From Kenya to prison to heirloom tomatoes
For ardent customers of the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market, the news last fall felt like an obituary.
Jay and Polly Armour retired. One of the market’s four founding vendors, they began farming their 24-acre plot near Gardiner 35 years ago.
Many undoubtedly mourned the loss of the Armours’ heirloom tomatoes, but the news isn’t all bad. The annual spring sale of tomato seedlings will continue, although only at Four Winds Farm, a 40-minute drive from the Highlands.
Their reason for stepping away is simple. “My body’s too old for this,” said Jay, 70.
Their entry into agriculture in the late 1980s was unconventional; neither grew up on a farm. Jay was raised “smack in the middle of Nassau County, Long Island” and pursued a master’s degree in education; Polly grew up in New Jersey and worked there monitoring hazardous waste sites.
Jay’s farming odyssey began in Kenya, where, as a young man, he saw people misusing pesticides and fertilizers to grow vegetables. “I felt a desire to go back to the U.S., learn how to farm, then go back to teach people organic farming,” he recalled.
He did learn how to farm, but he didn’t return to Kenya until late 2023. “Thirty years ago, women were responsible for growing vegetables,” Jay said. “Now, it’s mostly a male thing.”
Jay and Polly met in 1986 and soon married. She wanted to farm, too. “It was exciting to meet a woman who was interested in farming,” Jay said. “When I had told other women I wanted to be a farmer, they’d look at me and say, ‘Oh.’ ”
When they bought Four Winds Farm in 1988, Jay knew he’d need a second job to support their fledgling operation. He landed a position teaching math in the state prison system. “I thought if I didn’t like it or couldn’t do it, I’d just quit,” he recalled. But he found the job fascinating and stayed with it for 14 years.
As farmers, the couple made rookie mistakes. “We learned quickly why people give you animals,” Jay said. “Somebody said: ‘You need some sheep to keep the grass down.’” So they became proud owners of four gifted sheep. “They were nothing but problems, always getting sick.”
Cows donated by a friend who had them as pets were a happier story. “We loved the cows,” Jay said, adding that Four Winds still sells full and half cows as beef and keeps a dozen head of cattle.
Jay remembers thinking the farm was quite small when they bought it. “In retrospect, I realized 24 acres was big,” he said.
They raised chickens, as well, as many as 200 a month, along with turkeys, before concentrating on vegetables.
“If Thanksgiving were in September, we’d still be doing turkeys,” Jay said, but processing the birds in cold, wet November was not fun.
A big shift came around 1995, when Jay discovered the world of heirloom vegetables while attending a conference. A speaker told the audience that the next logical step beyond hybrid seeds was genetic engineering.
Jay wondered how seed had been derived before hybrids. The answer: open pollination of plants by insects, birds, wind and other natural means.
“That became the heirloom-vegetable movement, spawned by the Seed Savers Exchange,” a nonprofit based in the Midwest that collects, regenerates and shares heirloom seeds and plants, Jay said.
Four Winds began growing heirloom tomatoes, producing 30 varieties. They sold like hotcakes at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market and also provided Jay with great pleasure as a farmer.
“They just taste so darn good,” he said. “People know that and when they take them home, they enjoy eating them. That is really satisfying for me.”
Farmers markets themselves were also rewarding. “We would not have been a successful farm without farmers markets,” he said. (Four Winds also sold at markets in New Paltz and Peekskill.)
Farmers markets were initially used in New York City by big farms to get rid of produce and frequented by customers looking for bargains, he said. “Then we came along with organic vegetables, wanting a decent price for what we produced,” he said. “That was tough.”
That changed in the late 1990s with the local foods movement. When the farm became so successful that Polly and Jay struggled to keep up, a neighboring farmer recommended a crew of workers from Mexico.
“They would come up for a day and were amazing,” said Jay, who was still working at the prison. “They moved so quickly Polly had to scramble just to line up the next job for them.”
Juan, one of the workers, became a full-time employee. “A lot of Mexican workers expect their boss to tell them what to do,” Jay said. “But Juan often had a better way of doing something; we had the kind of relationship where he felt comfortable doing that.”
Jay and Polly even traveled to Mexico during the winter to visit Juan and his family. “It was terrific,’ Jay said, “We weren’t staying in the expensive hotels; we were sleeping in a spare bedroom.”
Two years ago, their longtime farm manager moved on, followed by two managers who didn’t pan out. One of them, Jay said, preferred spending her weekends at the Jersey Shore. “Farming isn’t a 40-hour-a-week job,” he said.
When their neighbors, Kevin Caplicki and Laurel Bell, who operate Wood Thrush Farm and who rent fields at Four Winds, asked to increase their acreage, Jay and Polly felt the timing was right to retire.
“We’re keeping the land, staying in the house,” Jay said. “Kevin and Laurel will be farming all the land; I’ll be able to wander around and pick a head of lettuce when I want.”
They will also continue the tomato seedling greenhouse operation, offering heirloom varieties at the farm, as always, in May.
Jay thinks young people can still do what he and Polly did, but they don’t need 24 acres. “They can do it on 3 acres,” he said. “You can grow a lot of vegetables in a small place and a lot of young farmers have discovered that.”
He believes that overall, farming has changed for the better in the Hudson Valley, although he is troubled by the loss of big farms to housing projects and the unpredictable weather caused by climate change. “What’s throwing us off now are the warmups we’ve experienced in late March and April,” Jay said. “That’s kind of worrisome.”
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