A day in the life of a generational apple grower

NEW PALTZ — When steady rains finally blanketed the arid Hudson Valley last week, Tim Dressel watched the distressed yellow-green leaves of his apple trees get wet. He felt the burnt plants around him becoming happy. “It’s so sweet. I love it. Maybe I’m a horticultural jerk,” he said, adding, “It was a really bad summer.

Dressel is the great-grandson of Fred Dressel, who purchased (and renamed) Dressel Farms in New Paltz in 1957, after serving as foreman there for over 25 years. What started at around 75 acres has grown to around 400 today, 300 of which are devoted to apples. Dressel Farms also grows and sells other fruits (peaches, strawberries, raspberries) as well as ice cream. The operation, including a road stand, is run by three generations of Dressels. “My grandfather is 86 and still comes to work every day,” Dressel said.

Rain on an orchard during harvest provides a rare moment of downtime; picking in the rain is more likely to bruise fruit, among other complications. Dressel, who wears many hats in her family business, used the break to make a batch of hard cider for the farmhouse tavern, mixing honey and crisp honey juice in a tank. The view from where he worked was an orchard where three-quarters of the apples are scorched by the sun.

“Everything is small; lack of water means small fruit,” Dressel said. “We irrigate as much as we can, but it’s an additional source, not a primary one.”

The apple harvest at Dressel Farms begins in mid-August with varieties that ripen early, usually not the most popular. But any local orchard needs something on the shelves to sell and these varieties are good for making cider.

“People want apple cider the first day they come to the orchard,” Dressel said. By the third week of August, Ginger Golds is usually ready, as is Premiere Honeycrisps, an early growing – and slightly tarter – strain of the perennial favorite.

Dressel Farms has been a family business since 1957, when Fred Dressel (far right, above) purchased the farm. Here he stands with his son, Rod Sr., and his grandson, Rod Jr., who is holding Fred’s great-grandson, Tim.

Provided by Dressel Farms

Weather permitting, Dressel Farms harvests 100-200 bins of apples per day in season. A bin weighs 800 lbs. Dressel itself does not choose; he and the members of his family share the other agricultural work. His dad coordinates what gets picked where and when. Dressel serves as post-harvest manager, spending her days on a forklift organizing, recording, processing and storing things for winter.

To pull the apples from the trees, Dressel Farms employs 20 workers who pick six days a week; New York State requires a day off every seven days. “Our guys would prefer not to. They’re here to make money, so they want to pick every day,” Dressel said. About a dozen of their workers are year-round employees; some have been with them for 20 years and have families who also work for Dressel Farms.

Dressel also employs temporary farm workers from mid-August to mid-October. These workers come on H-2A visas, usually from Mexico. While the farming community has mixed feelings about this government program, including the overtime threshold, Dressel called it “only vital for farms in this country to have this labor available.” Otherwise, no one does.

The H-2A visa program was never halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, although COVID passed through half of Dressel Farms’ crew in early 2021. “It was a big setback. The apples were not harvested on time. They have become overripe. We couldn’t choose fast enough. Dressel said it affected their bottom line.

Apples from Dressel Farm are sold locally, but most sales are wholesale through Hudson River fruit distributors in Milton. They don’t always know where their apples end up, but some have gone to Stop and Shop and BJs, Dressel said. They also exported it to countries like Russia and Israel.

Exporting involves additional regulatory hurdles to clear, so Dressel is not unhappy that they no longer export. Farming is hard enough – this year alone there are labor, price and weather issues. Every year, Dressel wonders if they can keep going, but he says “a spinning wheel is hard to stop.”

Dressel said he’s seen the weather change noticeably from year to year – ‘not for the better’, adding: ‘All those ‘once in a hundred years’ things have happened multiple times. This extreme weather is really worrying.

The only good thing about an incredibly dry summer was that it disrupted the mating process of the pests, so spraying was reduced on the farm this year. Dressel Farms deploys integrated pest management, which is considered environmentally sensitive.

Inflation and high fuel prices mean Dressel is raising its on-site retail prices by around 10% this year. But the family has no control over wholesale prices. They don’t know how much they will be paid until they receive a check from their distributor. Sometimes they even lose money. Large farms fare better in the wholesale market. Dressel is considered mid-sized for New York State as well as the Hudson Valley.

” We struggle. We have the same amount of apples this year, but the volume is down 25% because the size is smaller,” Dressel said. “It’s going to be a lean winter.”

For now, the farm is focused on harvesting, including the pick-your-own season which begins September 17. (Dressel Farms 2022 strawberry pick-your-own season has been canceled due to crop loss.)

U-pick was starting on Labor Day weekend, but the family postponed it. “Who wants to put on flannel and pick apples when it’s 80 degrees? said Dressel. In mid-October, the farm is overrun with visitors. (Locals, take note: to avoid the crowds, pick in early September when the Honeycrisp and Gala are ripe and “the line for donuts is non-existent.”)

Dressel doesn’t have a favorite apple; he discovered in his twenties that he was allergic. He loved Empire, but now thinks he would be a fan of Snapdragons. Although he’s grateful for the recent rain, as he looks ahead to pick-your-own season, he hopes the fall won’t be too rainy. He remembers past seasons when crowds were stuck in the muddy parking lot.

“Just pray for rain at night and move on,” he said. “It’s the way farmers do it. There’s always next year.