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Friends, New Yorkers, Countrymen, lend me your ears. We sit at the feet of one of the most lush, fertile and bountiful lands in all the United States. Its natural landscape, fertile soil, access to one of the largest rivers in the country and certainly the largest city makes the Hudson Valley a force to be reckoned with, yet, many of the towns are run-down, storefronts are still empty on Main Street and many areas are still considered seasonal.
Inversely, agrotourism is on the rise. More CSAs are forming, more young farmers are learning the trade and planting. The city and the country are taking notice of both the natural beauty and the quality of craftspeople and food being produced from the region. How do we continue to grow the region’s wealth and revitalize the scattered towns and disjointed focal points of Hudson Valley tourism?
Mary Kay Vrba, the Executive Director of Dutchess County Tourism was kind enough to sit with me to discuss the current state of agro-tourism and where the room for improvement lies.
F+B: Mary Kay, Has agro-tourism grown in the Hudson Valley over the last five years? How?
Mary Kay: Absolutely, yes! We have made a huge effort with our Farm Fresh tours, which have been a great success. We just brought 700 people up to Dutchess from NYC between Sept. 29th and Oct. 5th. There has been a balanced marketing program of the region to New York City, as well as local residence and news media. Sending produce samples to writers, we recently had a film crew from the UK shooting in the area. We have been working directly with farmers and local restaurants to help build the brand of the farms. Getting local restaurants to identify local farms on their menus, etc.
F+B: A lot of people make the comparison between Napa Valley and Hudson Valley. Did you draw any inspiration for your strategy from their success?
MK: Not really. Obviously they’ve had great success but my main influence was Erik Wolf from Portland, OR and the big culinary tourism push that he created (The World Food Travel Association). I attended a conference with him and that was a big motivation.
F+B: What do you think were the biggest reasons for their success that we can learn from?
MK: Young people becoming interested. More CSAs forming, a stronger following with the ‘farm to table’ movement, farmers growing more specialty crops, which they are. Glynwood has been doing a great job with their programs working with colleges and outreach to potential young farmers.
F+B: What do you think is the biggest challenge HV faces trying to thrive in industry and agro-tourism as a region?
MK: Transportation. Getting people up here, having the roads and vehicles to access locations easily. Transportation for farmers, distribution. Creating central food hubs and working with Patterns for Progress to figure out the best way to do so.
F+B: As you know, I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley, as well as NYC, so I have formed some theories on little strategies that could help improve the success of agro-tourism in HV. Please let me know if you think any of these ideas hold water.
Clustering – I find that a lot of shops in HV seem to be threatened by anyone with a shop carrying the same product and/or the same service they are. So, these businesses seem to spread out and you get one producer in each town but they are so far away that the average consumer is not going to tour the entire valley for their variety. You also end up having each town dominated by one business, like one brewery in this town, one cheese monger in the next town, one winery two towns over, etc.
Do you think the strategy of cluster developments like the development of Little Italy in NY or the jewelry district of Manhattan could work here? The idea that one town could be known for doing one thing great.
Does this idea hold any merit?
MK: Yes, absolutely. In this region, with our goals, more is better. Drawing people in is what we need. I would like to see variety clusters in different towns with a couple different disciplines. The Newburgh waterfront is a great example and they’ve experienced tremendous success. Hudson Valley Bounty and HVADC are two organizations that are helping to develop the programs and bring the consumer in direct contact with the farmer.
F+B: Are business owners supporting and promoting each other with the idea that if one succeeds they all do? Or are a lot of them suffering from owner isolationism?
MK: More people are coming together. This region is a collection of small cottage industries and people are realizing that they cannot do it alone. Even with our distribution problems you’ll see farmers carpooling products from multiple farms. Restaurants promoting their purveyors and so on.
F+B: What would you like to see, in a perfect world, happening here in HV?
MK: I would like to have every one of us sit down at a table and find a common goal and work on it together. More young farmers, lower property tax. I would like more people to be thinking local, buying local. A 50-100 mile buying radius for all restaurants and markets. Educate the population on food source and sustainability.
F+B: What do you love about the Hudson Valley?
MK: I am from a small town in Nebraska and never thought I would move back to a small town but I do love it here. I like being part of a community and regional effort, and I truly love the diversity of the landscape and the sense of place that it gives me. It’s who we are and what we’re about.
F+B: The Hudson Valley continues to offer ever growing products, services, farmers, craftspeople and entrepreneurs. As interest develops, I hope to see wealth for the residence increase and towns prosper, while the Hudson Valley continues to be prized for its natural beauty & bounty. The main source of wealth should be the gifts of the landscape, so maintaining it will always be a top priority.
This is going to require a contribution from the HV residents to eat out, shop the farmers markets and choose the owner operated businesses over the box stores and supermarkets for all their needs.
I look forward to watching the food community come together more and more to support each other for the benefit of the whole.