SOME SATURDAYS LAST SUMMER, YOU MAY have spotted some unusual pots of evergreen bedding plants with pink and white blossoms for sale at a dutchess County farmers’ market. The Farm at Bard College was dispersing the leftovers of a big planting—and the plants they were selling have never been seen in the Hudson Valley before: Cranberries.
The primary goal of the farm is to influence the institutional food purchasing at the school.
The college is home to the largest— make that the only—cranberry bog
in the Hudson Valley.
The farm and its odd fruits are just a year in the ground.
Born from student interest, the cam- pus’ long-standing community garden and the vision, planning and efforts of food activist John-Paul Sliva. The farm has financial roots in a Kickstarter campaign that the college matched two to one.
“The primary goal of the farm is to influence the institutional food purchasing at the school,” said Sliva, who is now the Farm Director. On a bright day in June, a baseball hat shielding the 28-year-old’s face and ginger beard from the sun, he told the story of the farm with happy intensity.
The 1.25-acre Farm at Bard College sits behind dormitories, penned in by an 8-foot fence hanging on 12-foot posts. This fence protects against deer, and offers a lattice for 60 hop vines to climb.
The hops and cranberries are the farm’s cash crops, offering a higher rate of return than the lettuces, eggplants, peas and beans in the ground. The Farm is in a unique position: It does not need to make money. It just needs to break even so it is not an expense to the college. This doesn’t take its economics entirely off the table. “The farm grows food for the dining service,” Sliva explains, referring to Chartwells, the Bard College food provider. “We sell our produce at the cost they can get industrial food. so our lettuce is $2.50 a pound. at farmers’ markets around here it won’t be much cheaper than $6 a pound, except maybe at the peak of season. We’re selling at a rate that most farms couldn’t float.”
The farm sells produce to Chartwells at about a dollar a pound, averaging prices that include arugula at $2.50 a pound and pumpkins at 60 cents a pound. Based on how the farm grew last year, about 20,000 pounds (or dollars) of produce is expected.
It quickly becomes obvious that facilitating the transition to local food at an institution means developing high-value crops to subsidize the loss leaders.
Sliva studied the terrain, rainfall amount and soil quality, trying to determine the right crop. “Our soil is silty clay loam,” he says, pointing to trenches that still held water from a recent storm. “I had an aha moment when thinking what can grow well in moist conditions? Cranberries.”
Cranberries are one of the few fruits native to North America, and one of the few sources of vitamin C. Johnny’s Seeds, which the farm buys from exclusively, sells cranberry plants from Cranberry Creations, a company in Maine. Sliva drove there in a utility van and brought 650 plants to the campus. The plants suffered some stress, as they were in cold storage for a couple of weeks while the bed was prepared.
Since there are no bogs within a few hundred miles of the Bard campus, near Tivoli, the farm built one. An 80-foot by 80-foot bed, lined with road fabric to control weeds, was filled with 60 tons of sand (brought to the site one wheelbarrow load at a time) and 130 bales of peat moss (for its low pH, high organic matter, and high water-holding capacity). The cranberries, which form as green berries in early July but don’t ripen until September or October, are misted as necessary by a misting system installed around the bed.
“We created a medium of what a bog is,” Sliva says. “It has the ability to hold moisture a long time.”
Commercial cranberry operations are built in areas that can be flooded, which is useful for harvest because the cranberries, which are hollow, float to the surface (as in the ads for Ocean Spray). Flooding also helps stabilize temperatures for the plants during the winter. Bard College’s cranberry bed is not floodable—at this farm each berry must be picked by hand. In winter, the plants must be protected with row cover.
By the end of last June, 600 plants were in place; the remainder went home with curious people at farmers’ markets. The money helped the farm, and the outreach—educating people about this native crop—served a larger food activist goal.
Last year’s harvest yielded 40 pounds of berries; the harvest should be better this year, since the plants have been established. Once the plants are mature, production should be about 200 pounds a season. The berries sell for $10 a pound. Montgomery Place Orchards bought the entire 2012 crop, and likely will buy again from the farm. (A local homebrew store bought the two bags of hops the hop field produced. Like the cranberries, output from the hops is anticipated to be much greater this year.)
Elsewhere on the farm, other cash crops are under investigation. A row of flowers at the top of the farm sits in front of a row of quinoa plants. Sliva is growing them to see if they might yield a good head of the pseudo grain, which is highly nutritious. Quinoa is also a high-value crop, worldwide production of which has recently come under scrutiny. Popularity of the plant is making it hard for populations who have relied on the food to have access to it. Creating a local source would be an economic boon to the farm and a benefit to consumers.
The ideas, and the farm, keep growing.