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The Sun in the Apricots

September 20th, 2009 · 1 Comment

The Story of Hurd Orchards

Amy Machamer is a tall woman in her mid-40s; she wears her curly hair tied back, dresses in clothing that seems to match the landscape around her, and has bright, observant eyes. When she was just a teenager, her parents held a family meeting and posed a question to her and her sisters much more difficult than most children that age are accustomed.

For over 170 years, Amy’s family has been running a farm in Holley, New York, called Hurd Orchards. The family has been in the United States for 13 generations, and their relationship with agriculture runs deep. However, in the 1960s, the farm started to become a problem. Operating a 160 acre farm was an enormous strain, physically and financially. WWII had transformed agriculture into an industrial enterprise and completely transformed the way farmers did business. Many members of the Hurd family had pursued careers outside of farming, and agriculture was getting pushed to the fringes of their lives. Land is expensive to maintain, and the temptation to sell their acreage must have been alluring. These were all things that must have been on the family’s mind when they assembled their children for a discussion.

At the family meeting, Amy’s parents asked Amy and their teenage children: Is it important to you that the farm be here?

The children took very little time to deliberate and precociously determined that, yes, it was very important.

They may not have fully understood the responsibility they would one day undertake, but they were ready for the risk. Without that youthful pluck, it’s entirely possible the land would’ve been sold, the orchards ploughed under, and suburban land tracts developed in their place. Instead, the farm veered off in another direction that no one could have foreseen.

Hurd Orchards is now a thriving fruit farm and canning company situated in the rich plains of Western New York between the banks of the Erie Canal and the shores of Lake Ontario. They have an unusually well appointed farm-stand and historic barn that serve as a show-room for their wares. However, the path taken for Hurd to achieve their current manifestation is atypical for New York state farmers.

Amy and her mother Sue Hurd-Machamer assumed responsibility for the farm in the 1980s, after both had pursued careers in other fields. When they work together, they seem to know one another’s next move without ever actually discussing it out loud. They work together like synchronized swimmers swim together. Over the past couple decades, Amy and Sue have developed Hurd Orchards into something more than just a working farm. At Hurd, work, life and art blend together like a puree until they are indistinguishable from one another. When you behold a jar of their preserves, whether it be Peach Marmalade or Sour Cherry Almond jam, you can feel their personality being channeled through their product.

The farm held a certain romance for Amy even at a very young age. The family only lived on the farm during the summer, but Western New York summers offered a battery of colorful characters to encounter and places to explore. One summer, the Hurd sisters determined they’d like to pretend to be anthropologists. Across the property were several decrepit barns, and inside those barns were a century’s worth of relics. They proposed to their family they be allowed to comb through the barns and make a list of all the artifacts inside. Their grandparents approved the plan, under the condition they check in with the family at least once a day. And so, for a summer, they became collectors of the bizarre and antiquarian.

When they weren’t cataloging antiques, they helped out in the fields, and worked side-by-side with the farm-hands, who left an indelible impression on them. Amy remembers Sadie, a 300 lb woman from Georgia. Sadie wore a ski cap all year round (even in July), kept a pouch of redman tobacco constantly in her hip pocket, and belted her pants with a piece of baling twine. At the time, the large number of seasonal and itinerant workers made for a seedy, slightly volatile environment, and Sadie served as de facto security on the property. Amy recalls her mother doling out cash payroll to the dozens of workers on payday, and by her side stood Sadie, brandishing an exposed switchblade and a leery eye.

Sadie was just one of many storybook characters the children met. One gets the impression that life on the farm was not unlike a chapter out of a Mark Twain story.

It was during this period that the children learned there is a component of great social depth when working on a family farm. “Here was a richness, a variety, a sense of community within a farm.” Amy says, “And an interdependence — which is one of the most beautiful things about agriculture. There is a wonderful dependence you have on one another, and therefore, a community and family that builds around that core of need that bridges life experience, color — it bridges everything. Because you need one another. And that’s it. You need one another.”

The gateway to Hurd Orchards is through their roadside farmstand on Ridge Road, which is generally aquiver with activity. The farmstand is not your average farmstand. Freshly baked goods are presented in oak and glass display cases; dried flowers canvas the ceiling; homemade vinegars rest on shelves attached to the windows and sunlight refracts through them like a prism. An ancient cash register is still used to ring out customers, and it makes itself audibly known with ornery clings, clangs, whirs and dings. In the rear of the store, preserves in mason jars cover nearly every visible surface, like books in a library. No matter what season you visit the Hurd homestead, it always feels a little bit like Christmastime.

hurd orchards

hurd orchards

hurd orchards

Behind the farmstand is the barn, where the Hurds do most of their hosting. It is here that patrons can experience a true farm-to-table experience. Throughout spring, summer and fall, the orchards host a weekly luncheon offering a 3-course meal of fresh and seasonal dishes. Prior to the luncheon, Amy and Sue offer a brief talk to supplement the meal. Sometimes it is directly related to the food about to be served and sometimes it’s not. I’ve attended luncheons where they gave advice about trimming lilac bushes, read poetry from one of their great great Uncles, and offered thoughts on the soil chemistry of Western New York. Meals are made using generations-old heirloom recipes and served on antique china. Tables are decorated with freshly cut botanicals from their garden, or gathered from the woods. During meals, one of the barn-doors is generally left wide open and a big rhombus of light illuminates the space.

Hurd Orchards is about 5 miles, as the crow flies, from Lake Ontario, and almost exactly equidistant between Rochester and Buffalo. The Hurd forefathers chose the location because of its proximity to the Erie Canal, and for many years, the farm shipped out boatloads of fruit and produce to all the major east coast cities. The precise coordinates of the land they have staked, and the geology of that land, has a critical impact upon the fruits grown on the farm. Stone fruits do especially well in this particular region. The cherry, plum and peach trees all produce best-in-show caliber fruits. Also in the orchard’s repertoire are strawberries, blueberries, raspberries (red, purple and black), currants (red, white and black), and apples (almost 50 varieties). As a pomologist, Sue Hurd can rhapsodize about the proper growing conditions for such fruits, and why their farmland is so perfectly suited for orchards.

The farm’s proximity to Lake Ontario has an interesting effect on the growing season. Lake Ontario is 950 ft deep and because of its depth, it does not freeze. Therefore, the orchards are blessed with a surprisingly moderate temperature compared to the rest of the state. It is this temperate climate that allows for the cultivation of the fickle stone fruits. The land on which the orchards sit was once the beachfront for prehistoric Lake Iroquois, and while the real estate value of their property may have gone down since the lake receded, the land’s capacity to grow fruit has gone up. With stone fruits, one wants a climate that prevents the trees from blooming too early, and facing risk from a late frost. “It’s freezing cold in May,” Sue Hurd says, “So those prevailing breezes keep the sweet cherry trees from blossoming. The closer you are to the lake, the later they blossom. That keeps them from getting literally nipped in the bud.” Glacial deposits have created a rich layer-cake of loam that the trees respond exceedingly well to. “Treefruits don’t like wet roots,” Sue says. “They like sandy loams, they don’t like clay, or heavy soil, they don’t like rocky soil. And the they like a higher ph of around 6.5. – 6.8.”

Apples at Hurd are different than the apples at most orchards. One feels almost as if the apple orchards have been curated, and there isn’t a single tree that hasn’t been scrutinized and cared for. Staff at Hurd speaks about apple varietals like a sommelier would speak about wine. In describing their unique Wealthy apple, Amy says, “They are a crisp, beautifully sweet tart apple with a warm summer taste and a gorgeous cherry red and leaf green finish.”

There is a row of unlabeled trees in the orchards where a different variety grows every few steps. Cornell Cooperative Extension works with the Hurds to cultivate experimental strains of apples, and it is here you can try the results. Mixed in with the experimental are more traditional apples like Pound Sweet, Snow and Rhode Island Greening apples. If you visit this row in high Autumn, you are free to sample all the unlabeled varieties. You walk down a tunnel-like path where the apples hang so heavy, it’s hard to imagine how the slender branches can hold the weight. The fruit is so redolent it looks as if it were were lit from within. You taste one apple after another, never knowing quite what to expect. It’s not unlike a scene out of Willy Wonka: some are super crisp and clean tasting, some are shudderingly tart and some have a body so firm it nearly knocks your teeth out. Hurd still ships out their finest apples in Autumn for resale at Dean & Deluca in New York City, where they are presented like rare jewels for Manhattanites.

Amy and Sue have been stewards of the farmland for around 20 years, and the farm has evolved under their ministration. Both Amy and Sue went to school to study disciplines outside the field of agriculture, but both have returned to the land. Sue pursued English at Cornell, and also studied biology. Amy studied fine arts at a liberal arts college and pursued painting. The influences on the Hurd way of life are not what you might expect. They might very well be aware of new agrarian authors like Deborah Madison, Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver, but the influence on the farm comes from a different source.

Amy cites classical American writers like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson as influences on their philosophy. “All over what they are writing is what I think is the base for our world. And the base of our world is appreciation.” There is a poem by W.S. Merwin, called The West Wall, that she finds especially poignant. “It’s not necessarily a poem he wrote about agriculture,” she says, “even though he uses apricots as his symbol, it also talks about awareness, and awareness about the qualities of our environment. It’s a beautiful poem, and there’s a lot of influences like that. Those influences shaped our view of how we wanted to share. Not a writer who might say, ‘you’ve gotta rethink how food is eaten.’ ”

West Wall

W.S. Merwin

In the unmade light I can see the world
as the leaves brighten I see the air
the shadows melt and the apricots appear
now that the branches vanish I see the apricots
from a thousand trees ripening in the air
they are ripening in the sun along the west wall
apricots beyond number are ripening in the daylight.

Whatever was there
I never saw those apricots swaying in the light
I might have stood in orchards forever
without beholding the day in the apricots
or knowing the ripeness of the lucid air
or touching the apricots in your skin
or tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots.

In the world of agriculture, Amy and Sue, and Hurd Orchards at large, occupy a space that is at a cultural crossroads. They exist somewhere between the public and the private realms, the old guard and the avant-garde. The new agrarianism, and renewed interest in organics have brought revived attention to local producers, but it’s a song that – in the words of Amy – they’ve been singing for a long time. In spending many afternoons at the farm, and in speaking at length with Amy and Sue, I found that there is a certain matter-of-factness about what they do. There is very little grandstanding, sermonizing or tub-thumping about the values of agrarianism or a rural way of life.

Hurd stresses accessibility, and interaction with the public through CSAs, public luncheons, and their farmstand, but simultaneously, they practice and live an ancient way of life that is isolated from most perspectives. “We also occupy a more traditional agricultural world,” Amy says, “And that is quite closed to the public. It’s very private. It is completely misrepresented by the media. It is grossly maligned, and not understood, and there are very few people who take time to ask questions about what happens behind those closed doors. It’s a lot easier to ask someone, who – as a second career, has decided to go back into growing organic mushrooms what they’re doing than it is to go to a tight-lipped northern sixth generation apple grower, and ask, What’s really happening in your world?”

In the end, it all comes back to appreciation. It’s a simple word, but the Hurd’s imbue it with a poetic, almost prophetic value. It’s their polestar, and one might even presume it to be tied up in religion. But if that’s the case, I never detected it. Appreciation is their own special brand of holiness.

~Michael Neault, May 2009

hurd orchards

hurd orchards

Tags: Essays & Articles

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 A Gulp of Magpies // Oct 11, 2009 at 12:58 am

    [...] article is entitled, The Sun in the Apricots: The Story of Hurd Orchards, and you can read it by following the [...]

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