What is the secret of the American farmer? What belies the charming pastoral agricultural spirit that has seemingly infiltrated nearly every aspect of small town life? The columns of mowed pasture that line the fields and meadows of the Hudson Valley, Berkshires and Northwest Connecticut and the mild-mannered hay bale obelisks that dot the landscape along our many country roads come with their own generational legacies.
From the immigrant dairy farmer, who traveled west in search of a new beginning and thus endured wartime uncertainty and the inevitable financial hardship. To the vegetable farmer whose family has had to adapt to changing times and trends yet still dedicates much of their yield in order to feed local communities, the legacy of farming has left an indelible mark on the culture of rural life in the United States.
With a view of a small but lively duck pond and the scenic, open air fields outside the village of Millerton, NY, Willow Brook Farms has been a family business since it was first purchased back in 1943. Three generations later, along with his sister Heidi and mother Carol, Kenneth Beneke is carrying on the family legacy. Both Willow Brook Farm and its agrestic farm store remain committed to the Beneke family tradition of offering fresh, organic farm products while maintaining animal welfare. A tradition that has helped cultivate an enduring legacy of farming in the Hudson Valley.
In search of the familiar
In 1943, while the United States was involved in the Second World War on two fronts, a young German immigrant was dreaming of greener pastures for his family – away from city life. Joachim Beneke was the owner of a German delicatessen in Brooklyn, NY. However, he longed to recapture his own pastoral childhood in rural Germany. When he eventually moved with his wife and young son from Brooklyn up the Hudson River and toward a new life in the country, Willow Brook Farm was born.
“My father, along with his sister and brother were raised on the farm,” says third generation farmer Heidi Beneke Main. The farm has stayed firmly dedicated to the Beneke name, being taken over later by Heidi’s father, Henry Beneke.
Today, Willow Brook Farm is owned and operated by her brother, Kenneth Beneke. Like their grandfather, the modern Beneke brother-sister duo has remained consistent with the kind of livestock they raise as well as the crops they grow. The result has attracted visitors from far and wide, “Our herd is a mix of Holstein and Jersey cows,” Heidi says. “Eventually, we built a modest, self-serve sweet corn stand. The response to our corn was incredible and compelled my brother and I to expand our offerings. That is how the Farm Store was created.”
Over the decades, the three-generation farm has invariably seen the country and our area go through many changes. From the aftermath of the Second World War and massive modern industrialization, to economic recession and cultural revolution, but perhaps nothing as uniquely unpredictable as the spread of COVID-19 here at home.
Still, Heidi’s perception of how the pandemic has, and will impact area farming remains endearingly stoic, “Farming in general is a huge challenge, you do it because you like it. It’s not a job – it’s a lifestyle. COVID-19 itself will not shut down a farm.”
There is nothing particularly new about the struggle for farmers to stay in business locally and it remains heartbreaking to see farms having to shut down operations after many years of hard work. “Milk prices are very low and overhead remains very high, but farmers are still putting in the work 365 days a year,” says Heidi. “This pandemic has created a learning curve for all of us. Here at the farm, we are taking every precaution to make sure we offer a clean and safe environment for our customers. Fortunately, we have experienced a tremendous response to our Farm Store from the surrounding community. I truly believe people are comfortable coming in – one at a time, wearing masks – and shopping.”
A communal hub nestled within the landscape
Undoubtedly, there is a lot to see at Willow Brook Farm. Cows grazing, goslings playing in the pond, and baby goats bleating as visitors pass by underneath a perfectly mild summer sky in the Hudson Valley. “We are fortunate enough to be located right on Route 22 between Copake and Millerton, NY,” says Heidi who has used the bucolic setting to set up Willow Brook’s Farm Store as a hub to provide locally-sourced food from area farms to the community. “We are proud to offer our own beef, pork, eggs, and milk as a member of the Hudson Valley Fresh Co-Op – not to mention our famous sweet corn,” she says. “We feel compelled to support as many local farms as we can. Much of our vegetables and fruits are locally-sourced and we use many local suppliers such as Farms2Table, a Hudson Valley Farms distributor. We also supply local cheeses, baked goods, breads, frozen foods, and gourmet grocery items.”
Heidi looks forward to working through the challenges COVID-19 has levied upon area small businesses head on saying, “now that we are several months into coping with the pandemic, I think we have established a nice, calm and safe environment here at the farm.” She continues, “We are trying to provide a one-stop-shopping experience for everyone. If there is something we do not have, we will try our best to get it. As more stores open, we hope the novelty of our store does not wear off. We have also created an online store as well and our commitment to continually provide fresh and local products remains as fervent as ever.”
Though attracting locals and visitors alike to the Farm Store for so many years has helped Willow Brook endure through the past few months, the legacy Willow Brook Farm leaves on the people of the Hudson Valley can be found in it’s lasting connection with neighboring farms. “The Hudson Valley is an amazing place with a lot to offer and people knowing where the meat they are buying comes from is extremely important,” Heidi says. “Although masked, all of us at the Farm Store will surely still greet everyone with a smile. I wish that my father and grandfather could see how much our business has grown despite this massive change in our lives – they would be so proud.” •
Willow Brook Farm is located at 196 Old Post Road 4 and Route 22 in Millerton, NY. You can call them at (518) 789-6880 or visit them online at www.thefarmstoreatwillowbrook.com.