Indian Ladder Farms: A Legacy for the Future
Legacy. Cr-eeee-aaaaaa-kk. (Sips tea, reaches for fan.)
The name conjures up visions of ascots and actuaries, hardly what greets visitors of Indian Ladder Farms, a vibrant swath of agriculture harboring orchards, livestock exhibits, educational programs, fields of hops, a brewery and cidery and some of the best doughnuts in the Northeast.
But, as Laura Ten Eyck, vice president of Indian Ladder Farms, is quick to remind visitors, it is a legacy farm.
The centennial Altamont farm was founded in 1916 by her great-grandfather, Peter G. Ten Eyck, an engineer, businessman, politician and farmer. He was born into an established Albany family whose forefathers were among the first colonists to arrive in the early 1600s. When he was nine, the farm he was born on, dubbed Whitehall, burned down. (Whitehall was located on the corner of what is now Whitehall Road, Delaware Avenue and Ten Eyck Avenue in Albany.)
“As an adult, he was nostalgic for that farm lifestyle he experienced at Whitehall as a child,” Laura tells me over coffee in her back office, as the buzz of Indian Ladder’s busy life whirs and bleats in the background. “His wife, Bertha, my great-grandmother, also came from a well-off agricultural family. Her father invented an early model of the hay press. So this was not a hardscrabble start for them.”
Peter used his resources (he studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and helped design Lincoln Park in Albany, was general manager of the Federal Railway Signal Co. and served as a Democratic congressman for two terms) to purchase the first of the three farms he would unite as one in 1916. By 1944, there were five farms under the Indian Ladder Farms banner.
“He was very interested in the science of agriculture,” Laura says. “He raised purebred Guernsey cattle, Rhode Island Red chickens and had large flocks of turkeys. And even then, there was the apple orchard.”
The founder’s legacy reverberates today not just in its robust apple business but in its commitment to science and a subtle but deeply resonant sense of aesthetics.
“He decided to create uniformity among the existing buildings on the five farms by shingling them all and painting them with green trim,” Laura says. The sprawling 317-acre farm manages to manifest unity across its growing collection of buildings more than a century later.
Laura is the fourth generation in her family at the helm of the farm, alongside her brother, Peter G. Ten Eyck III. Their father, Peter G. Ten Eyck II remains involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm. Laura runs retail; her brother, working with farm manager Tim Albright, handles the farm operation; and her father advises them on management and oversees their pest management program in the orchards.
While legacy businesses have a reputation for being intrinsically resistant to change, the nature of Indian Ladder Farms prevents calcification. The family has also avoided drama in the passing of the baton from one generation to the next.
“The first generational transfer was easy because my grandfather was an only child,” Laura says. “But when my grandfather passed, he left the farm to his three children as well as his eight grandchildren, equally. But only my father wanted to dedicate his life to the farm, so my father and his business partner at the time bought everyone out.”
Over the past century plus, each generation has changed the structure of Indian Ladder Farms, but apples have been the always been the reliable cornerstone.
“In 1949, the dairy barn burned down and my grandfather sold off the herd and planted additional orchards,” Laura explains.
In the 1970s, Indian Ladder Farms launched the pick-your-own business, started selling their wildly popular cider doughnuts, expanded the retail market and in the 1990s opened the Yellow Rock Café, which serves farm-fresh fare.
Although Indian Ladder Farms is not certified organic, it remains committed to responsible and sustainable practices.
“We use integrated pest management,” explains Laura. “In 2000, we were granted an eco-label by a public health organization founded by Meryl Streep called Mothers and Others. Today the label is called ‘ECO Apple’ and is a certification program for Northeastern apple growers run by an organization called Red Tomato, based in Massachusetts. The label certifies that we use environmentally sound agricultural practices that promote soil and orchard health and help pollinators. We are also one of the few ‘ECO Apple’ growers in the area and undergo annual inspections to ensure we are abiding by the label’s rigorous standards.”
Laura and the Peters are well aware of the responsibility that accompanies owning and operating a legacy business.
“We are committed to sustainable practices,” Laura says. “Look, it’s a responsibility. We get thousands of people a day coming through our doors to either grab lunch at Yellow Rock Café, go apple picking, play with their kids at the farm or grab a beer at the brewery. My father started educational programs in the 1960s, and it’s still a key part of our mission.”
In addition to opening up for field trips from local schools, there are seasonal events, summer educational programs and an observation beehive in the back of the gift shop. But about that brewery Laura mentioned….
Laura and her husband, Dietrich Gehring, have been growing hops recreationally and brewing beer together at home for more than 25 years.
In 2011, Laura and Dietrich decided to bring their dual passions for beer and Indian Ladder full circle. They expanded their home hop project, planting 112 hills of hops and patches of barley, dubbing it Helderberg Hop Farm. The hop plant is a vining perennial that sprouts out of a fleshy rootstock, capable of growing up to a foot a day during the height of the season and eventually topping out at about 40 feet. While they’re easier to grow than kill, creating a quality harvest and then actually picking them at the perfect time is a complicated affair.
Those first hills were comprised of about 50 Brewers Gold, 50 Centennial, 4 Cascade and 8 Heirloom Helderberg hops. Domestic hops are typically grown now in the Pacific Northwest, though back in the mid-1800s, New York hops ruled the industry. By 1855, the state was selling more than three million pounds a year.
“We spent a lot of time doing research into hop farming in New York because it hasn’t been done on a large scale here for a century,” Laura explains. “Our goal was to participate in the revitalization of the hops and barley industry in New York. There was so much amazing beer being brewed locally, but the hops were coming from far away.”
They sold most of their product initially to local brewers, but then the Farm Brewery Law went into effect in 2013, and they saw an opportunity to make the completely local field-to-tap beer they craved themselves. The law loosened restrictions and allowed new brewers to sell beer directly to consumers, eliminating a middle man and increasing their potential profit margin significantly.
But the law requires breweries to use locally grown ingredients.
“Because we are a farm already, we have so many advantages,” Laura says. “Some of the brewers who are taking advantage of the law aren’t growers themselves, so it’s going to be a lot harder for them to meet the requirements. Most of the product we grow now—about two acres of hops and 10 acres of malted barley, with plans to plant more—goes toward our own beer.”
The law is clear. Until the end of 2018, at least 20% of the hops and 20% of the other ingredients made by farm breweries must be grown in New York, but in 2019, that percentage increases to 60% of the hops and 60% of all other ingredients. By 2024, no less than 90% of the hops and 90% of all other ingredients must be homegrown.
No easy task for would-be growers or brewers.
“These are complicated crops to grow,” Laura says. “When we were expanding our hops-growing project, there was really no one to turn to for advice. There needs to more of an infrastructure and support system put in place by the state for this to really succeed on the scale they currently envision. Dairy farmers and farmers growing alfalfa have entire teams of researchers funded by the state, but hops don’t have that kind of support.”
Not that that stopped Laura and Dietrich. They dove in and their DIY mentality has harvested more than just kegs of award-winning hard cider and beer. In 2015, they published The Hop Grower’s Handbook (Chelsea Green Publishing).
While Laura remains involved in the brewery and cidery, Dietrich and his partner, Stuart Morris, own and operate Indian Ladder Farms Cidery and Brewery. In addition to producing classic barley-based beers, Indian Ladder cranks out hard cider and beer made from apples, pears, berries and pumpkins.
Thanks to the Farm Brewery law, they were able to open a tasting room on-site. Currently housed in their former apple cooler room, the tasting room has blossomed into a local hangout, with live music on Friday nights, locally sourced cheese and charcuterie plates, hot dogs and other snacks made by their café. A biergarten-style porch with tables and chairs is open seasonally.
But wait, there’s more.
“We are planning to build a larger brewery on-site and create a larger hall to serve beer and food and hold events like weddings,” Laura explains.
They are hoping to get a larger, full-scale brewery up and running by the end of 2018, but Laura admits “that may be ambitious.”
In addition to the farm, Laura has inherited her great-grandfather’s political acumen and desire to shape not just the land around her, but the manner in which it is worked on and cared for now and in the future. Indian Ladder Farms has long been committed to sustainable growing practices, educating youngsters and pushing boldly forward with grand agricultural experiments. Now, she is working to ensure the current fiscal health and the future of Indian Ladder Farms’ patch of land.
Indian Ladder Farms depends on federal H2A program, which is the official and legal option farmers have had for getting workers from abroad to their farm since World War II.
“We advertise for these seasonal picking jobs locally and in 15 years we have only gotten one applicant who came here and actually made it through the season,” Laura says. “Ultimately, we bring in people from Jamaica, about 10 during harvest season. We pay for their airfare and house them on the farm. We pay them $12.38 an hour. All of this is mandated by the law and, yes, it’s expensive, but it’s absolutely essential for our bottom line.”
Laura says she is concerned that the government’s crackdown on workers from abroad could have a chilling effect not just for farms that depend on undocumented workers but also on programs like H2A. But instead of just wringing her hands about the future, she is speaking out and making an impact where she can.
Laura and her family worked with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, the Open Space Institute, the Town of Scotland and the State of New York’s Farmland Protection Program to place a permanent easement on Indian Ladder Farms that extends into perpetuity. In other words, no real estate developments will go up on those 317 acres. Ever.
Can’t think of a better legacy.