A farm where cattle are raised and goods are sold the old-fashioned way.
By Brian P.J. Cronin
Photos: Tom Moore
There’s little left of Little Rest, New York, save for some markings on USGS topographical maps and a few buildings scattered around where NY-343 meets Chestnut Ridge Road. But the vanished village, a few miles east of Millbrook, was once an important stopover in the horse-and-buggy days. Here was the last chance for travelers and steeds to take a break— or have a little rest—before riding up and over the thousand-foot mountains southward, on the way to Dover. Little Rest’s church still stands nearby, and the old inn is now the home of the Giles family: parents Doug and Cheryl and their two sons, Gunner and Tucker. One more relic from the village’s bygone past can be found on the side of a barn at Walbridge Farm, the former dairy farm and current Black Angus cattle farm that the Gileses run: a sign that refers to the cows here as “the herd of Little Rest.”
There’s little resting going on now, however. It’s an early spring morning, the tail end of calving season, and the Walbridge Farm Market is about to open for the day. A giant coffee urn is almost done brewing a batch of Irving Farm coffee, roasted twenty miles due north, but it’s not brewing fast enough for Cheryl Giles’s liking.
“I want to make sure I get every last drip out,” she says, tapping the side of the urn.
Not counting their sons in the summer, the Gileses only have one other full-time employee and one part-time employee to take care of a thriving market, 250 head of cattle, a hundred chickens, a thousand acres and a couple of dogs for good mea- sure. Energy optimization is key.
Farming runs deep in the Gileses’ blood: Doug’s family has been farming for seven generations. Self-reliance and independence also run deep, as none of those seven generations ever stuck around to take over the farms they grew up on. Everyone went out on his or her own. The Gileses first came to this property as managers, to run it for a gentleman named George Perkins who had since retired and moved out west. Two years into their tenure, Mr. Perkins passed away. The Gileses now lease the land and raise their own livestock on it.
The livestock in question are registered Black Angus cows. The Gileses are big fans of the breed for a few different reasons: They are hearty, they thrive in the hot summers and cold winters of the Hudson Valley, and the mother cows take great care of their calves. Happy, healthy cows make for better-tasting meat, and while the Gileses believe you can still get high- quality meat from other breeds if you raise them well, it’s a lot easier to raise happy cows if they’re all getting along well with each other and not getting sick all the time. For all of these reasons, and as a result of years of successful marketing, the public knows that Black Angus beef tends to be a cut above the rest. That results in some other issues.
“Some people will take a black cow to a farmers’ market and just say that it’s Black Angus,” she said. “It’s very frustrating. People need to do their homework. We’ve got nothing to hide, so if people pull in here and want to check us out, we’ll pull up the numbers for them and the breeding history so that Athey can see who each cow’s mother was.”
Aside from an occasional bull or female added to introduce a new bloodline into the herd, the Gileses’ cows were all born and raised here on the farm, only leaving for the occasional agricultural fair or for their final trip across the border into Massachusetts where they are slaughtered at a facility defined by the world-renowned animal behavioral scientist Dr. Temple Grandin. There, the animals are killed in a way that results in no stress or fear, emotions that affect blood flow and the quality of the meat. A single steel bolt is driven into the cow’s brain at the specific spot equidistant between the cow’s horns and eyes, instantly rendering it unconscious and killing it. The cows literally never know what hit them. “People ask me why we travel so far and go to all this trouble to do it this way,” said Cheryl. “It’s because these cows are our lives. Without them, we have nothing.”
The Gileses also grow crops, but only what it takes to feed the herd. So while the cattle are grass fed and pasture raised, they’re finished with non-GMO corn, hay and sunflower meal that the Gileses have grown themselves. It’s not entirely true to say that the crops at Walbridge aren’t grown for people, however. When the sunflowers are cold-pressed after combining to produce meal for the cattle, the oil becomes Hudson Valley Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil, processed and sold by the Haight family in Dutchess County. You can buy a bottle right at the farm. And it’s not the only thing you can buy here.
In the early days of the farm, the Gileses were selling their meat to one distributor in Westchester or privately in large quantities (as in, anywhere from a quarter to a whole cow). But the couple kept thinking back to the days of Little Rest, when every community had a local cattle farmer they got their meat from, a dairy nearby that they got their milk directly from, a produce farm that they went to when they needed vegetables, and then their own garden with a pig in the yard for the rest. “People didn’t need to go to grocery stores back then, because they had everything they needed nearby,” said Cheryl. “I would give anything for that to come back again, but it’s never going to happen.”
Maybe not everywhere, but it’s certainly happening at Walbridge. The Walbridge Farm Market, open five days a week, not only sells things from Walbridge Farm—including maple syrup tapped from trees on the property, honey from the farm’s hives and eggs from the farm’s chickens—but also local dairy, butter, pasta, bread, grains, coffee, lamb, pork, produce and almost anything else from the area. With very few and obvious exceptions, such as the olive oil, everything on the shelves is local and produced in a way that fits with the Gileses’ own standards.
“We’re going to all these places to get everything so that you don’t have to,” she said. “We live in an awesome area with so many cool things being made. And I want people to know that anything they buy here is not going to hurt them.” There may not be a wide variety of different brands to choose from, and the store’s strict adherence to only selling local crops means that in the winter the only fresh produce to be had are storage crops like potatoes and onions, but a flexible cook could easily do almost all of his or her grocery shopping at the market and live very well indeed. If you can’t make it to the farm, the Gileses will also be at the Millbrook Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning this summer.
As for the Gileses themselves, they’re happy to throw the fruits of the labor on the grill for dinner more often than not.“We eat beef five to six nights a week,” said Cheryl. “And I know what you’re thinking, but no, we don’t have any cholesterol issues.”
That may seem surprising to you, but not to Cheryl. Her own interest in sustainable agricultural practices stems from her background in veterinary science. When her mentor David B. Hammond at Village Animal Hospital in Millbrook got cancer years ago, she became a caregiver to him. During her own research as to what causes cancer, she was shocked at how misleading many of the most-quoted studies were and the low standards that the American government has when it comes to what is allowed into the food supply.
“You’ll see a study in the news that says that beef causes cancer,” she said. “But there’s no mention of what kind of beef, where it came from, how it was raised, if it came from a farm or we’re talking about something from McDonald’s.”
That wariness led to a desire to make sure that at Walbridge, things are done the way they used to be. The forgotten hamlet of Little Rest may be part of the inspiration, but Cheryl also likes to point skeptics to the much-scrutinized Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Icaria, where locals routinely live to ages 90 and above. It may be on the other side of the world, but the Gileses are doing their part to bring that lifestyle back here to the Hudson Valley.
“They all have backyard gardens, they all drink wine, they all take naps, they eat goat meat and drink yak and goat milk,” she said. “They work together as a community. The life expectancy is like 98. You see that, and then you look around at this country and you have to ask yourself: What are we doing wrong?”
For more information about Walbridge Farm Market, visit www.walbridgefarm.com. █