A Catskill Catalog: August 5, 2009
Here’s how a bit of the local mountain economy worked in 1937.
On July 26 of that year, a cauliflower auction block was opened in Margaretville on the Grange League Federation (G.L.F.) grounds. Cauliflower was once a major cash crop on the northern and eastern slopes of the Catskills where the two branches of the Delaware River originate.
The G.L.F. was created in 1920 through a combination of three farmers’ organizations: the New York State Grange, the Dairymen’s League, and the State Farm Bureau. The G.L.F. had a Margaretville operation just west of Bridge Street on land that is now paved over.
Cauliflower was a natural, a cash crop that was popular with consumers and a perfect agricultural fit for mountain growing. The cool nights that made the Catskills a great summer retreat from city heat were also perfect for growing cauliflower, which thrives in moderate temperatures – the heads get grainy in excessive heat or drought – and seems to do best at elevations over 2,000 feet above sea level.
Diane Galusha, our talented local historian, is the author of several important regional books, including When Cauliflower Was King (Purple Mountain Press, 2004). It’s a 48-page booklet that tells the story of cauliflower’s first-half-of-the 20th-century run as the local cash cow, or, at least, the local cash producer to supplement the income from the cow.
For this was dairy country, and was right up into the 1970s and early 1980s. The dairy business provided a regular income – I believe the milk check came to the farmer once a month or so – but the check went in the bank account, and the heavy expenses of farming came out and there was seldom much left. Cauliflower provided cash that hadn’t already been spent.
So here’s how it worked - at least once the auction block was built in Margaretville that summer of 1937. The producer picked and crated his cauliflower, starting the harvest in late July. A crate packed a dozen heads. He’d truck his crates of cauliflower to the auction block in the morning, offering to sell whatever number of crates he chose. Buyers arrived. Most buyers were local truckers who would bid the produce at auction, hauling what they bought to New York or Philadelphia or even Boston, and selling it, at, what the truckers hoped would be, a profit.
The auction block was established by the producers, farmers who felt that they could get a greater return than the price they had been getting from commission houses that handled the sale of the harvest, every August and September, for a percentage.
The first day’s handle at the auction block was $580.55, with a top price of two dollars, 37 and-a-half cents per crate, about 20 cents a head. Interestingly, the next day, 483 crates of cauliflower were offered for sale, but only 264 sold. The farmer could refuse any bid he deemed too low. Tuesday must have been a low-bid day.
Buyers had to pay for their purchase before they carried it away. Producers received a check every Friday.
Cauliflower producers were a well-organized lot, and the auction block came about through the efforts of the Catskill Mountain Cauliflower Co-operative; which represented farmers from around the region. William and Thankful VanBenschoten were the first farmers to grow cauliflower, back in the 1890s, on their Margaretville Mountain farm, where Pete and Carol Molnar’s Margaretville Mountain Inn is today. William was a leader in organizing producers to work together.
An advisory committee of the co-operative represented the producers’ interests in the operation of the auction block. Among them were Harold Garrison of Arkville, Leslie Stahl and Casper Bellows of Margaretville, Andrew VanBenschoten of New Kingston, Floyd Davis of Shavertown and John Burns of Bovina, as well as farmers from Stamford, Walton, Meridale, and Harpersfield.
The co-operative marketed Catskill Mountain cauliflower with three different labels pasted on the crates: Rip Van Winkle, Pride of the Catskills, and Mountain Brand. The Catskill Mountain News reported, in its July 30, 1937 issue, that Basil Todd offered a load “whose crates bore a brand new label, Sunset Brand.” Perhaps Mr. Todd was marketing outside of the co-operative. That’s fine. The auction block was open to all, buyers and sellers both.
The Round Barn in Halcottsville is, perhaps, the early 21st-century equivalent of the auction block, a farmers’ market where producers and buyers can meet directly to transact business. The retail market is, of course, a contrast with the wholesale selling producers did at the auction block, which operated for 15 years or so, closing down around 1950.
Cauliflower continued to be an important mountain product into the 1990s. Ruff Farms in New Kingston trucked as many as 30,000 crates of cauliflower a year to markets throughout the east, ceasing operations in the mid-’90s.
I can’t help thinking that a cash crop, produced here in the Catskills, couldn’t once again put some of our now-fallow agricultural land back into production, and some much-needed cash in our local economy. Our proximity to New York City, America’s love affair with fine food, widespread concern with healthful eating: all the factors seem to be in place to find a market for a locally-produced crop. But what?
I asked a friend, a talented local horticulturalist and greenhouse gardener. “Kale,” she said. Kale is healthful, extremely popular and easy to grow. Could kale one day be king?
Editor’s note: The history of growing cauliflower in the Catskills is now celebrated annually in Margaretville and the Seventh Annual Margaretville Cauliflower Festival will be held, rain or shine, on Saturday, Sept. 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the village park.