MILTON–When 99-year-old Leonard Clarke was prompted by a relative to tell a reporter how “Grandma saved the farm,” his eyes opened wide and he sat up straight.
“I’m sorry that my wife is not here because she’s the biggest part in all this,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “People don’t have any idea that she contributed as much as I did to the farm business.”
The elderly Clarke told story after story about his late-wife, Marion, following a ceremony at the family homestead, honoring Prospect Hill Orchard’s 200th anniversary.
She died in December, but the farm’s patriarch did not want the day to pass without crediting her with saving the farm after hard financial times.
Clarke, who at one time was in business with his bookkeeper brother, nearly lost it all, but he noted how Marion took the reins and brought the family farm back to life as a savvy businesswoman.
The pair had been been farming in southern Ulster County since the 1940’s.
Before that, Nathaniel Clarke, the founder and Leonard’s great grandfather, had operated a 55-acre farm that began as a general farm and included a kitchen garden, fruits, vegetables and animals.
Today, the 400-acre Clarke family farm in Milton survives as one of the Hudson Valley’s oldest. The sixth and seventh generations now work the land known for its rich, gravelly loam soil–ideal for fruit trees and berries.
Leonard’s son, Steven, and his children, Brad, and Pam, continue to operate the farm as a pick-your-own destination.
The family grows cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, pears and apples available to the public from late spring through late fall. They also grow blueberries, raspberries and strawberries strictly for farmers’ markets.
Steven Clarke said while he introduced the pick-your-own concept, he has remained more of a “purist” when it comes to the notion of entertaining the public.
“I like to do pure pick-your-own without all of the frills that go along with it, however, there’s only a minority clientele that really wants to go pick,” he said.
“They want the whole package. They want something for their kids to do and they’re willing to pay for it. They want their kids to have an experience when they come to the farm. They want them to see animals and have fun and do rides and bouncy houses and music and food.
“I’ve been more of a purist, but I think the next generation is going to go more into the ‘ag-tourism’ and do more of those things rather than be just a pure pick-your-own.”
At a late afternoon ceremony outside the homestead, state Assemblyman Frank Skartados read a proclamation by Gov. Andrew Cuomo honoring the farm’s longevity.
The event also brought out Ulster County Legislator Richard Gerentine, who presented Steven Clarke with the Pride of Ulster County award, and Marlborough Town Supervisor Alphonso Lanzetta.
Friends and family gathered under a tent and savored a summer array of the fresh, juicy fruits the family farm is known for.
As the younger Clarke reflected on the day, he said he wanted members of the press and public to take away an important thought about what it means to be a farmer.
“The family has been stable and has managed to make the changes to keep the farm sustainable for 200 years,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the family, but this is the homestead. This is where you come back to to find your roots.”
His father shared that sentiment but could not help but circle back to his late bride.