By Brian P.J. Cronin
What’s going on at Pennings Farm Market? What isn’t?
Steve Pennings never thought he’d be a cafe owner. Or a pub owner. Or a doughnut maker or cider maker or someone who books bands to come play long into the cold winter Warwick nights. “Some days [my wife and I] just step back and ask ourselves, ‘What the hell have we created?’” he says with a laugh. “[W]e’re very proud of what we’ve done here. Although I’m very devoted to just being a farmer.”
Photos: Courtesy of Greg Rhein
Steve’s still a farmer, like his father before him, who traveled from Holland in the 1930s to start a dairy farm in Warwick. Steve and his nine siblings grew up on the dairy farm before Steve’s brother Jack bought another local farm in the early 1980s to begin an apple orchard. The 100-acre orchard and farm are still being run by the family, but around the turn of the millennium, Steve and his wife Jill started to concentrate on the farm’s market on Route 94. The boom in weekly farmers’ markets in the Hudson Valley and supermarkets’ increased willingness to look local for produce were a boon for the Valley’s farmers but made it tough for a business like Pennings Farm Market to stand out. Suddenly, what they were offering wasn’t unique anymore. “We were very challenged for a number of years,” says Steve. “Which is why we started thinking out of the box.”
Just like the family had gotten in on the ground floor of the burgeoning “pick your own” movement years before, Steve started thinking about value-added products and “agritainment.” “You find things to sell in your store that will add value to people’s experience and put another sale into the cash register.” So they started making applesauce from their own apples, tomato sauce from their own tomatoes. Freezing ears of their corn in the summer for November displays so that folks could buy local frozen ears of corn for Thanksgiving. An old apple grader became a pub at the back of the farm stand, and a cafe was added in addition to a garden center and an ice-cream stand. The cafe features burgers made from beef raised right in Warwick, with turkey and chicken burgers coming from a farm right across the New Jersey border. Steve estimates that the stand now sells, in addition to things made themselves, products from about 40 other local producers, all of whom are within a 100-mile radius. “When it comes to farm to table, we try to walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” he says.
Photos: Courtesy of Greg Rhein
People now tend to stick around at Pennings instead of just grabbing something and going. In some ways that’s been a problem—the stand’s apple-cider doughnuts, for instance, which had proven to be too popular in the fall and resulted in hour-long wait times, buying limits and a security guard. So the Pennings have recently upgraded their previously humble doughnut-making equipment to a device capable of making 1,106 doughnuts an hour, which should speed things along. But it’s also part of the plan; hence the beer garden with a stage for bands, or the fact that every display stand inside is on wheels and can be pushed aside at night for trivia nights on Thursdays or to make space for weekend brunches and bands to perform inside throughout the winter. “We become a house-bound town in the winter once the snow starts to fly,” Steve says. Having community events throughout the winter gives the locals something to do to stave off cabin fever and gives the family a chance to reconnect with their neighbors after the busyness of apple season.
Now the family is getting in on another boom: cider. The Pennings started experimenting with making hard cider from their leftover apples at the end of apple season, which led to the opening of Pennings Cidery four years ago, right up the hill from the farm market. It’s also a way to keep the family tradition alive, as Steve and Jill’s two adult children are in charge of steering it. The cidery does feature flavored ciders with a personal touch—the pumpkin cider is made with the farm’s own pumpkins, and a Speculaas cider, made every December, honors the family’s heritage by tasting like the eponymous Dutch holiday cookie. But they’re also looking to steer the cider boom in a new direction: the cidery has begun making single-varietal ciders, focusing on such apples as Baldwins and Rhode Island Greenings.
“It’s funny,” says Steve, “because these are the kinds that everyone used to grow, and then everyone started pulling them out in the sixties because it was all about dessert apples. By the late seventies, you couldn’t sell Baldwins. But with the resurgence of the cider industry, everyone likes all these unique ciders, and now we’re replanting.”
Sometimes, it seems, the best way to stay ahead of the curve is to circle back to where it all began.
For more information on products and events at Pennings Farm Market and Cidery, visit www.penningsfarmmarket.com. █