Wandering amidst rows of brightly colored flowers, fruit trees, and overflowing boxes of fresh produce, customers are making their selections: an armful of sweet corn, a hanging petunia plant, an extra bag of mulch for the garden. Opened in 1960, at the corner of Route 209 and Cottekill Road in Stone Ridge (“the junction of anywhere and everywhere,” as one customer calls it), Davenport Farms’ Farm Stand and Nursery sits a mile-and-a-half down the road from the hundred acres of farm and where their celebrated sweet corn (and broccoli, and pumpkin, and watermelon, to name just a few others) is grown. Over the years, Bruce Davenport’s place has become a Marbletown standard, and a hub of local activity.
To one side of the building is a simple red picnic table, where families casually take their lunch and relaxing shoppers meet and chat. At any given time, one might also find the principals of the Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA) there, discussing the next chapter of their organization’s growth. To get an even fuller picture, however, of the mission, and the depth of purpose, that drives the RVGA forward, a bit more perspective might be of service.
The story begins, give or take, about 25,000 years ago.
At about that time, glacial ice that covered the northern portion of the continent began to melt, forming rivers that carried rock and other primary elements to naturally selected regions; materials that would, one day, produce the kind of ideal soil that is the lifeblood of the New York’s agricultural regions. By 1828, when Maurice and William Wurts’ D&H Canal opened routes and communities in the rich and largely uncharted valley along the Rondout Creek, a new wave of settlers began to find out what Native Americans had discovered many centuries before: This was an extraordinary place to farm. When Davenport, president of the RVGA, states that “producing an ear of corn in the Rondout Valley is like completing a work of art thousands of years in the making,” there is a sense that something more than business-as-usual is happening here.
Buy produce, not land
In 2000, Marbletown residents collected for a “visioning” workshop, its goal to discern the most pressing issues and concerns confronting the township, and how best address them looking forward. “It was immediately clear,” says RVGA board member Susan Krawitz, “that the most important thing to us, and the future of Marbletown, was agricultural preservation.” A Stone Ridge resident and local writer, and an integral part in the growth of the RVGA, Krawitz recalls a time when local farmers were under siege from rising land prices and development pressure. “Farming is not always the most profitable of endeavors,” Krawitz explains. “suddenly, somebody offers you more money than you ever thought you’d have and says: ‘Sell me your land.’ The question was how to make the farming as viable as the selling.”
At that fateful meeting, an unlikely pair formed what was then called the Marbletown Farm Preservation Task Force: Davenport, a lifelong resident of the area and a fourth-generation farmer, and graphic designer Fabia Wargin, a recent transplant. In order to begin organizing the multitude of different farms operating in the area, they began a monthly local newspaper column profiling Marbletown farmers. Using Davenport’s well-known name and reputation as an entrée, Wargin, later with the help of Krawitz, would chronicle the business and farming practices, specialized techniques, and particular challenges of each grower. Writing the articles provided an opportunity to share their vision of presenting a unified effort to raise exposure and awareness, and the grassroots organization began to expand.
In 2003, New York magazine ran a widely publicized cover story touting Ulster County, and surrounding regions, as “the new Hamptons.” Though the real estate bubble was still ballooning, property was plentiful and relatively inexpensive—and the close proximity to New York City, stunning landscape, and comparative anonymity available made places like New Paltz, Stone Ridge, and Woodstock preferred destinations. Celebrities—names like Buscemi, Thurman and Hawke, De Niro, and Bowie—traveled up the New York State Thruway, followed by those who aspired to their lifestyle. Though not as a direct response, that same year, the larger, more inclusive RVGA was born. The inspiration of the Marbletown Farm Preservation Task Force, rising costs, and the increasing threat of having the agricultural land base co-opted by developers and vacation seekers, made the concept of a full community agricultural organization a necessity, and then a reality. Billboards sprang up along Route 209. A website was launched, and the first of the RVGA’s trademark “Farm-to-Table” events was planned. A true Rondout Valley brand identity began to take shape; it’s message: Buy our products, not our land.