Coming Full Circle: Sullivan County Agritourism
Text | Erin Vanderberg
Photographs contributed | Frost Valley
Why It Matters
“People see farms and think, ‘How quaint,’” said Tara Collins, communications director at Watershed Agricultural Council, the office that sponsors the Pure Catskills buy-local branding campaign in six counties including Sullivan. “But if you were to ask people why they visited Sullivan County, most would say the rural character. The value of this is huge and underestimated. By promoting agritourism we are protecting our community’s rural character for the long run.”
The Sullivan County Catskills… to the unintiated, those words might conjure up classic images of the Borscht Belt, summer resorts, musical theater and untamed mountain wilderness. But in the beginning, all that was made possible by food.
“Many of the hotels that Sullivan County is famous for started as farms with rooms available,” said Joe Walsh, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Now we’ve come almost full circle.”
Today’s offerings are myriad: poultry, livestock and dairy; farmers’ markets, harvest festivals, greenhouses and U-pick farms; beekeeping, maple syrup production and even small-scale distilleries.
Many of these producers open their doors to visitors as the trend toward agritourism gains popularity and support. Four such agritourism destinations are featured here.
Find the event that’s right for you and get your farm on.
Apple Pond farmstays
The quintessence of agritourism is the farmstay, where guests can enjoy a pastoral environment and homegrown meals while rolling up their sleeves and helping with the chores. Apple Pond Farm and Renewable Energy Center in Callicoon Center is Sullivan County’s principal farmstay destination. Dick Riseling and Sonja Hedlund have been hosting visitors at their organic farm for over 30 years.
According to Hedlund, farmstays are a highlight of their farming experience. “I think it’s wonderful to have visitors,” she said. “Our farm is open to the public because we really enjoy meeting people.”
The pair has a long list of repeat guests, one that stays regularly up to four times a year. They also host interns and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms participants (WWOOFers).
Apple Pond an organic farm, powered mostly by renewable energy (horse, wind and solar power, with biodiesel fuel powering the tractor). In addition to their horses, they raise sheep, goats and chickens. They also bake bread, make cheese and craft fiber arts.
“If there is a ‘teachable moment’ here,” said Sonja. “it’s that this is our farm, where we create the lifestyle that we want. We’re not civil servants. We can have real conversations with our guests” about the farm’s practices of energy alternatives and healthy, sustainable food.
Apple Pond Farm and Renewable Energy Education Center
80 Hahn Road
Callicoon Center, NY 12724
For a broader foray into farms and farming, look no further than the third annual Farmstock 2011: Working Farm Tours, featuring 12 Sullivan County farms. The afternoon events kick off Sunday, June 19 at the co-location shared by Silver Heights Nursery and Gorzynski Ornery Farm in Cochecton Center.
Farmstock was started in 2009 by a group of local farmers looking to increase public awareness and appreciation of their farm goods. That group then formed a farmer advocacy organization, currently run by an all-women board, called the Sullivan County Farm Network. Board member Cindy Gieger, of Gieger Dairy Farm, said the group’s mission “is to increase farming activities in any way we can, and connect those who grow food with those who consume it.” While the organization does not claim to represent every farmer in the county, it is working to create opportunities for all.
Gieger estimates that half of Farmstock’s participants come from out of town. “They are really amazed to see how our farms work, and excited to realize the amount and variety that our local farms produce,” she said.
The three-hour events, which run from noon to 3 p.m., feature hands-on activities such as seed starting, horse rides, chicken care, goat milking, hayrides, felting, canning and cheese making, to name a few. Tours are standard and, in most cases, farms will have a medley of their goods for sale.
Farmstock continues the tour at participating farms through Labor Day. Cost is $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 5-12.
Farm Camp at Frost Valley
For parents looking to connect their kids to the food supply in a meaningful way, the Farm Camp at Frost Valley YMCA offers an excellent introduction. Second to 10th graders are immersed into a program that is focused on making food—both in the garden and in the barn—while living in yurts on the edge of a 515-acre farm in Claryville.
In the garden, planting and maintaining the crops are the main tasks, with an emphasis placed on reducing waste through compost. At the barn, campers are tasked with the care of horses, cows, donkeys, llamas, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, ducks and chickens. While kids spend the majority of the time on the farm, regular camp activities such as swimming and hiking are also in the mix.
According to Frost Valley marketing director Denise Owens, Farm Camp is one of Frost Valley’s most popular programs. “For urban kids in particular, Farm Camp offers an insider’s look at where food comes from and an understanding of how much work goes into producing the amount of food we want to eat,” she said.
Five sessions are available from June through August.
Frost Valley YMCA
2000 Frost Valley Rd.
Claryville, NY 12725
The Catskill Distilling Company & The Dancing Cat Saloon
One may wonder how visiting a local distillery could be construed as an act of agritourism. The Catskill Distilling Company makes it clear as—well, vodka. They use only crops grown by New York farmers and fruit from their own property to make their spirits.
Monte Sachs, the distiller, is an equine veterinarian by trade. While studying in Italy as a young man, his interest was piqued in distilling. In 2007, New York State passed a law that encouraged small-scale distilling by making it a boon for the agricultural industry; distillers are welcome in the state’s economy as long as they use the state’s crops. Sachs and his partner, Stacy Cohen, saw their opportunity.
Said Cohen, “We chose Sullivan County because that is where I am from. It is beautiful and perfectly situated. We still have small-town America in our hamlets and we have this great agricultural community going on. Our history is fascinating, from gangsters to the resorts era to the Woodstock Festival.”
The couple chanced upon a great location in the Town of Bethel, right down the road from Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. They couldn’t bear to demolish the dilapidated Victorian on the site, so they undertook a serious remodel to transform the building into The Dancing Cat last July, and then the Tasting Room later that fall—a move that has made them very popular with locals. The distillery will be open in full capacity this June, making vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, grappa and baby bourbon (bourbon that’s been aged less than two years), and giving tours.
The Catskill Distilling
Company & The Dancing Cat Saloon
2037 SR 17B
Bethel, NY 12720