We had a terrific visit to Hepworth Farms at the height of the tomato harvest a few weekends ago. Amy and her sister Gail were amazing hosts, taking us to many parts of the farm, and relating an extraordinary number of facts about their history and operations, organic farming and the future of food production. We returned with greater appreciation for our local CSA--and even more respect for our farmers.
You’d have to take a weekend trip of your own to absorb as much information as we were given, but I’ll try to cover some of the highlights.
The Hepworth family has farmed in the Hudson Valley area since 1818. Amy and Gail are the seventh generation, and we were greeted at the farm by Gail's daughter, who introduced herself proudly as a member of the eighth generation of Hepworths.
Amy took over the farm when her mother retired in the 1980s, when it was still a conventional apple farm. She quickly became disturbed by the amount of chemicals required to maintain the apple trees, so she began to reduce the use of these chemicals and started farming vegetables, transforming it into an organic farm.
She took us to tomato fields where they have planted over 110 species of cherry tomato, and told us they are on a quest to determine the best tomato varieties. The tomato varieties alternate row by row, all bearing ripe fruit of different colors and shapes. There are covers on some rows, which protect the plants from wet weather, since moisture can cause rot and destroy the whole crop. Beans ring the perimeter of these rows, the idea being that the beans attract fruit-eating bugs and distract them from the tomatoes--one of the ingenious tricks of organic farming! The farmers move the crops regularly, often every year, as this helps prevent fruit-eating bugs from establishing themselves.
Amy and her kin took great pride in showing us the enormous compost piles that generate the nutrients that feed the plants, often eight feet tall and 40 feet long, and composed of a precise ratio of carbon and nitrogen. Much of the carbon in their current piles came from wood that was salvaged from the coast after Hurricane Sandy. The nitrogen is supplied by the unused parts of grape plants from vineyards in the Hudson Valley. It takes several years for the compost to break down and mature. It’s largely left alone, turned only a couple of times a year.
Amy explained that current organic regulations are not scalable to feeding cities of millions of people, given the huge amount of resources needed to support them. There was a lively discussion about the future of farming with members of the CSA.
Gail showed us two different packing facilities. While there, she talked about their highly trained and valued core farmers. Many of these workers are here are on migrant visas, and Hepworth Farms actively advocates for these visa programs. She also told us about apple-storage innovations that the farm developed, innovations that have become an industry standard worldwide.
Many thanks to Howard for organizing the trip for us, and to the Hepworth family, and all the workers and staff at Hepworth for spending time with us and of course for making the delicious produce. We are very lucky!