RONDOUT VALLEY – Agriculture's being remade; call it part of the state's new drinking-oriented tourism economy.
Those lively little plots of green growing along Route 209 between Marbletown's northern edge and Hurley are the Farm Hub's experimental crops and this past week was their annual field day, when they show off and talk about the various small grains trial plots they've got going as part of a multi-year study.
Those small grains — wheat, barley, rye and oats — were once the top crops here, but that was before wider lands to the west were turned into farmland and the Erie Canal was opened to bring the harvest back east. In the past century or so farming here switched to other crops.
What's changed things back? The creation of the farm brewery license in 2013, for one, and the expansion of New York State's micro-brewing and distillery industries ever since. Those started when it was revealed in 2012 that New York had exactly zero acreage growing malting barley, the essential ingredient for brewing. And there was the opening for agricultural revival.
Among other things, that in turn set the small grains project in motion at the Farm Hub, with the majorly-funded endeavor's program director Sarah Brannen promoting the concept, and Justin O'Dea brought in to run field operations that soon introduced winter wheats and spring barleys into the former Gill Farms' new Farm Hub experimental plots.
It turns out that in addition to the plantings, there was also a lot of essential knowledge that needed to be reacquired from the region's farming consciousness of the 19th century. Enter the annual conferences.
The main speakers in the morning session this past Monday were Dr. Mark Sorrells of Cornell University, Dr. Gary Bergstrom, also of Cornell, and O'Dea. Dr. Sorrells spoke about finding the best varieties for the region, noting how the climate lately has been swinging from extreme drought to endless rains. Wheat, he explained, loved things to be dry and last year saw New York's wheat harvest hit record heights while this year's rain will produce the opposite. The story of barley last year is more complex. Winter barley did very well, but spring-planted varieties failed in the drought.
Dr. Sorrells added that perhaps the best yielding grain crop here is winter rye, which out-produces wheat by thirty percent. He also noted that while local farmers are working hard with vegetables and fruits, reliance on one kind of crop is risky, as the pests and diseases can build up. This is particularly hard on organic farmers. The high value small grains, such as barley for brewing, offer an alternative that might be swapped in and out of fields to break pest cycles and still provide farmers with income.
Dr. Bergstrom spoke about diseases, which in the humid northeast are a constant threat. Chief among them is Fusarium graminearum, a species that hits grain crops in moist conditions, starting an infection that leads to contamination with a Mycotoxin, often referred to as "vomit toxin" due to its most noticeable immediate effect on animals and people unlucky enough to eat any. For milling grains, there's a limit of 2 parts per million for this, and for barley it is just 1 part per million.
Out in the field, Dr. Sorrells and Justin O'Dea talked about the varieties planted, as well as their resistance to disease... and lack of it. The plots are alternated between organic and inorganic methods. Tremendous variety is the story, with lots of different types getting planted and tested.
Later came discussion of how the 2015 hard red spring wheat trial product had turned out in goods baked by Bread Alone and Our Daily Bread. Then the group had lunch, after which they went by bus to Coppersea Distilling, and then to Arrowood Farms with its farm brewery and hopyard in Accord.
While the Farm Hub was reporting on progress in growing small grains, Governor Cuomo was announcing that applications were now available for custom beer, wine and cider production centers that would entice even more eager home brewers and wine makers. "Custom craft beverage production centers" will be licensed and overseen by the State Liquor Authority, where enthusiasts will be able to ferment grains, apples and wine grapes on a scale beyond what can usually be done in the home.
"This new license provides greater opportunity for New Yorkers to make their own beer, wine or cider, while helping to strengthen an already booming craft beverage industry," the Governor said. "This win-win-win makes it easier for hobby brewers, vintners and cider makers to hone their craft, while offering beverage manufacturers a new source of revenue that in turn helps New York farms succeed and thrive."
And with that a new future is taking shape for New York, and our own agriculture, as well as the production needed to whet our state's many whistles.