By Mary Lou Nahas
For Capital Region Independent Media
Agriculture in Durham dates back to original settlers, and the land still supports cows, sheep, pigs and horses.
Often, we lament how few farms are left in Oak Hill and Vicinity; fortunately, we do still have large expanses under cultivation for corn, vegetables and hay. Farmers still sell local produce, dairy products and organic meats.
June is Dairy Month, haying season and time for farmers to start harvesting crops. I’m told that farmers actually started their busy crop work back in April, planting and tilling. In May, haying season starts.
I am reminded to be thoughtful when I encounter farm equipment on the road, which may slow me down as I follow. If the tractor moves to the middle of the road, the driver is probably preparing to make a left turn into a field. Never having driven a tractor down a highway, I might not understand what he is doing.
Today, I wanted to share the stories of several local farms that have been here for a long time.
Hull-O-Farm on Cochran Road started in 1786 and is still being run, seven generations later, by Frank and Sherry Hull.
A John Hull and his wife Sally left Durham, Connecticut, and traveled by horseback through the wilderness with nine families to settle on what is now known as Meeting House Hill in Durham, NY. Finding the winter extremely difficult on top of the Hill, the settlers relocated to the flat lands.
The original house, built in 1810, is still home to the Hull family. They have cows, pigs, goats, sheep, bunnies, kittens, chickens, deer and ducks, and provide feed for wildlife, including white-tailed deer and wild turkey.
They offer farm tours where visitors can learn about daily farm operations, meet and feed the farm animals, and participate in milking cows, feeding the animals, and gathering freshly laid eggs.
The farm also offers farm stay vacations by renting out one of the houses on the property. Their vacation package includes hayrides on the tractor, a bonfire and S’mores, and fishing.
Visitors can purchase eggs, milk, meat, jams and preserves, and pancake mix.
LAZY DAY FARM
Lazy Day Farm is located at 4204 Route 145 in Durham.
Lazy Day Farm is another Hull farm, established in 1775, which could be confused with the Hull-O-Farm on the other side of Meeting House Hill. The owners were cousins.
Around 1802, when the town was officially chartered, a member of the Hull family married a daughter of the Reed family, thus forming the Reed-Hull Farm, eventually becoming the Hull Farm. In about 1820, two family aunts came to live there and had an extension built to the original farmhouse and a new barn for a dairy enterprise. In exchange, they had their side of the house all to themselves.
The farm eventually became known as “Pa John’s” farm. Pa John Hull’s last of 14 children was Ralph Hull. Ralph grew up in the farmhouse with all his sisters and brothers. Ralph and his family sold the farmhouse to Kiley Thompson (the second owner) in 2011 under the condition he would bring the farm back to glory. Ralph died a few years later, and Kiley Thompson began fulfilling his dream of owning a working farm, calling it now Lazy Day Farm.
Nearly 90% renovated, the farmhouse is reaching its glory days again. In 2021, Lazy Day Farm became incorporated as a business.
Today, the little white farm store, formerly a garage, offers colorful Americana eggs and guinea hen eggs, unusual vegetables, syrup, jams, jellies, barbecue sauce and Dilly Beans. Upon request, they bake breads. Lazy Day Farm also offers flowers and produce that can’t be found anywhere else and at reasonable prices.
EAST DURHAM FARMS
Not far away on Brown Road is East Durham Farms, which has a traditional farm store in the red barn where they sell their own pasture-raised chicken, pork, eggs, organic seasonal produce, locally prepared jams and jellies, honey and maple syrup, and local cheeses. Chris Brannigan is the farmer-owner.
“I can recall growing up in Newburgh, New York, and my parents having a small garden” Brannigan said.
Late 2008 brought his move to East Durham, where he immediately set to work restoring the historic barn. He also began tending to the fields. First came Christmas trees, flowers and a large vegetable garden. More recently, the farm has expanded to include about an acre of apple trees, a field of blueberries and even more vegetables.
“Today, we also have egg-laying chickens, we process our own broiler chickens, and we are raising Tamworth pigs for both processing and breeding,” he said. “The latest addition is an apiary, where the honey bees are busy!”
“It is believed that the original barn at East Durham Farms was built in the late 1700s by soldiers returning from the Revolutionary War,” Brannigan said.
According to Wesley Brown, whose family previously owned the farm, the first deed in the Brown family was in 1854 to Ezra Brown and Elizabeth Allen Brown, whose house was on Sutton Road in Cornwallville and still stands.
In the latter part of the 1800’s, Wesley Brown and Abigail Van Tassel Brown (from East Durham) owned and operated the dairy farm on 54 acres. They had one son, Frank, who married Mary Evory from Cairo in 1910. They had one son, Clement Ezra, who was born in the house in 1912.
The three generations lived together and operated the farm until Wesley, Abigail and Frank died between 1920 and 1921, leaving a widow with a 9-year-old. That was a tough time for her. Eventually she married again and the farm continued to operate until around 1960.
“My father loved that farm more than any place on earth,” the current Wesley said. “He eventually became a United Methodist minister returning to the farm as often as possible. He and my mother retired to the farm in 1974. He died in the house where he had been born in 1981. My brother, Garrett, and I sold the farm in 1985 after our mother died. That was a hard decision after so many years of family ownership, but we were both living in other places, and it just would not have been practical to keep it. It has ended up in the most wonderful hands of Chris Brannigan, whose stewardship is so remarkable. It is again a working farm, which would certainly please my father, who is buried, along with the rest of his family, in the cemetery next door.”
In 1825, Henry Hedges bought property that became the Hedges Homestead, the home of the Jennings-Partridge family on Stone Bridge Extension in East Durham.
Stephen Hedges, who then owned the property, had four children: George (who helped run the farm and was a local photographer), Henry (a teacher in Albany) and two daughters, Margaret (Maggie) and Emma.
Maggie married Carcelo Jennings, a doctor in Freehold who died of consumption within a year of their marriage. She and her son Clarence then moved back to the Homestead, which Clarence inherited in the 1920s. Clarence brought the first registered dairy cows to the farm. He ended up showing them all over New York and Ohio in national shows. They would walk the show cows to the train station in Cairo to get to the shows. The family still has ribbons and trophies that are 100 years old.
The third generation of the family included Frances Hedges and Alfred Partridge. Alfred was 50 and a bachelor when they married. He was also a dairyman who brought the Ayrshire cattle to the homestead.
Frances and Alfred had three sons: Lowell, Dwight and Eric, all involved today. Eric and his wife Janet have three children: Courtney, Kacie and Cole. In January 2021, Courtney wrote: “We made a collective agreement as a family that this year would be the ‘Year of Resurrection’ for the farm. Meaning we’d commit to give this place the facelift that it needs. We have a lot of dreams for this farm, but the one that is at the heart of it all is to make sure it’s still standing strong for another century at least. We’ve definitely made some progress. The best part, though, is the time spent working alongside family and friends. There’s still A LOT of work to be done, but it helps to reflect on all the little things we have accomplished so far. Here’s to a couple more doors, some windows, some siding, and a new water line before the real cold weather gets here.”
The Homestead today produces maple syrup. As Courtney said, “The equipment and setup may have changed, but it’s still a family affair. Alfred Partridge (my grandpa) started tapping trees in the 1970s here at the farm and made sure his three young sons were involved. It’s been very special, as the third generation involved in maple syrup production, to be learning from my uncle and dad, who learned from their dad on the very same trees. We have fresh syrup, cream and candy available.”
They also sell meat from their cows.
Cole, who is still in high school, is raising and milking several cows. While the family sold their dairy herd in 2015 when milk prices were so low, they are now building it back.
“Cole’s first Ayrshire, Ezzy, who is a descendent of Grandpa Partridge’s herd, gave birth to a heifer calf. It may seem silly to some, but this moment held so much happiness and pride, because this is the first bred and owned heifer for Cole, and the first bred and owned heifer on the farm in seven years. I know all the industry people will understand.”
THE FARM AT THE END OF THE LANE
Also doing dairy farming is Jay Sharkey, who operates The Farm at the End of the Laneat 602 Sutton Road in Cornwallville. He offers pasteurized, non-homogenized 100% grassfed whole cream line milk from his cows.
A member of the Sutton family who lived downstate for a number of years, he is passionate about farming. Recently, he spoke about his struggle to have his milk processed.
The creamery he had been using notified him and more than 100 small dairy farmers in the Northeast that they would no longer pick up his milk. That left Sharkey with nowhere to process the 116 gallons of milk his farm yields per day. After a lengthy search Sharkey found a place that would process his milk but not pick it up; he would have to drive several hours to deliver it himself. Today that is what he does and sells — 100% grassfed whole milk at self-serve refrigerators at the end of his lane on Sutton Road.
The refrigerators also stock eggs, homemade candy, products from West Meadow Farm and Dairy, cow cheese, cheese curds, goat cheese, goat milk, drinkable goat yogurt and fresh bread from See and Bee.
Everyone’s life goes well when farmers are doing well.