Thinking big

Susan churns out ideas to grow Hurds Family Farm in Modena

Author: Anita Manley
Posted: Saturday, September 01, 2007
The apples weren’t ripe yet. In fact, the trees were just showing a hint of buds on a warm and sunny March morning that teased this writer into believing that spring was here. The hilly drive past the apple orchards just south of New Paltz on Route 32 reminded me that the sweet fruits of autumn would be beckoning visitors to the Hudson Valley come September. And on this March day as she does throughout the winter, Susan Hurd was already planning for the 2007 harvest season.
A co-owner of Hurds Family Farm, Susan showed her visitor drafts of posters and brochures
promoting the family friendly destination the Hurds have developed over the past 12 years at their panoramic Century Farm orchard site in Modena.

Once the tourist season ends in November, Susan’s real work begins. Over the winter months she cooks up new ideas to keep this farm a viable and enterprising business in the face of a tough economy for our nation’s farmers.

New ideas and thinking “out of the box” have kept the farm growing, says Hurd. But, she adds, it took some “old fashioned courage” to switch gears a dozen years ago and rethink the way the farm was going to do business.

“The challenge of this industry is to keep being creative, and to keep learning and growing and unearthing new approaches that can create successes,” she says.

To record her new ideas, Hurd is meticulous about jotting them down in a journal. She is never without her copy of “The Idea Book: A Journal for Creative Thinkers,” a book that was given to her by author Nava Atlas of New Paltz.

“It’s really just a journal with blank pages,” Hurd explains. “There are quotes in it. I found it very helpful. You just write down your ideas. It’s been a part of my life. It’s a great catalyst for change and improvement. Ideas are what shape the course of history. I carry it every where I go.”

A revolutionary idea, initiated by the Hurds, could transform business for several Ulster County farms. Last winter, the Hurds met with owners of six other family apple farms to coordinate the establishment of an official “Apple Heritage Trail,” a 25-mile tourist attraction within the New Paltz/Highland area. Hurd was enthusiastic and excited about the group being the first in the state to create this farm-based venture.

“The benefits tip the scales as farms incorporate their history and culture into agritourism experiences,” she said. “As we work together with other local ag attractions, restaurants, lodging and places of outdoor and historical interest, there is a tremendous economic impact for the entire region.”

Susan becomes part of the farm family
Born in Middletown, Hurd married into the farm operation 30 years ago. Teaching is the background and foreground of this family, she says. Susan’s in-laws met at Cornell University and were teachers before becoming agriculturalists. Susan’s father was an Earth Science Professor at SUNY New Paltz and her mother majored in zoology and taught high school and college.

Susan was an elementary school teacher before becoming involved in creative projects on the farm. Her husband, Phil, a plant science specialist, manages the farm. Like his father, Hurd’s son, Charles, majored in plant science and serves on the farm’s board and manages many of the ongoing farm projects. Her daughter, Megan, is a preschool teacher who specializes in children with special needs, but she also works with her mother planning special events at the farm.

The children grew up in the farm environment and were part of the farm’s daily operations.

Susan says that having children was good preparation for her future responsibilities. She adds that living on a farm is a good lesson in flexibility and multi-tasking as well.

“Many days you’ll be ready to roll with Plan A and before long, due to weather or some unforeseen happening, the plans change and you’ll be working on Plan B for the day!” she says. “It certainly helps to have some get-up-and-go to help organize people and events.”

Planning events is the major focus of her off-season months, and the whole family participates, not unlike a board of directors meeting. It is this tight bond that has kept the family looking toward the future and helped the farm thrive.

“One of the struggles we have is to prioritize which projects go into the Action Plan for each year,” she says. “We hold good old debates where we have to back up our choices with solid reasons why one idea has merit over another potentially good idea.”

Susan is dedicated to seeing each new endeavor through with the help of family and friends. In fact, she’s even recruited a neighbor with a peregrine falcon and a friend who’s an entomologist to help entertain guests at the farm.

“Every family member, extended family and many close friends seem to catch the excitement and offer – or get roped into – helping with the school tours, or designing the barn set-up, driving one of the hay wagons, parking cars, helping at the various fall festivals, greeting people, making cider donuts or providing entertainment of some kind.”
Finding a fine balance between work and family
Most important to Susan is keeping a healthy balance in the lives of her family, to take time for each other.

“Each day is a gift,” she says. “Although we may have many interests in common, such as adventure travel in the winter and vacationing at our family’s Adirondack camp, I believe it’s important to give each other space not to be perfect and to do the things each one enjoys.”

The farm has been in the Hurd family since 1690 and has the distinction of being designated a New York State Century Farm (Awarded in 2005). There are actually three sites that comprise Hurds Family Farms. Two are located in New Paltz and one is on Route 32 in Modena where most of the action is in the fall. The Modena site includes a barn that was built in the 1700s, a Dutch threshing barn, a new food pavilion and acres of apple trees, a corn maze, children’s activities, and a farm market stocked with jams, and othter homemade goodies.

When she’s not making plans for the farm, Hurd is a substitute school teacher. For the last six years, she’s also been involved in a Youth for Understanding program for international high school students who spend a year in the U.S. In addition, she is active in her church music and outreach ministries. Last spring, she also served as leader of a team of women who were planning a Womens’ Spiritual Renewal Weekend.

Hurd says she likes the “simple joys” of life when she’s not consumed with farm activities, such as hiking, gardening and traveling.

“It’s clearly exciting to watch the interests and hobbies you’ve enjoyed blossom into an enterprise,” she says. “It does require the confidence to take some risks and to make changes where changes make sense.”

Future plans include “kicking it up a notch” at the farm, says Hurd, who is mapping out team building activities using the corn maze and other pursuits for the corporate crowd. “I want to keep growing the group market,” she explains. “Scout groups, schools, 4H, birthday parties and others.”
Evolving and rolling with the times is what Hurds Family Farm has done over the past hundred years, and with Susan Hurd helping steer its course, it is sure to survive another hundred years.

“Some people work and live on a farm. Other people want to visit. Get these folks together and good things can happen,” says Hurd.

“Never underestimate the appeal of an old fashioned hayride in the fall,” she adds with a laugh, “or a resourceful ‘Cow Train’ made out of 55-gallon drums, bicycle seats and watering hose, pulled along by a small tractor!”

Anita Manley is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

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