Looking Back, and Forward

20th Anniversary

Looking Back, and Forward

THE STORY OF THE GENESIS of The Valley Table has been told and retold innumerable times. It’s a good story, but it won’t be retold here, other than to say that during an eight-month-long cross-country road trip beginning in 1996, we were inspired by the efforts of the Chefs Collaborative that encouraged people to build a sustainable food system based on support of local agriculture—in other words, to “eat local.”

The magazine’s spawning ground was a camp table on the banks of New Mexico’s San Juan River. When we weren’t pulling “monster” trout (by New York standards) out of the river (the minimum keeper was 24 inches), we developed a rough publication concept and convinced ourselves that we could pull it off.

As Hudson Valley natives, we knew there was no significant organized effort here at that time whose primary mission was to encourage a mass audience to eat local. We knew the agricultural base of the region was still strong, though threatened by rampant commercial development.

We decided we wouldn’t favor any specific eating philosophy—vegetarian or organic, for example; our primary message would be to advocate sourcing food locally as much as possible as a way to help sustain local agriculture while strengthening local economies. We also wanted to recognize, publicize and support restaurants and other businesses that sourced locally. The region’s top chefs and restaurants, in fact, had developed close relationships with local farmers as sources of meat, cheese, eggs and specialty vegetables, often highlighting those sources on the menu.

However, we soon learned that for many Hudson Valley farmers, marketing produce to local consumers or chefs in the region was not a viable choice—it made more economic sense to transport it to the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, where, from one spot, a farmer could sell directly to some of the top chefs in the country, and be sure that retail consumers would buy the rest. There were fewer than a half dozen commercially significant farm markets in the entire Hudson Valley at that time.

But it was not just stories of farmers, fields and dinner plates that appeared on these pages. Issues like fracking, water contamination, waste disposal, humane treatment of animals and the proliferation of genetically modified organisms in our food supply were right up front with our profiles of chefs, farmers and distributors.

The Hudson Valley’s agricultural heritage and the industries it spawned and supports are at the core of what we celebrate in every issue of The Valley Table.

There are emerging issues that we brought forward, as well. The proliferation of farmers’ markets over the past 15 years made almost everyone happy, but their popularity underscored a problem: the availability (or rather the lack of it) of farm-fresh food to low-income, inner-city or other “underserved” populations that don’t have the money, transportation or other access to the food many of us take for granted. “Food justice” is a relatively new but important issue with growers, distributors, retailers and the public as we reconsider the dynamics of our food supply.

Coincident with that is the issue of what the short- and long-term effects recent changes in national immigration policy will have on the economics of our food system. Restricted immigration, arbitrary detention and deportation and other exclusionary policies target precisely those people who form the bulk of our farm and food service labor pool: the “invisible” immigrant laborers (documented or otherwise). The truth is, most resident citizens (read: the white middle class) prepare for and anticipate high-paying, high-tech careers, and the great majority cannot, or will not, sign on to do seasonal labor. The question then becomes: Who will harvest, prepare and serve dinner if (or when) the largely ignored immigrant labor pool dries up?

Of course, none of these issues would even come up in conversation if it weren’t for the significant agricultural base that has historically been so important in the Hudson Valley. And, despite figures showing a decline in the overall number of farms and farmers, the agricultural economy sector is looking a little better these days.

Farming has a 400-year heritage here, expanding northward from pre-colonial Manhattan Island to become significant in almost every Hudson Valley county right into the twenty-first century, despite intense development pressure fed by its proximity to New York City and an extensive transportation network (centered on the river itself—the country’s first “superhighway”).

The Hudson Valley’s agricultural heritage and the industries it spawned and supports are at the core of what we celebrate in every issue of The Valley Table. That covers a lot of ground.

As the “Breadbasket of the Revolution,” the valley’s early grain production persisted until nineteenth-century transportation corridors opened up the vast Midwest fields. Apples supplanted grain, and for a while, hard apple cider was the premier drink of the nation, a significant portion of it coming from New York. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, dairy became a major sector, though it too gradually faded as modern transportation and more efficient refrigeration made transporting dairy products from the vast Midwestern dairy operations economical.

Interestingly, we’ve watched as agriculture in the valley recycled itself, in large part due to a reawakened consumer consciousness about just what “good food” really is. Dairy farming has held on, albeit with difficulty, fueled by a strong interest in organic milk, and supported by a  highly respected and successful cheese industry. Even grain crops like hops, barley, rye and wheat have been resurrected specifically to meet the high demand from new distillers and brewers.

Apples are back, too, primarily because of the surge in interest in value-added products like hard and sweet cider, which in turn has been spurred by new state laws pertaining to farm-based distilleries, breweries and cideries. Allowances for on-farm tasting rooms and retail sales have contributed to an uptick in agriculture-focused travel and tourism, as well.

In general, this repositioning of agriculture’s role in the Hudson Valley’s economy has had far-reaching effects. A surge in efforts to attract younger farmers continues through the efforts of groups like Glynwood and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, whose annual Young Farmers Conference continues to draw significant attendance. And farmers now have positive alternatives other than selling to developers if they choose, or have to, cease farming.

We were lucky at The Valley Table to lasso a successful farmer who had writing talent. Keith Stewart, internationally lauded for the garlic grown on his Greenville farm, never missed a deadline for his Locally Grown column, often illustrated by his wife, Flavia Bacarella, a painter, printmaker and former chair of the art department at Lehman College. Aside from the popularity of his garlic, Keith’s special voice and perspective on farm life earned him a devoted following among our readers. Here’s a bit of what he had to say back in issue 14 (that was 2001):

One farmer I know said, “If you want to succeed as a small farmer, you better do it as though your life depends on it.” He may be right: Running a small, diversified organic farm in today’s environment of agribusiness, cheap food and chemicals is like swimming against the current. It taxes every muscle in your body and a few in your brain as well.

Renewed interest in growing specialty grains to supply the burgeoning craft brewing and distilling industries in the state was spurred by the repeal of Prohibition-era laws that for nearly a century stifled all on-farm hard beverage production and sale, and by new regulations mandating state-sourced ingredients. These new laws and incentives resurrected an industry and revived businesses ranging from farms to trucking companies.

In the background, but no less active during all this commotion, was the region’s wine industry, represented by more than 30 commercial wineries.

The valley’s climate and soils support successful wineries on both sides of the river, and many wineries throughout the region have developed enviable reputations for producing quality, specialized wines. While the craft brewers and distillers have been busy developing their products, the region’s wineries, too, have been busy introducing new grapes (Millbrook’s Riesling and Benmarl’s Albariño, for example) or expanding into specialized habitat (like Whitecliff’s new riverside vineyard below Olana in Columbia County). Indeed, the wineries form a significant segment of the region's agri-tourism economy.

The valley had been largely ignored as a culinary destination (and certainly ignored as a regional entity), until one evening in 1968, when The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne almost accidentally visited the Depuy Canal House, in High Falls, where a young, self-taught chef named John Novi was serving his version of New American Cuisine. Claiborne’s four-star review of the improvisational restaurant opened the world’s eyes to the culinary landscape that was the Hudson Valley.

When the Culinary Institute of America (arguably the most influential, if not the most important culinary school in the world) resettled in Hyde Park in 1972, it, too, drew focus on the valley, and it began feeding a constant stream of skilled, well-trained professional chefs into the market.

By the time the first Valley Table rolled off the presses, there was a well-established core of fine restaurants throughout the valley whose ingredient-driven menus capitalized on local products. Xaviars Restaurant Group, Crabtree’s Kittle House, Le Pavillon and others featured farm-to-table fare (without fanfare) long before it was morning news. Even more than farmers, chefs were the key to informing and educating the public about farm-to-table eating.

Now, of course, the region’s culinary scene, once at a high simmer, is at full boil: The region’s chefs/restaurateurs have set world-class standards for food and hospitality while pushing the limits of innovation (ever see a food truck?) and commitment, and the first waves of celebrity chefs are stepping out of the City into new digs in upstate hamlets. There’s an educated public with a strong food consciousness, wine and craft beverage industries producing top-shelf beer, wine, spirits and cider, and a healthy agricultural base capable of supporting it all.

Perception of the Hudson Valley as an entity—as a region with its own identity, encompassing a variety of diverse environments, destinations and local “personalities,” was boosted about 12 years ago, when The Valley Table launched Hudson Valley Restaurant Week (two weeks, actually). Designed to attract diners to experience the entire region by sampling what some of the finest restaurants have to offer, Restaurant Week’s decade of success is due, in many ways, to its Board of Advisors—the group of chefs, restaurateurs and tourism professionals—leaders in the farm-to-table/eat local movement—who know the dynamics of the valley’s food system and who have helped shape the region’s culinary reputation.

We took the board members out of the kitchen and onto the farm for a day and asked them to share their perspectives on the Hudson Valley—now, then, and the future. “A day at the farm” follows.

            —JN

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