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RI Archives: Food

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How ‘Green’ Was My Valley Greenhouse: McEnroe Farm Keeps It Growing Au Naturel All Year Round

By Don Rosendale

Talking to Ray McEnroe is a little bit like talking to a Burgundy vineyard owner about his latest vintage. The difference perhaps is that, while the French grape grower would enthuse about terroir—the difference a few hundred yards’ distance can make in what is grown in one plot from what is grown in a neighboring one—McEnroe just calls it all “dirt.”

“Last year I had a field that grew asparagus that people went wild over,” he explains, “but in the field a hundred feet away across Route 22, nothing grew.”

Ray is the McEnroe behind McEnroe Organic Farm, the most visible part of which is a 3,200-square-foot market on Route 22 as it blends from Amenia into Millerton. But the retail part is only the tip of the iceberg; McEnroe reigns over about 1,000 acres in the northeast corner of Dutchess County, doing it all “by the book”—an eight-inch-thick stack of government rules governing what you can do with a plot of land and still call its vegetables “organic.” In an era when the asparagus in your supermarket likely was harvested from a finca in Peru 10 days ago, McEnroe Organic is a real family-run farm, with McEnroe, his wife, and a quartet of sons actively involved. Scattered around, there are also ten heated greenhouses for growing hothouse vegetables, seedlings, and transplants, and seven cold frames to grow fresh, leafy vegetables and herbs during cold weather: enough to keep locavore veggies going au naturel with only a slight reduction for a few months during winter’s worst (when the daylight is at its shortest). “Unfortunately, when I started building greenhouses I didn’t expect to grow as much as we have, so they’re in a few different locations.”

Ray, now 62 with graying hair and a brigadier’s moustache, reminds some of the Geico TV commercial farmer who says “cow” is spelled “C-O-W-E-I-E-I-O.” His son Erich is a contemporary version, with a degree in agriculture business from SUNY Cobleskill. He backs up his father in running the farm, while Wade is chef de cuisine in the farmer’s market. Ray’s wife, Sharon, makes the jellies and jams.

The McEnroes are one of the oldest families in Amenia, emigrating here in the 1800s to toil in the tin mine. When tin petered out, they became cow farmers and bought up vast tracts of local land. (Personal note: The plot where I live today is marked on 19th Century maps as the “McEnroe Estate.”) Ray McEnroe’s father and uncles were Amenia farmers before him, and his family moved to the fields he now tills in 1953; he inherited it when his father died in 1983. But the Dutchess dairy business was dying, the antiquated milking machines kept breaking, nobody made the parts to fix them, and he couldn’t compete on price with huge factory farms. So in the 1980s he sold 220 acres, half of his birthright, to Douglas Durst (pictured to the right of Ray at left), a New York City property tycoon. Durst brought in a farmer from Vermont to grow organics, and McEnroe said, “Hey, I can do that” and took the keys to the tractor. He started with a roadside stand in 1989, converted a two-car garage into a farm stand a year later, and in 1995 built his Route 22 flagship, easily spotted from a half-mile away by the car dealership-sized American flag.

The drive on a late October day to one of the McEnroe greenhouses a mile from the farm stand, in what is identified as the Coleman Station Historic District, passes by fields of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale. McEnroe explains these are “Fall brassica” vegetables that grow well in autumn. “We’ll still be picking… hopefully ‘til Thanksgiving,” he says. He’s had bad luck with the new chef’s favorite toy, broccoli raab, but was surprised at how well celery has acclimated to the local climes. “I don’t know anything about celery, but people are wild about it.”

Back in the market, a chart advertises that 39 kinds of vegetables are available here, but McEnroe says the sign is out of date and “we’ll have to re-do it over the winter.” That’s the same thing he said to me when I asked him about it five years ago, but maybe this is the winter that it’ll get done, and since then he’s added lamb, beef, chicken and turkey, all fed from the same organics grown in his fields. But above all, McEnroe is famous for his tomatoes, part of the image on his signs, growing 5 or 6 feet tall on stakes in his greenhouses.

But McEnroe doesn’t just sell organics. He has a new section off the farm stand where school kids come to see how their food is grown, and learn that dinner doesn’t come from a frozen food tray. In the spring, he conducts weekend seminars for people who want to grow basil in their backyard, and sells them six different kinds of organic compost, potting soil, and top soil. I don’t know the answer to the oft-debated question of whether “organics” are healthier for you, or if they’re worth the extra price. I only know that I’d forgotten what a real tomato tasted like until I took a bite of one from McEnroe’s greenhouses. 

Their food tastes like food, and it’s worth a ride on Route 22 to taste it for yourself.

McEnroe Organic Farm
Route 22 between Millerton & Amenia, NY
(518) 789-4191

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 11/03/13 at 07:52 PM • Permalink