History of Fruit Growing the Hudson Valley

Hudson Valley Fruit Production
Adapted from Hoying, S. M. Fargione and T. Robinson. 2008.
Fruit Production in New York. ISHS Symposium, August 4-8, 2008, NYSAES, Geneva, NY. p61

New York’s tree fruit crops include apples, pears, sweet and tart cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and plums. Apples compose 89% of the acreage and peaches and sour cherries each comprise 3.5%. New York ranks second in the United States in the production of apples behind Washington State. The 2008 crop in NY produced over 30 million bushels. It is feasible that future years will see production peaks reaching 35 million bushels in good seasons as a result of the establishment of more efficient planting systems.

According to 2007 USDA-NASS release New York currently has 81,662 acres of tree fruit and grapes. Apples account for 42,360 acres, grapes 33,692 acres and stone fruit 4,392 acres. Fruit crops are produced on approximately 700 family farms. Forty-three percent of these farms are less than 10 acres and many are leased to larger operators. At the other end of the scale, 8 percent of fruit farms are over 200 acres (81 hectares).

NY Fruit Production Regions
Most of NY’s commercial fruit is grown in 3 production regions: Western New York (71 % of acreage) on the south shore of Lake Ontario; the Hudson Valley (22 % of acreage) in Southeastern NY bordering the Hudson River within 100 miles of New York City; and the Champlain Valley (7% of acreage) bordering Lake Champlain and Vermont in Northeastern NY. Each region has its own strengths and caters to different but overlapping markets.

History of Fruit Growing the Hudson Valley
Apples and other fruit came to the Americas with the first settlers. The pilgrims brought apples with them in 1629 to the Massachusetts Bay Company. According to records, Governor Peter Stuyvesant planted an apple tree from Holland in 1647 on the corner of Third Avenue and 13th Street in New York City. There is evidence from early records that “Indian Orchards” existed in Ulster County as early as 1671. The earliest land patents specially used for farming were established between 1684 and 1693. Colonel Ben Fletcher was deeded several thousand acres for the purpose of “bringing Scots and Irish to settle and farm.” These early farms likely had small orchards planted since apples for food and drink were considered staples. Apples were an important part of the diet of early settlers. They attempted to grow enough apples to consume fresh from the fall through the winter. Primitive storage was accomplished by storing the apples in insulated pits. The larger portion of the crop was consumed as juice and (fermented) cider. An established farmer might put up 20 to 50 barrels of cider each fall.

Peaches were also grown in this area by 1766. A commercial peach orchard near West Park is mentioned in a toll road account. There are historical reports of peach sales in 1890 for $15/bushel! According to historical accounts, by 1780 “there were apple orchards aplenty that produced apples, cider and often stronger” (apple whiskey that sold for 3 cents/glass).

The “Farmers Turnpike” (one of the first designated public roads in this area; today Milton Turnpike) was commissioned in 1790 and was used by farmers to transport agricultural goods to the docks in Milton where they would be transported by sloop for sale in NYC. Cider was an important component of these goods with farmers selling all they did not need for personal consumption.

Apples and cider (and stronger) were often associated with evening social gatherings where participants “enjoyed apple, smoked their pipes with cider thrown in!” “Apple Cuts” were occasions during the fall where young men and women gathered to socialize and prepare apples for sauce and pies.

Raspberries, strawberries, currants and grapes are all mentioned in various historical pieces from the early 1800’s as important commercial fruit crops in the Hudson Valley for New York City markets. According to historians, it was raspberries that put Ulster County on the map with the development and marketing of the Antwerp variety which was successfully marketed to NYC in 1838, shipped by boats from Marlboro and Milton docks. Records show a one day shipment of 3100 trays!

Apples were probably first introduced into the Hudson Valley by the Dutch settlers while the English planted apples on Long Island. Fruit rapidly spread across the state. The first commercial nursery (Prince Nurseries, Flushing, LI) was established on Long Island by the Huguenot’s in 1730. Through the years, settlers continued to bring seeds and trees from Europe for establishment in their new homes. New varieties were recognized, such as ‘Jonathan” discovered in 1800 by Jonathan Hasbrouck near Woodstock NY, as seedlings were cultivated or naturally sown. “The Apples of New York”, published as a 2 volume set in 1905 by Beach, described over 1000 varieties of apples existing at that time.

The first commercial orchard in eastern NY planted specially for fresh fruit production and export was established between 1820-1825 in Ulster County at Esopus, NY by Robert Pell. The 20 acre farm grew Newton Pippin apples that were packed in wooden barrels and exported to England by sailing schooner. Most fruit from early commercial orchards in the Hudson Valley were transported by horse-drawn wagon to the Hudson River for transportation to New York City by boat and later by rail. Delivery of fruit by truck to large city commission merchants or stores began in the 1930’s. By the 1940’s, much Hudson Valley fruit was being sold at the storage or packing house F.O.B.

The New York census of 1875 counted 18,278,636 apple trees. Its been calculated that if these trees were planted at an average spacing of 27 feet apart, that the land area represented by this number of trees would equal 1% of the total area of New York state. This widespread expansion of an introduced plant species almost caused the apple industry to nearly collapsed between 1870 and 1880 when insect and disease pressure built up to almost unmanageable levels. This development was one of the key events that lead to the establishment of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York in 1870. County associations of the Cooperative Extension Service were formed soon after the passage of the Smith Lever Act of 1914. The mission of the Extension Service then, as now, was to disseminate the information developed at the land grant colleges and the experiment stations.

The first cold storages used ice cut from local ponds and were established prior to 1900. Electric power refrigeration units were used as early as 1919 in the Hudson Valley. The use of controlled atmosphere (CA) storage began in New York State in the early 1940’s. The first successful commercial CA storage room in the USA was built in the Hudson Valley in 1941 by M.G. Hurd of Clintondale (Ulster County). At the time of its early development, CA storage was designed primarily to lengthen the storage season for McIntosh while reducing the risk of the variety developing storage disorders associated with chilling injury. There are approximately three million bushels CA capacity in Western New York and approximately 4.5 million bushels capacity in Eastern New York.

Farm Structure
Fruit farms in New York are primarily family-owned and operated as small businesses. Growers and their families live on the same property as their orchards. There are typically many farm buildings in the complex including barns and equipment storage, fruit storage, shop for mechanical work, and sometimes packing sheds. Typically 2 or more generations live and work on the farm. According to the 2006 NY Fruit Tree and Vineyard Survey, the average NY holding is 60 acres of apples, 12 acres of tart cherries, 6.5 acres of peaches, 4.8 acres of pears, and 3.5 acres of sweet cherries. There are large differences in the fruit composition and orchard size by region. Many of the larger operations have geographically separated orchards to take advantage of the best soils and sites and to reduce the risk of frost and hail damage.

This region boasts several 7th generation farms. Noteworthy in the fruit business is Prospect Hill Orchards established in 1817 and now run by Leonard (5th generation), Steve (6th generation) and Brad (7th generation). They farm 300 acres of apples peaches, sweet cherries, apricots, and plums. Planting and Pruning Systems Most fruit farms have a wide range of orchard ages, sizes, and spacings. The oldest orchards in the state (which are 75 years or older) are dedicated to the production of fruit for processing products such as apple sauce or juice. These orchards are on seedling rootstocks and have 35-50 trees per acre. There has been a steady transition of planting system types with increases in density and evolution in pruning techniques. Many progressive growers are now planting orchards with nearly 1000 trees/acre and as high as 2,500 trees per acre. One thousand trees per acre appear to be the most profitable apple orchard density for the future. Hudson Valley apple orchards are now primarily Central leader, Vertical Axis, and most recently Tall Spindle. Most new orchards now being established are Vertical axis systems with trellis, wire and individual tree stakes spaced 5-6 feet between trees. These orchards are pruned using the limb renewal concept where only the bottom tier of scaffolds is permanent. Spacing between rows is variable depending on site since many orchards are established on 3-6% slopes which make planting closer difficult.

Varieties
NY has approximately 30 varieties in commercial production as well as numbers of new varieties constantly under test. This is a very high number compared to other production regions in the United States. Listed in the latest NY Fruit Tree and Vineyard Survey are 22 varieties. Other varieties of importance that are not listed but increasing in importance include Cameo, Fuji, and Braeburn. The New York Apple Association lists 20 varieties that seasonally can be easily found. The most common varieties in the Hudson Valley according to the latest surveys are still McIntosh, Red Delicious, and Empire although Gala, Honeycrisp, and Fuji are almost exclusively being planted. Sweet cherries are harvested in July, apricots, peaches, nectarines, and plums in August and apples in September and October. Rootstocks The Malling and Malling Merton series of apple rootstocks are the most common in use in New York. These include MM.111, MM.106, M.7, M.26, M.9. There are several clones of M.9 that are important including M.9 EMLA, NAKB 337, Nicolai 29, and Pajam 2. All of these clones have shown high yield efficiency, and with the range in vigor they express, it is possible for a grower to fine tune the choice of M.9 to match his particular soil and the variety he will plant. Other apple stocks currently being propagated for sale to NY include B.9, B.118, G.30, G.11, G.16 and others. Sweet Cherry rootstocks used on farm include Mazzard and Mahaleb and Gisela 5, 6 and 7. Peach and nectarine rootstocks are the seedling Lovell and Bailey and plums on Myrobalan.

Marketing
NY markets it fruit in many different ways. The majority of apples are distributed nationally and internationally through sales agencies and commercial packing facilities which package fruit in many different ways. The most common package is 40 pound cardboard bushel cartons. Fruit are categorized by count size or the number of apples per bushel. Common counts are 64, 88, 100, 120. Preferred sizes depend on the market with Supermarkets and fruit stands preferring the larger sizes. Fruit is also packed in 3, 5, and 10 pound plastic bags, and in paper totes with handles. Local distribution from farm to store is practiced in each region with delivery arrangements made between individual store manager and the grower. The more perishable crops such as stone fruit and berries are handled this way. Grower-owned farm markets and fruit stands are common and popular. Growers store and sell their own fruit along with other seasonal produce, baked goods, processed foods, gifts, and other items. These markets are often managed by family members. Often U-Pick opportunities for seasonal fruit are offered in conjunction with a farm store. Fruit is also sold through organized community “Farmers Markets” held in public areas on a regular basis. One of the most important is the “Greenmarket” in New York City which includes 44 separate market locations. It’s function is to promotes regional agriculture and ensures a continuing supply of fresh, local produce for New Yorkers. Greenmarket has organized and managed open-air farmers markets in NYC since 1976. Greenmarket supports farmers and preserves farmland for the future by providing regional small family farmers with opportunities to sell their fruits, vegetables and other farm products to New Yorkers. Generally, growers rent space and set up tables in these public places to sell their produce right out of the truck. These markets provide a wide range of in-season produce including fruit, vegetables, wine, meats, cheese, baked goods and other farm products. Locally “Meet Me in Marlboro” has been designated as NY Farm Trail with 80 members including local restaurants, Inns, bakeries, and wineries. The box lunch was prepared for the GLFW group tour by one of the Farm Trails members!

Hudson Valley Fruit Acreage:

Other references used to compile this document:
The Poughkeepsie Journal August 24, 2009, Sarah Bradshaw 1943.
The History of Ulster County NY Volume 1, Heritage Books Inc. 986pp. 1974.
Times and Tales of Town of Lloyd, Beatrice Hasbrouck Wadlin. 265pp.