The HVADC Cultivator
FFBA Participant Josh Morgenthau of Fishkill Farms
Josh Morgenthau of Fishkill Farms in Dutchess County is a participant in the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation (HVADC) Farm & Food Business Accelerator (FFBA) program. Fishkill Farms has been in Morgenthau’s family for nearly 100 years. Josh is the third generation on the farm, and he took over management in 2007. Fishkill is primarily an orchard, but they also grow vegetables and graze hens on the farm, there are about 150 acres in production. Pick Your Own is central to Morgenthau’s goal of opening the farm up to the wider community and allowing visitors to catch a glimpse of farm life. Fishkill produce is available at a number of markets in New York City as well as locally, they offer a CSA and also have a farm store on site. In addition they host field trips, educational trips and events like the Drunken Pumpkin Festival.
Fishkill Farms is a business that places a big emphasis on progressive values and strives to make a positive social impact. To underscore the importance of these values, Morgenthau worked with his staff to create a mission statement to serve as an organizing principle for what they do. The mission statement places diversity, ecology, locality and community at its core:
We believe that, though a farm can be many things, at the center it is a working place where food is produced. One of the greatest global challenges we face is to grow food in harmony with nature. Good agricultural practices benefit our health today and for generations to come.
We are committed to steering our farm away from outside inputs and towards a self-sustaining system. We are confident that even in our difficult New York climate, we can grow good apples-- apples that are nutritious for us and for the land. We pledge to improve our growing methods each season in service to this ideal.
What happens to food after it is harvested can be as important as what happens before. The community that supports our farm is as crucial as the soil in which the crops are grown.
Community is an extremely important element of farming to Morgenthau, it touches every aspect of Fishkill Farm. Providing an opportunity for the local community to experience a real working farm is what inspires Morgenthau and the Fishkill team to keep going with the at times very difficult thing that is farm life. In the future, they hope to put on more and more community events, bonfires, line dancing, BBQ’s.
Sustainable farming is central to the very essence of Fishkill. All of their vegetables and berries are Certified Organic, as well as some apples. Now, this is a real feat. Growing organic apples in New York State is not for the faint of heart. The reason that Fishkill does not grow all of their apples organically is that the risk of losing an entire crop to pests or disease is extremely high; if the whole orchard acreage were organic it would likely not be viable. In a good year they could have a decent organic crop, but in a bad year they would lose most of the fruit. In spite of these risks, Morgenthau believes in pushing the envelope and continually trying new methods. As such, about a third of the orchard is organic, which allows them to take risks on a meaningful scale without risking the whole farm’s crop. That way if they do have a bad season and lose the organic crop on it won’t put them out of business. The rest of the tree fruit, while not organic, is eco-certified and ecologically grown. According to the Red Tomato, an agricultural non-profit in Massachusetts, eco-certification uses “ecology-based growing practices that promote soil and tree health, nurture pollinators, and protect biodiversity. Orchards are certified annually by the IPM Institute of North America and production protocols are reviewed each year by scientists and fruit growers to stay current with best practices and new research”.
Morgenthau is constantly trying to improve growing practices in order to minimize inputs and farm as much as possible in harmony with nature. Fishkill grows and produces a wonderful variety of things (apples, peaches, nectarines, currants, cherries, pumpkins, berries, vegetables, eggs, salsa, jam, apple butter, pies, donuts, hard cider), but apples reign as queen of the farm. They grow more apples and more varieties of apples than any other crop. They now have about 80 different varieties – with more than 20 hard cider apples – Morgenthau is fascinated by the history and diversity in heritage apple varieties.
Future goals for Fishkill Farms include establishing a hard cider production facility on the farm. They are currently producing hard cider, but the first batch was produced off site, while fermentation and bottling happened at yet another site. The cider was made from Fishkill apple juice and they did the blending, recipe development and production there, but Morgenthau is looking forward to centralizing all stages of cider making at Fishkill. Plans are to build a hard cider production facility, with a tasting room and a commercial kitchen for farm fresh lunch options. They are hoping to break ground in the fall of 2017 and to have most of the work wrapped up in 3 years.
Morgenthau expressed concern over two issues that he believes are critical to a viable small farm, farm labor and climate change. A big part of the Fishkill farm crew comes to the US on the H2-A temporary farm work visa. This type of visa could be in jeopardy with the current administration’s immigration policies. Fishkill relies on these H2-A employees as they have not been able to find local candidates that are qualified and willing to do the demanding work that farming requires. With regards to climate change, Morgenthau expressed concern over the stability of our winters – the 2015-16 warm winter caused all of their fruit trees to bud 3 weeks too early, which was then followed by a freeze that destroyed the crops. They lost nearly all of their peaches and nectarines and half of the apple crop. 2015-16 was supposed to be a once every 30 years weather event, but this winter of 2016-17 has the potential to be as harmful. The stability of seasonal patterns that fruit orchards rely on is really at risk with climate change in a way that that vegetable production and annual crops are not subject to. If these warm winters continue year to year, Morgenthau does not rule out getting out of the orchard business.
Morgenthau’s advice to new and/or young farmers is that the country needs farmers and that farming is a great thing to do. He feels that if farming is going to survive and we are going to continue to have a healthy food system and improve our food system as a country – that we as a nation need all of the talent we can get to start farming. He would also say that it is a really tough job and as such, it is essential to find farms to work on and gain some experience prior to branching out on one’s own. Ultimately farming is demanding, yet fulfilling, work that has a largely positive impact.
Morgenthau suspects that at times people may take produce for granted, and not realize all that went in to the growing of their food; the water/fertilizer/weeding/pruning/thinning required to make something grow. He believes that people tend to have a romantic vision of farming, an idealized story that passively tending the land will put forth a bounty of food, but the reality is that farming today, good farming, relies on technology. Morgenthau’s goal is to eliminate toxic pesticides and have a sustainable farm, to take advantage of the good technology out there. He feels that sometimes people don’t realize that farmers are often making every growing decision based on computer models and complex forecasts that try to predict when a pest will emerge. Current farming is a combination of age-old farming practices with good science and technology.
A dream of Morgenthau’s is to see major changes in the Farm Bill and in the way that the US government manages food production. He thinks that current policies are doing more harm than good. He would like to see half of the funding that is set aside in the Farm Bill for commodity crops like corn and soy, (which ultimately get turned in to red meat or corn syrup) directed towards funding sustainable farming practices. Sustainable farming practices are significantly more expensive than conventional, and these extra costs are felt by small farmers in particular. For example, when a farm decides to cut out all synthetic fertilizers and just use compost – this could cost an extra 10,000 dollars a year, a cost that is not always possible to bear for many small farmers. If the government funded some of the cost difference that these practices represent, the food system would be transformed.
The practice of “ecological farming” for Morgenthau is about doing everything possible to preserve and foster the health of ecosystems on the farm and around the farm. It means farming with a sense of the biology of the plants being grown and the beneficial insects that populate those ecosystems. Simply spraying an insecticide wipes the slate clean and kills whatever is out there. A lower impact, yet still effective method, is to use traps that have lures to monitor when there is an infestation. Based on this information, the farmer can use an insecticide of low toxicity that affects only the target pest. This preserves all of the beneficial insects and the rest of the ecosystem. This approach is a dual concert of knowing what the potential risks and maladies a crop is at risk of, of seeing when they are starting to occur and then, and only then, taking action to intervene. The intervention should be the least harmful and use the most benign but effective material possible.
Cornell University recently conducted a survey of native pollinator species which found that on average, organic orchards had twice the biodiversity and individual specimen count of native pollinators as compared to conventional orchards. Due to ecological farming and targeted spraying, Fishkill’s conventional orchard has an ecosystem nearly as diverse and healthy as that of organic farms which proves the efficacy of a more integrated and less invasive approach.
Prior to joining the FFBA program, Morgenthau had been aware of the work of HVADC. Fishkill had applied for a USDA value added producer grant with the assistance of HVADC. While speaking with HVADC ED Todd Erling Morgenthau learned about the FFBA and felt that Fishkill Farms would be a good fit for the program.
"It has been really great to have HVADC’s help as a springboard for our expansion and new ventures. The FFBA program’s focus on business fundamentals has been really helpful either to learn anew or have a good refresher on, and the community that is built among the members has been really excellent to have. One of the major outcomes of the program – is that even though our business has been in operation for over a century, it has changed a lot in the last 8 years and we had not updated our business plan to reflect that. The FFBA program is really working on helping me to develop it – which will be crucial as a road map for how we move forward." – Josh Morgenthau, Fishkill Farms
A particular aspect of the FFBA that Morgenthau has found helpful is seeing the range of businesses and stages that the different participants are at – from multigenerational farms to brand new startups, he has enjoyed being in a room with such a diverse group of new business people.
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