will come here when they are done with other places.”
Robert Rider Farm in Germantown is owned by Abraham’s neighbor, Bob Rider. You get the sense that Abraham works very closely with Bob to manage the orchard, pack the apples, and get them to market.
Old Saw Mill Farm in Germantown is Abraham’s homestead. He owns 90 acres and leases 50 more. He currently is focusing mainly on his chickens and storing the produce he distributes from other farmers. In the basement of his barn his 19 KW solar panel array provides the electricity to run the cold room that is kept around 34 degrees for the fruit (which likes it cooler) and the vegetables on the outer ring (which like it a bit warmer).
After driving by the original Rockefeller House on the corner of Route 8 and Old Saw Mill Rd, we visited a large apple packing plant (in order to compare it to the shed sized packing operation at Rider Farm). Abraham does not source from George W Saulpaugh, but he wanted me to see the scale of their operation.
Confident in his reception, Abraham walked into the offices of Saulpaugh and asked if we could see the apple packing operation. Like every interaction that afternoon, smiles greeted Abraham and we were ushered inside. Hydraulic forklifts, patented apple wash ingredients, and cathedral sized storage rooms greeted us. Apples emit a gas, ethylene, that contributes to their ripening process, so in order to store apples properly a proprietary mixture of gases is pumped into the storage rooms to retard ripening. I felt a little bit like an umpa lumpa, surrounded by all of the whirring machinery.
The last stop on our whirlwind tour was Micosta in Hudson, owned by Steve McKay. Steve is very excited about ORAC values of fruits. Oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) is an indication of how good a food is at absorbing free radicals and people get very excited about high numbers when talking about health and immunity. McKay is very excited about aronia - a fruit that is 5x higher than blueberries on the ORAC scale. He also makes the elderberry, currant, and blackberry juice that Bard sells at the Green Grocer.
Cheers to knowing where our food comes from!
(notes from the second paragraph...
“ADM gets 10% of their grain locally, then 50% of it comes from the Black Sea area and Turkey, and the rest is from the midwest.”
“Nobody around here does grafting - you can hardly buy scion wood around here. Windy Hill Farms has scion over in Great Barrington - he has scion wood always to sell - but that is his whole business: growing things, tearing them out of the ground, and then putting them in someone else’s ground.”
“A Green Gasser is a tomato that always stays hard. When they order 10-15 boxes, or whatever they order of those tomatoes, before they put them in the truck that is going to bring them from the distributor they put a gas on them and the gas turns them very red. It is like ethylele but it is isn’t. The Dutch do the vine ripened tomatoes and that is another little trick. The Dutch long ago found out that they have trouble selling vine ripened tomatoes because they would be too ripe. So what they did was they discovered that they could make the smell of a fresh tomato in the vine itself. I don’t know exactly the technique, if it is an injection or a spray, but what happens really is that when you pick up a vine-ripened tomato in the store it will be really quite firm, but if you smell it, it smells quite good! But it has no other flavor. A green gasser now arrives to Bard perfectly red and they can take a slicer and slice that tomato and it holds together perfectly like it is a slice of meat being sliced for sandwich meat. So if you eat one of those the flavor is zero - but it looks good on your sandwich!”
“The stem portion of the apple is where most of the residue can accumulate.”
“10 billion chicken are grown every year and 40% of them go to the fast food industry.”
“You can’t mix conventional and organic in the same truck even if you put a wall between them. It is organic or nothing.”