At Johnstown family orchard, a hard career choice
Mitch Rogers pinning hopes on alcoholic cider
JOHNSTOWN Hard cider has been on Mitch Rogers’ mind for years.
He grew up on the Rogers Family Orchard on Route 131 outside of Johnstown, learning how to produce apples from his father, Todd Rogers, and how to ferment those apples from a family friend named Luigi.
“Luigi was this tiny little Italian guy, always making wine out of everything,” Mitch said.
Luigi has since passed away, leaving Mitch his glass jugs and the recipe book he compiled over a lifetime. Todd still runs the 50-acre orchard, selling apples and pressing fresh cider basically the same way his own father started doing it in 1970, but Mitch is about to change things with Luigi’s old book.
By the time he finishes his agricultural business degree at SUNY Cobleskill, Mitch said, he’ll have a hard cider-producing operation set up on the family orchard. The space, an addition of rough-sawn lumber and sheet metal taking shape off the current press room, will be done by winter. Then he’ll split his time between study and scores of one-gallon test batches.
“You’ve got to have the best product,” he said. “You have to assume everything on the market is great.”
For Mitch, hard cider is his ticket to a career in agriculture. He wants to stay on the orchard, but according to his father, there’s not enough money in the current business to support two owners.
“It’s seasonal,” Todd Rogers said.
Making room for a partner could be as simple as fermenting a portion of the annual 5,000-gallon cider yield.
It’s not a new idea. In fact, Julie Suarez, director of public policy at the New York Farm Bureau, said there’s a whole generation of young farmers doing a similar thing.
The artisan brewing and distilling movements of the past decade or so, she said, are keeping young people on the farm.
“There’s a certain cachet to producing alcohol,” she said. “Plus, it gives the next generation sort of their own separate part of the business.”
To facilitate the artisan movement, legislative leaders this spring announced agreement on the Farm Cideries bill, which allows farmers to get hard-cider production licenses similar to those already available to farm wineries, breweries and distilleries.
Once established, Suarez said, the new legislation will make it easier for farmers to produce hard cider when using all-local apples, and allow for production of a higher gravity cider than previously permitted — cider with a higher alcohol content.
“Artisan hard cider is going to be the next big thing,” she said. “First there came the beer and craft liquor. I think cider is next. There aren’t many producers in the area, but I expect to see a lot more in coming years.”
Todd Rogers is happy to see his son carving out a niche for himself and for the family business. He worked Thursday morning at the fresh cider press, breathing the sugary air and shouting over hydraulic machinery as apple pulp released its juice under 2,400 pounds of pressure.
“People like hard cider,” Todd said. “We’re getting new blood in the farm.”
The 68-by-12-foot addition will be finished shortly. By next year, he said, there’s going to be a bakery cranking out cider doughnuts from one half of the addition. By the year after, that smell of fresh cider will be replaced by the smell of stronger stuff.
“We might eventually plant some grape vines and make this a full winery,” he said. “Who knows?”