In 1913, Henry Morgenthau Jr., an architecture student turned agriculture school graduate, purchased an apple farm in the Hudson Valley. Over the years, the highway system and increasingly globalized agricultural trade made it difficult for many small, local farms like Fishkill Farms to stay in business.
Then, in the 1980s, when Morgenthau’s son Robert was running the farm, a surprise hailstorm rendered their fruit unsellable to supermarkets and distributors. In a stroke of inspiration, Morgenthau opened the farm’s gates to the community who knew that fresh, local food tasted better than anything they could get in a store. People came and picked apples straight off the trees. Fishkill Farms never looked back, and has been growing an ever expanding selection of high-quality fruits and vegetables for the local community ever since.
Now, the farm is direct market, selling produce to community members and to the swell of New York City-dwellers who’re passionate about their food and come up on weekends to get a taste of farm life through the popular pick-your-own program. Josh Morgenthau, the 31-year-old grandson of the original owner, is operating the farm and keeping the focus on what matters to the Hudson Valley – great food, local ingredients and a strong sense of community.
We asked Josh about the ins and outs of running his family farm and why apple season is one of his favorite times of the year.
How did you wind up running Fishkill Farms?
I grew up in New York City, but I was here every weekend with my family. I would do everything, from pressing cider during apple season to pruning trees in the winter. Those memories were some of my happiest as a kid.
I feel a kindred spirit to my grandfather, who studied architecture and then got into farming. I studied painting in school. I moved back to the farm to make paintings initially, but started to get involved in the business and saw the potential of what the farm could be.
What do you grow at the farm?
We have a full selection of fruits and berries, from apples to pears to quince; peaches, nectarines, plums, and cherries, and a diverse selection of vegetables. On top of that, we have a flock of pastured hens. Because they’re able to eat fresh grass and graze on insects, the quality of the eggs they lay surpasses anything you could get in the supermarket.
What’s your favorite aspect of apple season?
In the winter, you are pruning and mowing and hand-thinning. Hundreds of days later, you have the reward of all that labor, which is an incredible experience. My other favorite part of fall at the farm is being able to host families and see their firsthand experience with agriculture. They’re often people who don’t get to visit farms the rest of the year, and they’re having the time of their lives out here, spending the day in nature and seeing a productive farm.
What apple varieties do you grow?
Historically, we have grown varieties of classic New York apples, such as McIntosh or Golden Delicious. But in recent years, we started to get interested in heirloom varieties of apples, and trees that were being grown hundreds of years ago. We grow a variety called Roxbury Russet, which is the oldest known variety in the US. We also grow a variety called Newtown Pippin, and another called Esopus Spitzenburg. Those two were Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apples. That’s another thing that makes the farm a special place — to be able to pick varieties that they can’t get anywhere else.
What variety is your personal favorite?
In a warm year, a variety like the Stayman-Winesap, which is usually very tart, the heat and the sun of summer will increase the natural sugar content. That’s one of my favorite varieties in a warm year. In a cool year, a variety like Jonagold is one of my favorites: it’s usually sweet, but in a cool year it’s a bit tarter. Picking my favorite apple is like picking a favorite child. It’s not really fair, because they all have great qualities that change from year to year.
What’s the difference between a Fishkill apple and a grocery apple?
Because we’re selling our food directly to customers, we don’t have to store the apples for long, long periods of time. We don’t have to pick them underripe so that they can withstand a bumpy truck ride across the country. That allows us to pick the fruit when it’s meant to be picked.
A lot of our acreage is grown organically. We’re not using any toxic pesticides. It translates into peace of mind for people, when they know an apple is grown the right way.
What’s it like to be growing food in the Hudson Valley right now?
Farming in the Hudson Valley is actually at an exciting point right now. For a while, things were looking gloomy for farming, because the prices of real estate increased so the pressure for farmers to sell their property was high, and the market for local produce was not robust. What I’ve seen over the past decade is a resurgence in local food — not just produce, but all sorts of value-added products made with local produce: cheeses, jams, bread baked with local grains and flours. With the interest in local food, a lot of farms that were on the brink of going under are rebounding, investing in new barns and tractors. Restaurants featuring local produce are becoming prevalent.
And as of late, the hard cider movement has become an exciting thing. People don’t realize this, but hard cider was sort of our national beverage; it was much more popular than beer up until Prohibition. When Prohibition came into effect, and all of the orchards cut their trees down, so the cider industry died. When Prohibition was repealed, it was easier to plant grain for beer production than it was to plant an orchard, which would take five or ten or fifteen years to start yielding fruit. Cider never rebounded until recently. I know of about a dozen new hard cider companies that have started in New York State, and many of them are in Hudson Valley.
Take a trip to Fishkill Farms by watching our behind-the-scenes video below.