Montgomery Place Orchards, The Inconvenient Farm Stand
On a Tuesday morning this past July, chef Nick Suarez places a routine call to Montgomery Place Orchards to begin a new week of menu planning for his restaurant, Gaskins. Farmer Talea Taylor pauses the jam-making process underway in her kitchen to answer.
“Any idea what you’ll have this week?” the chef inquires.
“Plenty of snap peas and a tsunami of black raspberries,” Taylor replies.
With that report, the week’s dishes for Suarez start to take shape. The snap peas are so sweet, Suarez won’t need to blanch them. He will prepare them with pistachios, olive oil, crème fraîche and a sprig of mint. Black raspberries he envisions on top of a lemon polenta cake. If supplies last, maybe they will flavor the ice cream of the week, too.
When he swings by the farm stand on Route 9G in Red Hook to pick up his order, Suarez is sure to find another surprise or two that he will add to the menu at the last minute. This is the nature of field-to-plate food in the making and typifies an exchange, while often improvisational in spirit, advantageous for both farmer and chef.
Nurturing in Insecurity
Yet despite a loyal clientele of retail customers at their seasonal farm stand and numerous local restaurants purchasing wholesale, like Gaskins, farm life has been precarious for Talea and her husband, Doug Taylor—for reasons that have little to do with the whims of Mother Nature. The Taylors have worked the land on this historic estate for nearly 30 years, but for most of that time, they operated under short-term contracts with Historic Hudson Valley, the nonprofit educational organization that ran the estate from the 1980s until just last year and currently runs Kykuit, a former Rockefeller estate in Westchester. When you specialize in heirloom fruits, like Montgomery Place does, that take years to develop, a commitment to just one growing season at a time is a difficult way to go about the business and doesn’t yield a lot of long-term security.
Earlier this year, however, the uncertainty of the past gave way to a more promising future when Bard College, in neighboring Annandale-on-Hudson, purchased the 375-acre Montgomery Place estate from Historic Hudson Valley for $18 million. Soon after the purchase was completed, the new owners offered the Taylors a contract to run the orchards privately for the next five years. It was as though a dark cloud lifted and the prospect of living with the longstanding uncertainty of season-to-season farming was no more.
“You learn through adversity,” Talea Taylor says of the new situation. “We’re feeling cautiously optimistic.”
Part of the Past
The land surrounding Montgomery Place has been continuously farmed since the mid 1700s, and the Taylors feel a strong connection to this agricultural tradition. In 1802, Janet Livingston Montgomery, widow of the Revolutionary War hero Richard Montgomery, bought a 242-acre farmstead from a Dutch apple grower named John Van Benthuysen. The land already was producing enough fruit and grain to supply the family with a surplus to sell to New York City markets, but Montgomery had a bigger vision for the new estate.
Exotic plants were her passion, and Montgomery decided to start a commercial nursery to sell fruit trees, berry bushes and vegetable seeds to other farmers in the Hudson Valley. By 1813, the nursery was advertising dozens of varieties of apple, peach, cherry, pear and other fruit trees for sale.
As later generations of the family inherited the estate, the focus shifted away from commercial agriculture toward designing Romantic- style landscapes and protecting the Sawkill Creek from industrial development. But when John Ross Delafield inherited the property in the 1920s, he saw potential to revive the orchards. With the purchase of an additional 147 acres, he incorporated Montgomery Place Orchards. And in 1935, Violetta White Delafield designed the Wayside Stand as a model for a more beautiful roadside display than the ramshackle wagons that were typical of the era.
In the 1980s, the Delafield family sold Montgomery Place to a nonprofit organization that later became Historic Hudson Valley. It was then that Doug Taylor responded to a 1987 ad in American Fruit Grower magazine for a farmer to run the orchards.
Over the next two decades, Historic Hudson Valley focused intermittently on historic preservation of the home and gardens, while the Taylors figured out how best to run the orchards. By the early 2000s, the number of visitors to the historic property, which includes a stately home overlooking the Hudson River, was on the decline and it became clear that management was struggling to come up with a viable long-term plan for the estate.
Meanwhile, a frenzy of farmed-food appreciation and enthusiasm started to take hold in the Hudson Valley, and the Taylors’ roadside farm stand took off. “We were the tail wagging the dog,” Doug Taylor recalls.
Common wisdom says fleeting inventory, in the form of dwindling peaches and haricots verts, should be bad for business, but Talea Taylor has made it a selling point. She refers to her market as the inconvenient farm stand, and customers love her for it. You don’t show up with a shopping list—you pop in to see what’s there.
“Our farm crew makes eight trips a day from the fields to the market,” she explains. “If we are out of green beans at 10am, we could have more by 2pm. And when we do have them, they will be the freshest green beans you can get.”
Talea feels an energizing urgency to get produce out of the back of the pickup truck parked behind the farm stand, sorted, on display and into people’s stomachs as quickly as possible. The vibe is contagious, and employees routinely sample a cherry tomato here, a leaf of baby kale there. “I think we celebrate our produce more than other farms. It never feels boring,” she says.
Patrons know that treasures can appear under the stand’s signature red and white striped awning any time of day. Depending on the season, there may be still-warm strawberries, fragile donut peaches or fresh cherries from a neighboring orchard. In the fall, dozens of varieties of apples fill wooden baskets, many of them antique heirloom varieties, like Starry Night, Hidden Rose and Esopus Spitzenburg that originated in the Hudson Valley centuries ago.
Part of the original Wayside Stand is incorporated into the presentday market, in the same location where Violetta Delafield first set up her shop. Today, Talea is proud to continue the tradition of the beautiful roadside display. She embraces the idea that presentation makes a difference when it comes to selling produce. Customers seem to wholeheartedly agree.
“Everything is beautiful at the market—it’s all so alive” says Sarah Suarez, co-owner of Gaskins and wife of Nick. “I always get something extra that I haven’t ordered, and I often run into someone else I know.”
The question on everyone’s minds, of course, is whether anything will change at Montgomery Place Orchards as Bard College gets more involved and assumes the duty of landlord.
Across the Sawkill Creek, which divides the two properties and empties into the Hudson River, Bard College administrators saw a one-of-a-kind opportunity when Montgomery Place came up for sale. History and tradition aside, the estate adjoins its main campus, forming a 1,000-acre combined property in a prime location on the banks of the Hudson River. From a practical standpoint, the college needs more student housing. By moving some faculty and public programs over to Montgomery Place, Bard will be able to open up space for about 100 beds. But Montgomery Place is attractive in other ways, too.
“I’d like to see it come alive again,” says Amy Husten, director of development and newly appointed director of the Montgomery Place campus for Bard. “The ideas are limitless. Our faculty, administrators, library staff and environmental services staff all are thinking about ways to use Montgomery Place as an extension of our campus.”
There may be new opportunities to enrich courses in environmental studies, biology, and history. And although the orchards will remain privately operated by the Taylors for the foreseeable future, having a working 50-acre farm in the mix could support food sustainability efforts already underway on campus.
Four years ago, Bard students joined the Real Food Challenge, a nationwide initiative to improve the health and sustainability of college and university food systems. Bard made a commitment to transition 20 percent of its food budget to sustainable sources by 2020—a goal that the college has met and exceeded ahead of schedule.
“We would love to have apples from the orchard in our dining halls at some point, but we recognize Doug and Talea have an established business in the community,” says Katrina Light, director of food sustainability, who serves as a liaison between Chartwell’s, the campus dining service and Bard College students. Although selling wholesale produce to the college wouldn’t be as profitable as selling to the public, Light sees nearer-term opportunities to collaborate on educating students about food.
“We want to be respectful of the arrangement the farmers have had, but we also want to uphold our promise to students. We are all on the same team, and we’re going to go slow,” she says.
John-Paul Sliva, founding farmer of the Bard College Farm, echoes this sentiment. He imagines students might help at the orchards in exchange for work experience; and perhaps they’ll be able to harvest seconds that don’t meet high-quality standards for sale at the farm stand. (In its fifth growing season in 2016, Bard’s 1.25-acre market garden supplies 20,000 pounds of produce per year to the campus dining service.) “We want to change the food on campus and introduce a culture of being more aware of what you’re eating every day,” he says.
Although the land purchase was undoubtedly opportunistic, David Haight, New York State director for American Farmland Trust, sees Bard’s decision to keep the farm running as reflective of a bigger movement to rethink the role of institutions in the food system. “Bard College is located near some of the most threatened farmland in America,” he says. “We need institutions to connect with local farms and bring them into their programming, education, internships—and most importantly, into the cafeteria.”
If the farming piece was an afterthought for Bard, it’s a happy accident that could benefit everyone involved.
For now, the Taylors are continuing with the recipe that has earned them the trust of people in the community over the years: hard work, honesty and generosity. Whether it’s through hiring college students, outreach to area schools, hosting Slow Food demos or their annual Apple Pie Contest in mid-October, they give back to the surrounding community in many ways.
“My life changed the day I stopped by the farm market and tasted a Bartlett pear,” says Ilana Silber, a recent Bard College graduate who worked at the farm stand and then wrote her senior project about the Taylors’s experience at Montgomery Place. “I’ve been so enriched by being a part of this family. Through her stories, Talea has the power to make growing fruit a magical and deeply rooted tradition and to make you feel a part of that.”
This year, Silber helped Talea Taylor host the “Be a Bee” program, which reaches 1,200 school children each spring. For the last 10 years, Montgomery Place Orchards has opened its spring season classroom to groups of kindergarteners and first-graders who come to learn all about honeybees. Taylor and her son Adam, or a college student, host a series of hands-on activities through which kids learn about the anatomy of a honeybee, role-play the different jobs that bees do for the hive and discuss how bees make honey and wax. The field trip includes honey tastings and an optional orchard walk after a picnic lunch.
“I tell parents who want to volunteer in the classroom, there are two days they need to put on their calendars: kindergarten graduation and the honeybee field trip,” says Kristin Potter, who teaches kindergarten at Mill Road Primary School in the Red Hook Central School District.
Before the day of the field trip, Potter teaches a unit on the life cycle of bees in the classroom. “Talea is comical and makes it real-life for the kids,” she says. Teachers dress up as queen bees, and then the kids play the roles of workers, nurses and scouts. By the end of the morning, the group of children will have filled a jar of honey together.
Back at Gaskins in Germantown, Nick and Sarah Suarez are expecting the Taylors and their farm crew at the restaurant for a post-harvest dinner. After a long day in the fields, it will be a treat to have someone cook for them, and Nick looks forward to serving the growers some of their own hard-earned produce. He knows the season has been a challenging one so far: First a late-spring frost wiped out the entire stone fruit crop, and then a dry spell caused the strawberries to be hit or miss.
As always, the Taylors are handling the latest round of challenges with grace. They told Suarez that they planted extra beans and snap peas in the spring to make up for the lack of peaches. And then they found a way to get home-grown peaches delivered to the stand from Frecon Orchards, a farm that Talea has known since the 1970s when she was growing up in Berks County, Pennsylvania. “It did not get quite as cold in Pennsylvania in April, so the Frecons fought Mother Nature and won,” she wrote in an early summer newsletter to customers.
For Suarez, Montgomery Place Orchards represents an ideal that all farms should strive for—respect tradition but be engrained within the present-day community. “It’s in Bard’s interest to have this farm there as long as possible,” he says. “No matter what happens, the community is for them.”
MONTGOMERY PLACE ORCHARDS FARM MARKET
Located on Route 9G, just north of Route 199,
near Bard College and Red Hook