Welcome to Heidelberry Farms
How two city kids, an urban business, and a German TV show (unwittingly) started a rural American farm
Got your attention, did we? Admittedly, we are using poetic license with this headline. The two city kids are actually adults: one from Syracuse, New York, and the other, from Berlin, Germany; i.e., the founders of the urban business, Hunter & Hilsberg. The TV production was for a popular show in Germany called Galileo, from Europe's television network, ProSieben. The TV production contributed by happenstance, not by intent, and the two city kids had been looking to buy farmland for several years. Here is what really happened:
A producer for the German television show contacted Hunter & Hilsberg in 2005 looking for someone that could guide them as they filmed a story about maple syrup production. We brought the production team to a maple syrup station location high in the hills south of Syracuse, following a recommendation of a central New York TV news meteorologist, Dave Eichorn, of WSYR News Channel 9. While there, we ourselves were introduced to a part of the Finger Lakes region we were relatively unfamiliar with. We noticed how abundant wild strawberry, blackberry and elderberry plants were growing in this environment. We made a few calls about real estate in the area. Within a couple of weeks, after a many-year-long search, we found the right land, the right location, and the right place to start a fruit farm! Happenstance.
The Real Deal:
A message from the founders of Hunter & Hilsberg
Although we are both city kids by birth and upbringing, we have come to appreciate the beauty and importance of the farm in every culture. Over the years, our culinary experiences while living, working and exploring other regions around the world have enlightened our understanding of how microclimates contribute to the unique flavors found in fruits grown in each region.
In upstate New York, for instance, part of growing up in the region for most families included enjoying fruits of local farms every spring, summer and fall. As each generation grew older and moved away to places careers may have directed, these transplanted upstate New Yorkers noticed how the same fruits grown in other parts of the county didn't seem to have the same flavor nuances as what they remembered growing up. Was it related to aging tastes? Erred memories? Global warming? What? Upon returning to the upstate New York area and taking nostalgic visits to some of the remaining fruit farms, they rediscovered those wonderful and unique aromas, textures and flavors they remembered as children. The microclimates unique to regions of upstate New York contribute to the special flavors and textures many enjoy in the locally grown fruits, due to the soils, unique climate and other variables, such as seasonal conditions.
Each wine producing region likes to proclaim, our wine is superior because our grapes have the best conditions for bringing out the right flavors and texture; the growing conditions this year produced an excellent vintage. The same can be said for other fruits. Just as with grapes, microclimates contribute to how, for instance, a blackberry from one region may contain different flavors and sugar levels than a blackberry from another region, and can vary from year to year. As fascinating as this may be, it wasn't this recognition that brought us to the next step of building up a local farmstead, but our realization that we had increasing difficulty finding local sources for these beloved fruits.
We encourage you to read further to learn more about our burgeoning farmstead. Thank for your interest and support with all of our endeavors!
FAQs about our farm
- Do we use pesticides? No.
- Do we use herbicides? No.
- Are we organic? Yes, but we have not selected an organic certification organization.
- Do we reuse, recycle, or mulch viable byproducts? Yes.
- Do we seek native and wild species whenever possible? Yes.
- Do we work to keep our farming practices eco-friendly? Yes
- Does this mean we have to try to be as minimally disruptive as possible to the natural cycles of native flora and fauna? Yes.
- Does Hunter & Hilsberg - the gourmet food company - own the farm? No, it's our own private venture, separate from the company we founded in 1995, Hunter & Hilsberg Corporation. The company does buy berries from the farm and the company is our farm's largest customer.
- Do we enjoy what we do? Absolutely. We enjoy establishing a farmstead just as much as we enjoy managing our gourmet food business, Hunter & Hilsberg.
We like fruit. We enjoy harvesting berries. And, we love making preserves, jellies, jams and spreads! Our urban location made the prospects of farming or warehousing berries in a great quantity all but impossible. Local farms that harvested berries in our area were few and far between. If we wanted to make preserves, we had to find a random roadside stand or a pick-your-own farm and hope they had fruits that we were in need of. Upon returning each year to the locations, the stands disappeared, or the fruits we were seeking were no longer being harvested. Several factors over many years have contributed to the demise of the traditional family farm, and it is a story that is told all across the country, not just here in central New York
Biting The Hand That Feeds:
A lesson in agricultural economics
Over the course of many years, the demand for locally grown produce decreased as buyers, both consumers and retailers, went the way of the least expensive source, which didn't always mean local, flavorful, or high quality produce. Changes in the retail market and consumer behavior gave favor to the growth of large chain grocery stores over local mom-and-pop shops. The demand for distribution efficiencies created conditions that gave way to only a handful of food distributors servicing the marketplace, which further reduced the number of companies a farm could sell to. Changes in government policies over the decades, usually intended to make better conditions for affordable food sources, as well as to protect farms from price/payment abuse from food processing facilities, inadvertently made it increasingly difficult for small farms to obtain market-appropriate payment for their products. Many of these factors created conditions that enabled large farms to get larger, and disabled small farms from being competitive. Fewer people became interested in farming as profitability became null for most small and medium-sized farms: farmers couldn't make a living farming and they couldn't find other farmers willing to buy their farm. Selling their farms for residential real estate was unfortunately the only way many farmers can retire or exit farming. As the housing market boomed in upstate New York in the 1990s, and the residential exodus from metropolitan areas continued, housing developments continued to creep further into farming communities. These rural farming areas evolved into suburbs, depleted of prospering farms and agricultural resources.
For many fruit aficionados and purveyors like us, wholesale distributors were quickly becoming the only place we could find a consistent supply of berries. Increasingly, wholesale berries were coming from regions thousands of miles away or from foreign lands. The chances of finding a consistent supply of fruits, particularly heirloom and wild fruits, dwindled further. The berries coming from far-away places were unnaturally large in size and had minimal, bland flavor. It became a game of cat and mouse trying to identify and catch a good source, which made managing fruit consistency and flavor quality difficult, frustrating, and in the end, costly. Small businesses like ours thrive on providing consistent quality in products. We needed to find a solution.
So - What was the next step?
Build-a-farm. Find land in this area for sale where we know fruits, and berries in particular, would grow well. Find a location near the city where we resided, but far enough into rural areas that the land would be affordable. Find a location where we would enjoy living, working, and growing a farmstead. It was a tall order that was fulfilled after a long search, as we embellished in our earlier introduction, entitled Two City Kids
Many of the fruits supplied to our company are increasingly being sourced from the farm that we (the founders of Hunter & Hilsberg) established in 2005. The farm is located in the scenic hills near the southern end of Skaneateles Lake in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York (more specifically, we are located in the northwestern corner of Cortland County - the center of New York State). There are wild blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, and wild apple trees, just to name a few things growing gleefully on our small, 30-acre farm. Other old-fashioned, but hard to find favorites, such as elderberries, cranberries, gooseberries, prune plums and more are carefully being situated on the farm.
The company itself, Hunter & Hilsberg, comparatively speaking, is an "old" business, having begun in 1995 in nearby Syracuse, New York, with an affiliate started in 1997 in Berlin, Germany, to manage European distribution. Products that our company purchases from the farm go into making many of our preserves, jellies, jams and spreads that we sell in the USA and in Europe. Because the farm is young, and in the early stages of growth, many of our fruit products are still being purchased from other local sources where and when we are able to find them.
To purchase the fresh fruit produced on the farm, contact our mail-order company, Hunter & Hilsberg, who will forward your questions or orders to the farm, and reserve fresh pickings at the farm for you. You can also inquire to learn when the wild blackberries (also known as thimbleberries or brambles) will be in season for pick-your-own at the farm.
Yes, we are organically organic, as we like to say - we aren't part of a certified organic organization, we just farm the old-fashioned way: plant the fruit, prune by hand when necessary, and let nature take its course. This means, we grow fruits on our farm without any synthetic chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. We just don't have the time, the interest or the incentive to use pesticides and herbicides; the farm seems to be thriving without the use of these chemicals.
Prior to buying the land and establishing it as a farm, the land had been dormant for over 15 years, and had been subdivided and slated for residential development. Lucky for us, and the various wild flora and fauna for which the abandoned farmland became a refuge, the residential development did not happen. We were tickled pink when we first looked at the land and discovered patch-upon-patch of wild blackberries, raspberries and strawberries growing on their own - which contributed greatly to us deciding this would make a great place to grow the fruits we needed! The soil and conditions were just perfect. It was clear the birds had done a great job planting the seeds of wild berries while themselves serving as a great pesticide - consuming many-an-insect. No doubt the woodchucks and the deer had done a good job over the years serving as natural herbicides, munching on the various wild grasses, weeds, and self-seeded young trees. And as we later learned, the neighboring property owners did bushhog (trim) the wild growth every three or so years, which also helped keep conditions ripe for berry plants.
Perhaps when the time is right and we have a few extra hands to help out with the farming operation, we may become certified organic. Obtaining certification is a huge obligation. Currently, farms must choose from a list of certifying organizations to join, provide funds for the process, and for the completion of paperwork on an ongoing basis, in order to verify, receive and maintain certification that a farm is in fact practicing organic farming methods. Therefore, for many farms like ours, going this route often takes place when the farm has the time and the financial incentive to carry the resource burden involved with maintaining organic certification. We are not complaining - the process works for many - but let's face it, what farm or business is pleased to have more expenses and paperwork added to their list of obligations? For now, our customers seem content with the farm's good-will organic practices, and that is the most important barometer for us.
Best farming practices - sustainability, eco-friendly
Because we farm without using synthetic pesticides, herbicides and the like, and we selectively and sparingly interrupt wild vegetation, we are able to encourage an eco-friendly, sustainable balance by letting nature take its course. Many of the fruits growing on the farm seeded themselves (they are wild). Other than pruning and planting (or re-locating) wild fruit plants so they will grow in more manageable patterns, we have been working to maintain a safe habitat for endangered and threatened species of wildlife that have been enjoying the abandoned farmland well before we came upon it. It's an interesting balance, protecting the wildlife habitat while sustaining a farm, but we are certainly doing all that we can to keep both on a healthy, sustainable, long-term course.
If you have experience with gardening or farming, and are skeptical about the harvest yield from eco-friendly farming practices, you are not alone. When we mention to other fruit growers, particularly berry farms, that we are trying to preserve habitat for birds and other threatened species on our farm, and we do not use pesticides or herbicides, some -not all- express disbelief, the birds will eat all of your berries and grapes
the weeds will compete with your plants for nutrients. Yes, this could happen if the natural balance wasn't maintained. So, we work towards maintaining that balance.
Eco-friendly practices at work
Smaller insects that enjoy the bounty of berry bushes, which could wreak havoc if left alone, are kept in check by larger insects that survive by gobbling up these would-be pests. Of course, these larger insects are a prized catch by birds. The birds would rather eat many more pounds of the insects than our berries! The larger predator birds, such as hawks, keep the small bird and rodent population to a minimum. Oh yes - let's not forget the reptiles and amphibious creatures that enjoy our habitat, and the role they play in keeping a healthy balance. The birds, amphibians, and small mammals make a wonderful, natural pesticide. Full circle!
One of the reasons we do not use herbicides is because we encourage wildflower and other growth - often referred to as weeds - to bloom. These weeds are an important part of our ecosystem - their flowers attract and sustain butterflies, bees and birds. The bees readily pollinate our fruits. The voracious appetite of birds keeps the insects from becoming pests. When other farms have to import bees to pollinate their crops, we have plenty of wild bees buzzing around the blossoms at the farmstead, as there is always something in bloom for the bees. By using berries that are native and wild, we find little disease sets in, because the healthy plants regenerate, and the weaker ones give way to those that can survive the challenges of that season.
About once a year, or once every other year, depending on the location and growing conditions, we may trim down wild grasses and wild flowers growing in or around the fruit plants in varying locations and patterns. This accomplishes several things. First, it provides the wild growth a chance to return in healthy numbers the following year, while preventing secondary plants from overgrowing the fruit plants. Trimming the tall growth late in the fall enables many of the berry plants, such as wild strawberries, to prosper in the spring. Preferably, mowing and trimming is done in the fall after all the blooms have come and gone, and the various bird populations that are dependent on the wild growth (such as bobolinks) have had a chance to nurture their offspring. There is yet another benefit from reducing the use of fossil-fueled equipment on the farm (by not mowing many times a year): we reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere, thereby reducing contributions to global warming.
We have seen how keeping a natural, balanced habitat of native species of flora and fauna contribute to keeping soils naturally fertile and plants abundant and well pollinated. Maintaining this healthy balance and using native species also works to prevent or minimize the chances of damaging diseases, infestation, or erosion from taking hold. And, let's face it - all of the wild grasses and weeds provide carbon credits that help to offset global warming.
Invest in the farm
and enjoy the fruits of our labor - literally! Whenever you purchase fruit products from Hunter & Hilsberg, you are directly supporting not only our gourmet food business, but also our burgeoning farmstead and the many small, local companies that supply product and services to both of these ventures. If you live in upstate New York or will be visiting the greater Syracuse or Finger Lakes area, please call or email Hunter & Hilsberg to learn what fruits are in season at the farm, so that you can make an appointment to stop by and pick your own. The farm welcomes all home-kitchen gourmets and agritourism enthusiasts alike!
For Online and Mail-Order Sales for Hunter & Hilsberg items made using local farm products, please visit:
In Europe and Asia:
Delivery/Sales In Germany:
To learn more about our Energy Independence project, the educational part of this websites that shares how we became an off-grid farmstead, please click here or select from any of the titles in the scroll bar in the upper left of this page.
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