Dec 1, 2019
If you think working at the same place for 20 years is impressive, how about tilling the same soil for over 200 years…?
If you think working at the same place for 20 years is impressive, how about tilling the same soil for over 200 years…? The Clarke family has been doing just that in southern Ulster County’s undulant agrarian hills along the Hudson River. Pamela Clarke-Torres and her husband Robert Torres are the seventh generation of Clarkes farming the land, and Pamela is now part of the third cohort of HVADC’s Farm and Food Funding Accelerator (FFFA) program which kicked off in November and will conclude in the spring of 2020.
Located in Milton, Prospect Hill Orchards has been farmed by the Clarke family since 1817. The original 55-acre farm began as a general self-sustaining homestead and like many of the time, included a kitchen garden, fruits, vegetables and animals. The high rolling hills protected the trees and crops from frost damage in the spring and the rich, gravelly loam soil was ideal for fruit trees and berries.
By 1830, fruits were picked in the morning and delivered to the Milton dock by mid-afternoon to be loaded on the night boats sailing down the Hudson River to New York City. Gradually, the tree stone fruits such as cherries, peaches, pears and apples became the primary crop of the area. Generations later, by 1940s, Leonard and Marion Clarke were growing large amounts of cherries, peaches and grapes, alongside apples and pears. Gradually, the focus shifted to cherries, apples and pears and the family phased-out the more labor intensive and riskier small fruits. Apples and pears, however, have dominated for nearly 40 years.
Today’s generations of Clarkes have a successful U-Pick operation that includes sweet and sour cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears and pumpkins; which means that Prospect Hill Orchards is one of the first farms in the area to open for U-Pick for the season and one of the last to close. They have a corn maze, educational programming with an antique cider press and offer fun community family events on the farm like Kids Days and Johnny Appleseed Cider Fest.
Families that farm together, stay together. Steven Clarke, Leonard and Marion’s son, began farming in 1967 after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in Horticulture. His wife Judy joined him after completing her degree from Cornell University. Though the couple started with apples, they eventually recognized the benefits of diversifying the crops and added cherries and peaches. By the 1980’s, “pick your own” or U-Pick became popular and retail sales were added to the wholesale business.
Their daughter is Pamela Clarke-Torres. Pamela began selling fruits and vegetables in the New York City Greenmarkets, ultimately sparking her interest to return to growing small fruits and berries-- some, forgotten in today’s markets’ -- include currants and gooseberries, red and black raspberries, blueberries, apricots, plums, grapes, quince and Asian pears.
Pam’s brother, Brad Clarke, is engaged in the daily operations on the farm. Brad even has a separate U-Pick of his own nearby and is also partial owner of Queen City Farm Distillery which makes Apple Sunshine -- organic distilled apple whiskey/moonshine. While their father Steve is still very active in growing, says Clarke-Torres, although he is handing off more decision-making and responsibility to Brad. Steve and Judy still operate the main U-Pick, and the family is planning a new U-Pick which would open in about three to four years. Clarke-Torres still does the New York City farmers market and oversees the bakery.
Prospect Hill Orchards has been participating in Grow NYC’s Greenmarket program for over 20 years, and their farm kitchen creates baked goodies like homemade cookies, healthy muffins, fruit pies, granola, fresh-pressed cider and cider donuts. Prospect Hill also makes its own small-batch, flavorful jams from their fruit.
Clarke-Torres said she heard about the FFFA from HVADC’s Food Security Development Manager, Carrie Jones Ross, and tangentially from Sara Higgins of Raspberry Fields Farm in Ulster County and Josh Morgenthau at Fishkill Farms in Dutchess County, both previously participants in the FFFA program. “I was mostly interested in doing the mentorship program because I feel like our farm in general was lacking clarity in where we were headed in the next decade,” said Clarke-Torres, who added that she has several product lines which she currently makes for the farmers markets and is interested in “spinning two of them off into their own micro-businesses”. Clarke-Torres touched on some of the greatest challenges in basing her market in mostly farmers’ markets. “The farmers markets are great, but very intense, with large swings in income over the year, so I was envisioning something that would be a more consistent income source, and also less physically demanding -- as I get older, the physical strains of market become more obvious.”
Another issue that Clarke-Torres is hoping to assess through the FFFA is that of land transference within a multi-generational farm. “We are also struggling with a generational transition of the farm, which my grandfather’s death really brought to the forefront of our minds,” said Clarke-Torres. “These farm transitions are very challenging as our identities are intertwined with the business and family and it is a complex transition.”
Ultimately, Clarke-Torres said that her goal is to come away from the FFFA with direction and clarity. “A clear picture of what ‘I’ want from the next decade and how that fits into the farm’s progression." Clarke-Torres said the FFFA group has already inspired her. “I feel like I am on the older end of the spectrum of the participants and while I appreciate how far I have come, I am not super excited about my business anymore. I am enjoying the fresh energy that the group has, and hope it sparks a new delight in the business that I have created over the past 20 plus years.”
“I recommended the FFFA program to [Clarke-Torres] and Prospect Hill Orchards farm because I have known them for two decades and witnessed their growth, evolution, and some of the changes they have made,” said HVADC’s Jones Ross. “I felt the FFFA program would be the ideal fit for them to best connect with resources like business planning, ag-specific legal advice and professional marketing as they are planning for the coming decades and generations.”
For more information about the FFFA program, please visit https://www.hvadc.org/farmand-food-funding-accelerator.
For more information about Prospect Hill Orchards, please visit https://prospecthillorchards.com.
Photo Source: Prospect Hill Orchards