Blog | August 16, 2007

Elizabeth Ryan

Staatsburg, N.Y.

Farm Aid talked with Elizabeth Ryan who founded Breezy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill 23 years ago. She’s also one of the founding farmers of the Greenmarket farmers market in New York City.

Tell us a little bit about your farm and what you grow.

I started Breezy Hill twenty-three years ago. We have a very diversified orchard at home and we also rent two other orchards. We grow quince, over one hundred varieties of apples, peaches, plums, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and pears. We grow some heirloom and old fashioned or traditional varieties – particularly in our two new orchards. We have endangered French and German plums and Esopus or Spitzenburg apples, which originated in the Hudson Valley and some say was George Washington’s favorite apple. Just this winter, I also became partners with Knoll Crest Farm and the Messerich family; we raise layers and broilers for market and use in all of our baked goods.

Where can people buy food from your orchards?

We are at the Union Square Greenmarket (we’ve been there since 1975) on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We go to four other markets on Saturday as well: Inwood, Long Island City, Sunnyside, and Murray Hill. On Sundays we go to the Grand Street market and on Fridays we go to Mount Siani. We also do some local markets. On a peak Saturday we have up to twenty employees but we make sure that everyone who works at the markets also has a chance to work on the farm.

You were a founding member of the Greenmarket farmers markets. What was that like?

Many of the farmers who were attracted to these markets were struggling. They had no outlet for their products because they were too small or diversified for the big wholesalers. Some of the older growers actually tell stories about dumping their fruit because they couldn’t sell it. When the market started, instantly we were embraced by the shoppers at the market. They were physically hungry. Some had never tasted anything so fresh. To farms like ours, Greenmarkets have meant survival. We would be out of business without these markets. As it is, we are one of twenty orchards left in a county that used to be completely agricultural.

What has it meant to have the support of such loyal customers over the years?

We are a mainstay in their lives. We watch their children grow up.

Why are farmers important?

Being a farmer is like being a doctor or an artist – we give back to the community. Health starts in healthy soil and healthy food. Everything starts with food and we feed people! We also maintain open space and natural habitat. Farmers preserve a non-industrial way of life, in rhythm with the land and seasons, which is important to our culture.

Describe an average market day. When do you get up and then get home again?

A typical market day actually starts two or three days before when we try to anticipate the weather (and then we argue about it!) and decide what to pick. Two days before, we butcher chickens. We always have to ask ourselves, “How many will we need this week?” because we never want to have any left over. This is when we start baking too. So we ask “What pies should we make?” and “What fruit is ready?” We press the cider on this day also. On market day, we get up around 2 a.m. to start loading the trucks. The first of six trucks heads off on the three-hour drive to New York. At 6 a.m. when the first truck arrives in Union Square, we start setting up the tent and by 7 a.m. the market is filled with customers. Set up is quite furious and by 8 p.m. that same night everything is gone. We usually get home around 11 p.m.

Does any particular market, or market day, stand out in your memory?

One of the eeriest markets…There was a general spirit of comradarie in the market after 9/11. Everyone agreed to meet in Union Square to see if there was room to set up. If there wasn’t, we agreed to just find someplace and set up anyway. We felt that people needed to be fed. The entire market was covered with candles, flowers and photos. While we were setting up it was dead silent. You could have heard a pin drop. In the end, it was one of the biggest market days that we have ever had. People came to buy food but also to find friends. It was just incredible. We fed the city.

Do you have a favorite apple?

Everyone always asks this! If I have to choose…Russett apples.

What’s your favorite thing about being a farmer?

Ripe pears on the tree are just about the most sensual thing. Fruit is just so in your face. The smell of the orchard in the fall or really ripe strawberries, it’s just amazing.

Date: 8/16/2007

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