Elizabeth Ryan in Conversation with Shelley Kleyn Armistead: Part I
"I discovered that you could study agriculture, I discovered that there were answers and solutions, and it was like falling off a cliff."
Introduction by Shelley Kleyn Armistead
I had heard beautiful stories about Elizabeth through the founder, leaders, and members of The Lower Eastside Girls Club for the past 6 years. Our relationship began through a series of calls, texts, emails, and the odd Zoom. Our friendship was firmly cemented when I had the opportunity to visit Elizabeth in May 2021. Mid pandemic, Fran and I had a weekend amongst her orchards, and her stories. Elizabeth drove us through a healthy and intoxicating cross section of Dutchess County and Hudson Valley, and the multiple farms that she cares for. The bakery at Breezy Hill Orchard plied us with apple pie, cider donuts and dried apples (cherry and peach pies when in season). Knoll Krest Farm provides cage free eggs and fresh pasta. All handmade products along with their selections of cider which are sold at 26 local farmers markets. A weekend that ended with a wassail to the fruit and the upcoming harvest. As someone well versed in the Somerset Cider production, this night of dancing and drinking around the fire was both energizing and made me very homesick at the same time. Elizabeth is easily one of the most interesting, most well versed, and most thoughtful humans. Who else would ensure that the gathering included a merry band of Eastern European musicians who played traditional Albanian songs in honor of Fran’s heritage, in a field, under a 300 year old oak tree. This gathering of people from years of friendships began as a teenage girl with a fascination for Bulgarian dance troops who joined one. Stone Ridge, our orchard host for that night, is also home to a U-Pick, CSA fruit & friendly neighbor vegetable shares, vintage markets among the trees, and various music nights around the pizza oven. The tents next to their lake make the perfect getaway to experience it all.
Video by Shelley Kleyn Armistead
Shelley Kleyn Armistead: I think what we would love to sort of get a storyline on is what brought you to Upstate New York and your specific neck of the woods. And as we continue to speak going forward, how do you view Upstate today in terms of the farming movement, generally speaking, and what do you see as the future? So following the lines of our past, our now, and our future, which naturally tells your journey too.
Elizabeth Ryan: Do you want me to just jump in? Should I start with the past?
Let's start with the past.
The Hudson Valley has been the great corridor for food for, you know, for millennia. But since Europeans came, food and fruit in particular, and grain, have been going down the Hudson River in great quantities. The Hudson River is really a fjord, it flows both ways, and it has this unique microclimate. It's very dramatic because it has salt water — it's one of the largest kinds of salt water systems. It's tidal all the way to Albany, which is unbelievable. There's a salt line somewhere in the middle of the Hudson Valley that moves back and forth, and because it is an old, very deep river, some people say we don't even know how deep it is. That's folklore, but I think there's some truth to it. We get all this movement of water, and we get all this movement of air and wind, and we have these microclimates because we've carved out, you know, this river system. It starts in the Adirondacks at Lake Tear of the Clouds and the snow melt in the Adirondacks meets somewhere the tidal flow from the Hudson River in the ocean, so it's pretty cool.
So what does that mean to me as a fruit grower, like why is that important? It means that we have a climate here. It's very favorable for growing fruit and we're in the middle, this minute, of the most risky and dynamic time because it's spring and the whole year for a fruit grower hinges on what's going to happen in the next few weeks. And that's true all over the world in spring. What fruit growers want, whether it's, you know, in France or Germany or California, is cold air sinks, warm air rises — simple concept — and we want to be near a body of water, deep, big, still, moving, and we want a slope so that that can happen. So when the Europeans came here, they figured that out really fast. One of the first books that was written in North America was something called A Description of New Netherland by Adriaen van der Donck, and this book was, I think, published in 1655. Very early and it was about the fruits and the flowers, and the animals and the creatures and the plants. It's kind of an amazing little early bible of what people were growing, what they were trying to grow.
So, oddly, I'm from a long line of farmers. I was thinking about this today. My great grandfather came from Alsace and immediately planted an orchard in Iowa, broke the sod. My mother grew up in Iowa, and I spent every summer on that farm, which I did not entirely enjoy. And I watched that farm transition —originally it had been a 90 acre quarter section. My great grandfather had acquired ten 90 acre quarter sections laid out for each one of his children. And they used to actually say, they'd tell this story a lot, very proudly, and they would always lean over and say to me, "Even the girls, even the girls!"
Anyway, my mother grew up and through the Depression and the war, and that farm transition, that farm almost epitomizes the story of American agriculture. So there were all these communities in Iowa, there was a diaspora. My grandmother's family came from Bohemia, and they also acquired land. My grandparents, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and they married young and started producing children, and bought a farm and they were embedded in this community where this town was Bohemian, and this town was Swedish, this town was Irish. And people had large families. My mother didn't have electricity until after World War Two. So they lived this kind of agrarian life, and even when I was going to the farm, they had a big huge room in the farmhouse where everything happened. It was the only room you did anything in. It was called the breakfast room, and it had this massive table; they had 10 children and there were always like 20 or 22 people for a meal, always a lot of people around the table. Everything was from scratch. I'm not romanticizing this. It's just they wouldn't do it any other way. They'd always done it that way. My grandfather used to take us out on Sunday and say to us, "Well, we're gonna have chicken. Go get ‘em, go get ‘em. Which one do you want, kids? Well, go get ‘em. Here's the ax." And, you know, kill the chickens. I mean, it doesn't get more basic, and they grew all their own food. Maybe initially out of necessity, and then out of tradition. I chafed at being there. The farm was very, very gender-defined, and the women spent all our time cooking and quilting, and my mother used to say, "I mean, the Amish, the Mennonites. We live the same way." There was no real difference between that community and our community. That's how we lived. My aunt Albina used to tell a story, and it's great, that on a Friday night, the kids, they'd just hitch up the buggies and they'd just go from farm to farm to farm and pick each other up, and then they dropped everyone off, and that little loop would take three or four or five hours. You know, they'd just go from here to here to here to here.
I have you on mute because I've got so much restaurant back noise, but I hope you can tell by my facial expressions that I'm thoroughly enjoying all of this.
So, you know, I was growing up in New Jersey, but I spent all this time on the farm in Iowa. None of my family studied agriculture. It's just what they did. My mother wanted to leave. I was very conflicted. I watched that farm transitioning from being a kind of very diversified small farm to growing very, very aggressively in the ‘60s and ‘70s with my uncles acquiring the farm next door and the farm next door and going to monoculture corn and tearing down the farm houses and tearing down, and no matter what they did, they really couldn't make money. I mean this was constant, relentless. They were borrowing, they were caught in that debt cost price squeeze, they really drank the Kool Aid on American corn monoculture and they would just try, try, try, try, try, try, try, they were just running faster and faster, borrowing more money, building more stuff, acquiring more farms, and making less money, making less money, and grabbing every kind of innovation, high yielding corn, to grow more stuff to make less money. And it blew my mind — even when I was in high school, I knew this was wrong. You know, I was a provocative kid, and I would say to them, "I don't get it." You would drive around Iowa and you would see the price of corn posted, like pennies mattered so much literally or half a penny on the corn prices.
So I ended up at Cornell, and Cornell was one of the great agricultural colleges, it was a very visionary place where from day one they didn't have a religious affiliation. They educated women. They had many women professors in the early days. And so I discovered that you could study agriculture, I discovered that there were answers and solutions, and it was like falling off a cliff. So I had gotten into the engineering school at Cornell, which is pretty damn hard to get into, and I wanted to transfer to the ag school and they didn't want me. It was pretty shocking.
Because I didn't have, you know, the right kind of provenance and I didn't have enough of, like, an ag science, biology background. So I took a year off and I took all those courses. And I went back to Cornell, and they accepted me, and the rest is history. And it was a really heavy, heavy time. Because people were starting to ask these provocative questions about food policy, about agriculture, about industrial agriculture versus small farming, and I got involved with a group of students in 1975 and we wrote a publication about Cornell that was called Failing the People. And it was a book about trying to return the land grant college complex a la Jim Hightower. He was actually a supporter of that project, to the roots of serving small farmers, serving the people, serving migrant farm workers, you know, this whole alternative vision of an agrarian, a kind of an agrarian-farm-based society where you can have social change and social justice and healthy food and ethos systems, and that was very, very, very unconventional.
Elizabeth, I was gonna say not only was it unconventional, but the most forward thinking document that could have been created, you know, just even today, reiterating that the majority of our general public don't have a grasp on it. But I'm curious about how much of your desire to move into the ag program at Cornell was inspired by your family's story. To heal what wasn't there at that time?
I was troubled. And I used to say, even then, we're in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we’re farming with some of the richest soil in the world, and we can't figure it out? We can't make it work? Like, what the hell is wrong here? We're smart, we should be able to figure this out. And, of course, I didn't know then in my naïveté that there are models all over the globe for, you know, traditional — I didn't understand any of them. But I started kicking the tires.
So I went to Washington. I spent a couple of years in Washington, running something called the Responsible Agriculture Project. We worked with people in New England and in the south, who were starting farmers markets, who were starting co-ops, who were growing organic vegetables, who were growing heirloom varieties, who were working with immigrant communities. We even wrote a book, which I find mind-boggling, in I think it must have been '75 or '76, on how to get your college to buy local food, you know, and it was kind of a guide for activists. So this was early on, and the people who were like me, we were a handful and we all knew each other in Washington. We were just like the wacky weirdos, you know, there were like 10 or 20 or 30 of us, it wasn't like there was an army of people. Like we all lived on the same block, and we all knew each other, we'd go up to Capitol Hill, and yeah, it was, as we say, a very small club, and I worried that it was too esoteric and nobody really cared about it. “Are we just talking to ourselves? Does anybody else out there give a damn?”
So fast forward, I went back to Cornell, I got a production degree, I found a whole bunch of people like me. We actually had a collective there called New World Agriculture that had chapters around the country, and we were asking these really provocative questions about plant-plant interactions, plant-insect interactions, old varieties, biodynamic agriculture, and sustainability. There was a guy, Steve Kafka, getting a PhD in Biodynamic Soil Management, and it was beginning to be that this was at least something that was acceptable if you follow me, and a bunch of those folks went on to do some really amazing things. And now they're all retiring, so this was an early time.
I wanted to farm. I had made a decision while I was in Washington. I left Washington and I went to work with a community of small black farmers in North Carolina. And that was just, you know, also revelatory and I felt I wasn't from there. I needed to kind of go back to where I was from and be a change maker and a grower. And I fell in love with fruit. I mean, initially I wanted to grow grapes and move to California or France, and Sonoma was always the kind of mothership for a lot of us that used to go to the Sustainable Ag Conference in California. That was so mind-boggling. We looked at California as being kind of ahead of the curve, in many ways, you know. Alice Waters, and CCL, and the California certified organics and, you know, there was this movement there that started to really spread, but not like wildfire, because land was very expensive.
I came to the Hudson Valley, fell in love with the Hudson Valley. I mean, it's extraordinary and I was hired by a guy named Mark Miller, who had one of the oldest farm wineries. He had lived and worked in France, and nobody would hire me. I mean, I was right out of Cornell, I was a girl, I looked like I was 12, I weighed like 100 pounds. I think it took some convincing for people to feel like I even had the moxie, you know, but Mark hired me right out the gate. That farm is still producing one of the oldest continuously operated vineyards in North America. It was a vineyard of a very famous grape breeder here in the Hudson Valley. The Hudson Valley was the epicenter of grape production in the 19th century, table grapes not wine grapes. But anyway, Mark hired me and he said, "I think it's time for the girls to have a chance." He said that to me in the interview, you know, "I think it's time for the girls to have a chance." And I still tear up a little bit because that was a very lovely moment, you know, and he put me in charge of 75 acres of grapes. He gave me a shotgun and a tractor!
So wait, you got a shotgun? You got a shotgun, a tractor, and 75 acres.
And a house.
And what year was that?
Oh, you're gonna test me 1980... or 1981? 1980.
You're out of Cornell?
Right out of Cornell.
Right, okay, so now you're in Upstate New York.
It rocked me, it was an immersive experience because it was a town that I now live in, as you know, Milton, Marlborough. Milton is the heart of the heart of the Fruit Belt in the Hudson Valley. You have dramatic landscapes and then you have 80 houses, and then you have another landscape, and then you have 100 houses that all look like they popped up, you know, in the last five years. And this is very California-esque, where we have this, I won't even call it dynamic tension, but this land is worth a lot, these beautiful viewsheds that people have worth a lot more money growing houses than it is growing apples or peaches or plums. There's this little community of growers who've really just dug in, you know, because it's what we do. I wanted to be part of that. I’ve loved it from day one. People embraced me; I'd gone to Cornell, I knew a bunch of them from Cornell, and I came here, and it was like, these are my people.
An anthropologist interviewed me once, and she said every farmer loves their kind of farming. She said, if you ask the dairy farmers why they farm they'll tell you they're in love with cows, and they think cows have the most beautiful faces. So, right now, it still makes me weak in the knees, like what's happening right now. On a certain level, it's just my music. It's just personal, if you follow me, it's just personal. I love it. And maybe it's why chefs cook, or musicians play music, and I found my passion. It's the smells, the smells of fruit farming and agriculture, and what you're in the middle of every single time you go out there. It still delights and amazes and elates me on an hourly basis, and I still, in the middle of the farm burning down, and, you know, 9/11 and hurricanes, and all the bad things that happen, I still walk around here and I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world. Because I get to be part of this.
It's so beautiful that you love it so deeply in spite of all the lessons that you've had to navigate, and this incredible advocacy that you have for not just your craft but the actual land itself. And that you know, based on your upbringing, and then based on your studies at Cornell, just how much we are dependent on the survival and the health of the land around us, and how you've integrated multiple farms now into your world out of the hands of developers and are growing and making extraordinary products.
We love you, and I thank you so much. This is historically just a gift that we can give to so many, whether it's in our school teaching program, or whether it's the person who's going to be having a squash blossom pizza at lunch. I thank you.
Breezy Hill Orchard market report:
The rhubarbs are coming up, the peepers are still peeping, the peaches are in full bloom. We were so worried all winter that we would have blossom damage, so it's looking really good. The plums are looking good. The apricots are looking good; anything can still happen. The apples haven't bloomed yet. So we have three weeks now where we're a little bit nervous. Pears are starting to open up. We had a light pear crop last year, we have a pretty good pear crop this year. I just want to give you a flavor each time. Today it is raining, so the worry of today is, will the bees fly?
Postscript by Elizabeth Ryan:
We are now past petal fall and well into fruit set. It ended up being a cool late spring and we had a very strong pollinator and fruit set. All the stone fruit, cherries, peaches, plums and apricots are looking really good. I love a late spring. We just started picking strawberries, rhubarb is winding down, we are nursing the rhubarb along because we really love making our juicy oozy strawberry rhubarb pies in a Cabot (farmer owned co-op) butter crust pie. This week I'm gonna make some strawberry scrumpy!!