Farm to Table Cycling in the Adirondacks

In our latest column in partnership with the WCS, Dr. Julie Kunen and Zoë Smith cycle through New York’s Adirondacks, a place where sustainable agriculture and protecting wildlife go hand and hand.

We were famished and sore and had been looking forward to this dinner all day. Like the other 310 cyclists participating in the Cycle Adirondacks bike tour, we had just ridden 67 miles in the Adirondack foothills, surrounding farmland, and orchards, not to mention up the occasional steep hill, on bicycles and wanted to eat. We were gathered this evening under a tent outside the village of Keeseville, NY, an ex-industrial town in the Champlain Valley that has embraced the new sustainable agriculture movement. Meals along our cycling route had been spectacular every day, but tonight was unique – a special Farm-to-Table dinner organized by the Cycle Adirondacks team, in partnership with Brittany Christenson. Brittany is a local farmer, avid promoter of agritourism in the North Country, and now the Executive Director of ADK Action, a local non-profit whose mission is to support vibrant communities and preserve the character of the Adirondacks.

Since it was late summer, our dinner featured an abundance of produce, meats, cheese, and bread, produced 100 percent locally and served in delicious preparations by the Cycle Adirondacks’ Chef de Tour, Mazzone Catering. Among the tempting offerings were lentil-stuffed red peppers; wild rice pilaf; meatloaf with wild mushrooms; roasted chicken; green bean salad with red onion and garlic; baby red potato salad with mustard, parsley, and chives; wood fired sourdough bread; and heirloom tomato salad with cucumbers. Dessert was berry cobbler and gluten-free brownies. After miles on the road, we rewarded ourselves with heaping plates, then went back for more. And all of it was washed down with craft brews from Good Nature Farm Brewery and Tap Room, New York State’s first farm brewery, owned and operated by Carrie Blackmore and Matt Whalen.

The backdrop couldn’t have been more spectacular. In New York State’s Adirondack region, you will find six million acres of pristine waterways, boreal forests, high peaks, and 150,000 full-time residents living adjacent to large tracts of forest wilderness. Within the Adirondacks are one hundred small, rural communities, surrounded by native wildlife and a diverse mountain landscape. Three million acres of the Adirondacks are designated as “forever wild” and the other three million boast small towns, schools, businesses, and tourism attractions. The Adirondacks is the largest managed wilderness in the lower 48 states – larger than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Glacier national parks combined. It’s often described as one of history’s great conservation successes, originally designated in 1892 to protect the Hudson River watershed from deforestation. Our organization – WCS, or the Wildlife Conservation Society – has been working here for 20 years to promote community-based conservation, helping local residents build a sustainable economy based on the surrounding natural resources and inspiring them to connect with the natural world.

WCS conceived Cycle Adirondacks, a week-long road bicycle tour, as a unique way to expose visitors to this special place and enable riders and tour volunteers to experience the conservation work we are doing to protect and preserve this environmental treasure. Cycle Adirondacks gives participants the opportunity to discover and be inspired by the Adirondacks, generating interest in nature and adventure-based tourism that helps drive the local economy. Each day, riders follow routes that immerse them in the nature, culture, and history of the region. WCS scientists accompany the tour along the route and in camp to interpret the natural landscape and share knowledge about the wildlife that lives there – including iconic species such as black bears, moose, and loon.

WCS has identified the Adirondacks as a global priority landscape because it is one of the last places in the U.S. where you’ll find people coexisting with wild lands – something not often seen in North America. Our vision of the region is a resilient landscape where people and wildlife thrive across a mosaic of forests, wetlands, mountains, and rivers; where ecologically viable populations of wildlife roam across public and private lands. To ensure help to secure this future, WCS’ scientists are focusing on both protecting core wildlife habitat in the park and maintaining the important connections to other large forested areas to allow animals to move and adapt. We also engage a wide array of partners to play a collaborative role in the conservation and sustainable use of the Adirondacks. Cycle Adirondacks strengthens our ties with local communities and, by engaging in hundreds of riders, helps enlist a new audience to learn about and appreciate the Adirondack region.

During the tour, we camped each night in a park or school in a WCS partner community. Tonight our host was Keeseville, located in the Adirondack foothills. It was once a bustling commercial center, with grist mills, furniture plants, and a textile factory on banks of the Ausable River (now long gone). WCS chose this town as an overnight stop because its transformation from an industrial hub to a restored historic hamlet – surrounded by farms, trails, and views of Lake Champlain – demonstrates how a small community can revive its fortunes simply by showcasing its rich history and natural assets. Keeseville is one of the oldest communities in the park, established circa 1812, with over 125 structures currently on the National Historic Register. In fact, an old nail factory that operated from the 1840s until about 1900 is now a restored community event and arts space that served as the entertainment venue for Cycle Adirondacks riders, complete with a local band and beer garden.

WCS received funding from  Taste NY to host the night’s Farm-to-Table dinner, which used local foods all grown within a 12-mile radius of Keeseville. Taste NY is a state-led initiative that Governor Andrew Cuomo launched to promote New York’s food and beverage industries, including craft beverages, produce, meat, maple syrup, and other local products. Historically, farming has been difficult in the Adirondack region. With more days of snow than sunny weather, the growing season is typically between 60-100 days. Agricultural farms in the Adirondack region were once limited to the valleys (i.e. Champlain, Hudson) below 2,000 feet in elevation and characterized by large, traditional dairy farms. However, recently agriculture in the Adirondacks has seen a transformation. As in other places across the U.S., young farmers are moving in and giving farming a new look and feel. High tunnel agriculture, a new generation of greenhouses, has extended the growing season. Farm-to-school communities, new farmers markets, a wine trail, cheese tour, Maple Weekend, and local food guides are all helping to build the regional local food brand, Adirondack Harvest, and changing the way people eat and think about food. Today, northern New York has 4,300 farms, including 66 supported by the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. As an example of this growth, between 2005-2010 the number of maple taps in New York grew 26 percent.

Sustainable agriculture and eating locally isn’t a new concept, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), land is relatively cheap in northern New York compared to neighboring Vermont. This is attracting young farmers who are not only interested in changing lives in their local community, but are also deeply committed to using practices that also protect the environment – something WCS strongly supports. Critical to the success of our dinner was one such young farmer – our partner, Brittany. Brittany became involved in farming in Keeseville in 2011 as a farm hand at Fledging Crow Vegetables, where she moved to be closer to her boyfriend (now husband) Lucas Christenson, the farm’s co-owner. As Brittany describes it, “A return to sustainable agriculture is perhaps the most important challenge for my generation. I’ve watched the local food movement in New York State bloom over the past six years. The Hudson Valley is many years ahead of Northern New York in terms of co-marketing, forming cooperatives, and creating food hubs, but we are catching up. Droves of passionate people are creating communities where young families can eat like kings and queens, even on a small budget. I think the authenticity of the farming movement is attracting a lot of attention from folks in the non-profit sector and local government, which will only help build more community support.” According to Brittany, success for small farms, “would look like 60 percent of the local population eating local whenever possible. It’s all about getting people to see the value in protecting the environment, feeding their families higher quality foods, and supporting the regional economy.”

Some of the North Country’s most successful small farms can be found in Keeseville, a small town of just 1,800 people. A vibrant young group of farmers is working together to build a community and a new way of life. With the help of Brittany, five of these farms participated in Cycle Adirondack’s Farm-to-Table Dinner: Fledging Crow Vegetables, Mace Chasm, Rulf’s Orchard, and North Country Creamery. plus one bakery The Clay Hearth.

Fledging Crow Vegetables was founded by Brittany’s husband Lucas and his friend Ian, who met at Neverland Farm in southern Ecuador while organizing volunteers and overseeing the farm’s gardens. Shortly after that experience, they bought four acres of land in Keeseville. Five years later, they now harvest 12 acres of produce and supply a vibrant CSA program. Fledging Crow’s farming practices are simply stated on their website: “Ingredients: Soil, Water, Sun, and Sweat.” Just seven miles down the road from FCV is Mace Chasm Farm, a 125-acre livestock farm owned and operated by two 30-year olds ­– Courtney and Asa – whose mission is to work toward the health and vitality of the environment in which they live and work. Their farm features their own butcher shop featuring a self-serve retail egg cooler and freezer stocked with specialty sausages and smoked meats. Just a stone’s throw further down the road is North Country Creamery at Clover Mead Farm, which offers grass-fed raw milk, yogurt, and cheeses from Ashlee Kleinhammer and Steven Googin’s Shorthorn and Jersey cows. The Clay Hearth, in nearby Keene, NY, is a bakery that features organic wood fired sourdough bread, and is run completely out of a mobile bake house. And finally, Rulf’s Orchard in Peru, NY, best known for its apples and pumpkins, was started in 1952 and remains a viable farm today.

Many of these young farmers in Keeseville got their start at nearby Essex Farm, one of first to be involved in the sustainable agriculture movement here. Kristen Kimball, a writer and co-owner of the farm, documented her experience of falling in love with her farmer husband and moving from New York City to the North Country in the wonderful 2011 memoir,  The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love. Two documentaries likewise feature the local food movement in the Adirondacks: Three Farms and Small Farm Rising.

Carrie Blackmore and Matt Whalen, co-owners of Good Nature brewery in Hamilton, are such strong proponents of the Farm-to-Table movement that they happily followed the Cycle Adirondacks tour around in a truck hooked up to a mobile taproom and poured beer and cider for the weary riders each night with big smiles. Good Nature Brewery is New York’s first farm brewery, meaning that Carrie and Matt go the extra mile to source grain, hops, and other ingredients for their beers locally. They’re committed to a socially, economically, and ecologically thriving community.

After finishing our Farm-to-Table dinner with satisfying berry cobbler, we snuggled into sleeping bags for a well-earned night’s rest. We felt enormous satisfaction knowing that by eating this delicious meal, we were contributing to the growing movement of sustainable gastronomy predicated on two key priorities: first, eat food that is ranched, farmed, fished, or collected locally; and second, eat food that is produced or procured in ways that don’t harm wildlife or wildlife habitat. The foods of our Farm-to-Table dinner, sourced from local farms committed to animal welfare and organic production, not only illustrate how sustainable dining can be but also how satisfying conservation can be. WCS supports community-based conservation because we believe that healthy wildlife, healthy lands, and healthy people are all part of a single mission shared by farmers like Brittany and farms like our other Farm-to-Table partners.