DRYDEN, N.Y. – Jeremy Sherman remembered gazing out the window at his family’s silos during high school math class. Rafael Aponte described his path as “from the Bronx to the barn.” As the two Freeville farmers showed tour groups around their barns during Saturday’s “Authentically Rural Weekend,” they embodied the event’s theme: rural heritage and rural revitalization.
The Authentically Rural Weekend was planned by the History Center of Tompkins County and Historic Ithaca to highlight the county’s rural culture. The weekend featured tours, farm-to-table meals and a Homestead Heritage Fair Day hosted by the Dryden Historical Society.
Christine O’Malley, the preservation service coordinator for Historic Ithaca, led Saturday morning’s farm and village tour. O’Malley said, “We wanted to bring attention to rural Tompkins so that people wouldn’t just think of ‘rural’ things in the past tense.”
Rod Howe, executive director of the History Center, likewise said the event was meant to highlight that Tompkins’ rural life is alive and well.
“We make history every day. This isn’t some exhibit protected by glass for people to come to see,” he said of Saturday’s tour stops.
Tompkins County covers about 315,000 acres. As of the 2012 USDA census of agriculture, about 90,000 acres were used for farming.
When the tour van pulled into Jerry Dell Farm, the group of “tourists” – mostly from Ithaca – raced into the farm store to avoid a downpour. The herd of Holsteins just beyond the parking lot, though, stayed put in the rain.
The cows were out grazing in the pasture. Sherman explained that since becoming a certified organic farm in 2000, about a third of the “dry matter” the cows eat comes from open grazing.
The Jerry Dell Farm’s shift to organic practices was at once a return to its roots and a revitalization. When Sherman’s grandparents started the farm in 1946, they had about 50 cows and 100 acres. “Everything was organic before World War II,” Sherman said.
As the herd grew in the years after the war though, and once Sherman’s parents Vaughn and Sue Sherman took over operations, the farm depended on various chemical pesticides, hormones and so on to increase milk production. By the 1990s, they’d significantly expanded their operation using conventional farming methods.
A downturn in the farm’s prospects pushed the family to change their practices. Sherman said the farm was struggling to get by in the late-1990s, when milk prices were low and feed prices were high. “The family was stressed, the cows were stressed,” he said. The farm needed a new path forward.
By switching to organic farming, they were able to bring in more money per gallon of milk. They started to expand their pastures and continued growing the herd. Almost two decades later, the farm includes three land tracts with about 3,000 acres. About 950 cows are milked daily, producing roughly 60 pounds of milk each.
Asked what he’s most proud of, Sherman said, “that we’ve been here for a while and we’re still here.” By switching to organic farming, Sherman and his family were able to revitalize their dairy operation and grow in scale. By doing so, they were able to retain their rural heritage.
Rafael Aponte and Nandi Cohen-Aponte have taken a different route to their farm just down the road, the Rocky Acres Community Farm. Aponte, who manages most of the farm’s operations, grew up in the Bronx. Seeing the scarcity of fresh, healthy food in his neighborhood, he said he came to think of food as a social justice issue.
The 10-acre farm the couple started is part agricultural enterprise, part social justice project. With about 150 chickens and 13 goats, the farm produces a bounty of eggs and goat meat. Meanwhile, raised garden beds are planted by teens from the Youth Farm Project, and produce from the farm goes into low-cost Harvest Boxes that bring fresh food to low-income households.
Aponte and Aponte-Cohen do not trace their family lineages to three generations of Tompkins farmers, but they are restoring their land’s agricultural roots. The site of Rocky Acres was once a dairy farm, but Aponte said the last owners used the barn primarily for parties, as the lingering tube lights in the rafters attest.
“We’re reclaiming this space for agriculture,” Aponte said.
Indeed, stepping onto Rocky Acres might feel like stepping into an earlier era. Roosters crow behind the 1860s farmhouse, hens cluck around the 1840s barn, and sun glints through gaps in the barn’s original timber beams, cut and milled from trees on the surrounding lot. Come winter, an antique hay elevator will whir into gear to bring hay into the barn loft for the animals’ bedding.
But if Sherman’s gleaming steel tanks and state-of-the-art milking stations belie his farm’s long history, so too Aponte’s rustic equipment belies the vital energy newcomers like him are bringing to Tompkins’ rural communities. Each stop along Saturday’s tour showed Tompkins rural life to be dynamic.
When the tour van pulled into the Homestead Heritage Fair Day in the heart of Dryden, the exhibitions seemed quaint. Historical re-enactors donned period outfits and demonstrated mid-19th century soap-making. A stately team of Suffolk Punches pulled a carriage around the village green. A small flock of sheep nestled in a pen for kids to pet. The scene had much to offer by way of rural heritage.
To see thriving rural traditions, though, one needn’t go to a fair. In the heart of Freeville, the tour group stopped to talk about architecture. O’Malley pointed to the site where a hotel once stood, famous for its Sunday chicken dinners. In the shadow of the long gone hotel, dozens of chickens were cooking over coals for the United Methodist Church’s BBQ. The tour group had to imagine the hotel, but we could smell the chicken.
Featured image: Franny, Cinnamon and Evelyn are among the breeding goats kept at Rocky Acres Community Farm. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)