SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 – At one time the property was a dairy farm, nestled on 70 sprawling and verdant acres in southern Schoharie County.
Now it’s a thriving cidery that pays homage to the land’s storied agricultural history, while also showcasing how one farm has remade itself into a family-friendly gathering place where people come together for drinks, food, music and stunning views.
For co-owner Elisabeth Van Houten, who was raised on the Gilboa property and whose family has been farming there for more than 200 years, the land was the perfect spot for Rockland Cider Works, though it took some time to realize it.
“We decided to put the property on the market,” Van Houten recalled. “It sat there for six months. Every time we went upstate to visit, [my husband] was like, ‘We should start an orchard here. We should buy it.’ ”
Rockland Cider Works opened last Fourth of July and has been a big success, drawing people from near and far. It’s the upstate sister cidery of the original Rockland Cider Works in Orangeburg, the downstate community where Darin Van Houten, Elisabeth’s husband, is from.
“Schoharie County is a hidden gem and Gilboa is a hidden gem, and our cidery is a hidden gem,” Van Houten said. “It’s a gem inside of a gem inside of a gem.”
And the summer vacation season is a terrific time to discover the Schoharie Valley’s many gems.
The picturesque rural county is home to a growing number of farms that are open to the public and provide a glimpse of the diversity of agriculture in upstate New York.
It’s home to new breweries, cideries, wineries and distilleries, breathtaking scenery, trails and parks, cute villages with cute shops, first-class eateries and a slew of seasonal roadside farmers’ markets.
“You can drive about five miles in any direction and you’ll see farmers’ markets where produce is being grown,” said Tonda Dunbar, who owns Middleburgh Winery.
There are also bigger and better-known tourist draws, such as Howe Caverns, the more whimsical Secret Caverns and the Iroquois Museum, as well as more obscure destinations such as the Gilboa Museum, which contains some of the oldest tree fossils in the world. The Creekside Flea Market, held every Sunday from April to October on state Route 145 in Middleburgh, has emerged as a regional attraction.
“Schoharie County gives you an opportunity to catch your breath,” said Cassandra Harrington, executive director of Destination Marketing Corporation, which maintains the tourism website VisitSchoharieCounty.com.
One off-the-beaten-path place offering guests a respite from the hustle and bustle is Empty Pockets Ranch in Cobleskill.
Like Rockland Cider Works, Empty Pockets is an old dairy farm reinvigorated by an entrepreneurial family with a new vision.
Empty Pockets started small, with 15 chickens and some blueberry bushes, but it has grown significantly, and visitors will now find fresh produce and flowers, soap and bath products made from the farm’s flock of dairy sheep, a petting zoo and, starting Memorial Day weekend, pony rides.
Especially popular are the farm’s special events, which include a summer solstice party on June 18; an “Ag Day” on July 2 with games and prizes; and a sunflower festival on Sept. 3.
Lori Davis, owner of Empty Pockets, said the loss of income caused by COVID-19 forced her to get creative.
“We decided since everything was closed and people were itching for stuff to do, to open the farm to the public,” said Davis, a Long Island native and SUNY Cobleskill graduate. “You have to reinvent and see what will work. … I think many farms are finding that the way to get people here is to open up their farms.”
She added, “It’s not just tourists who come. We have a lot of local, regular customers who live right down the road.”
For the farm’s first big event, in 2020, Davis and her family planted 10,000 sunflowers, set up picnic tables outside and invited people to come pick their own sunflowers. The result? Thousands of visitors. This year’s festival will be even bigger, with 50,000 sunflowers.
Those interested in upstate agriculture might want to check out this year’s Family Farm Day on Aug. 27. Now in its 10th year, the event gives people the opportunity to visit between 40 and 60 farms in Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie counties.
“A lot of people don’t know a lot about agriculture, and they want to go to the farms and see what’s happening,” said Jessica Holmes, an agriculture and horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schoharie and Otsego Counties, which sponsors Family Farm Day.
Another highlight is the Schoharie County Beverage Trail, a self-guided tour of seven of the county’s craft beverage facilities.
“You could spend a whole weekend traveling to beverage producers,” said Darin Van Houten, co-owner of Rockland Cider Works, a member of the Beverage Trail. “There’s live music and food trucks.”
“Each producer has its own kind of flavor,” said Dunbar, whose Middleburgh Winery is also a stop on the Beverage Trail.
Schoharie County has two other trails that highlight the county’s rural character: the Quilt Barn Trail, a self-guided tour of colorful quilt blocks displayed on homes, businesses and barns; and the Schoharie County Eagle Trail, a bird-watching route that celebrates the county’s flourishing Bald Eagle population.
One of the trail’s viewing sites is Mine Kill State Park, which overlooks the two large reservoirs at the New York Power Authority’s Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project.
At Mine Kill, visitors will find fishing, boating and kayaking, disc golf, an Olympic-size swimming pool, wading pool, diving pool and hiking. The 350-mile Long Path, which runs from New York City to Thacher Park in Albany County, cuts through Mine Kill. A short but steep hike leads to the spectacular Mine Kill Falls, which cascade 80 feet through a narrow gorge.
The most popular and well-known family hike in Schoharie County might be Vroman’s Nose near Middleburgh, a 1.5-mile loop trail that leads to a flat summit with spectacular views of the Schoharie Valley.
For those who live and work here, the appeal of this small, rural county is clear.
“You can escape the craziness in Schoharie County,” Harrington said.
“You can breathe and relax, and enjoy the outdoors,” Darin Van Houten said. “It’s just beautiful.”