Vegetable Specialist helps New York farmers share harvest with hurricane victims

Like many Americans, Hudson Valley apple farmer Steve Pennings watched the devastation of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria this September and wanted to do something to help.

“At the same time, I looked around my orchard and saw we were having an exceptional fall – trees popping at the seams with robust fruit,” Pennings said. “In talking with my wife and kids, we decided we had to find a way to share our good fortune with those in need – we just weren’t sure how to do it. That’s when I gave Maire a call.”

For over a quarter century, Cornell Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist Maire Ullrich has worked with Orange County growers like Pennings on various agricultural issues. “When she heard my idea, Maire sprang into action and took it from there,” he said. “She knew just what to do.”

Ullrich, a member of CCE’s Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Team, contacted Feeding America, a nonprofit that operates more than 200 food banks in the United States and Puerto Rico, about putting together a shipment of fruits and vegetables to be trucked to Florida or Texas.

“Before I even opened my mouth to commit to pursuing Steve’s idea, I knew Feeding America could handle the logistics, which would be the biggest challenge,” said Ullrich. “Their reply was, ‘Let’s do it. You line up the load – hard crops that could last a week at room temperature such as apples, potatoes, cabbage, onions, carrots and others – and we’ll send a truck to pick it up.’”

Within minutes, Ullrich was back on the phone with Pennings, who was confident neighboring farms would join him in donating apples to the cause. Ullrich, in turn, said she would connect with the area’s vegetable farmers to fill out the tractor-trailer load with additional produce.

About a week later, the Feeding America truck departed the Hudson Valley for central Florida with 20 pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables – more than 15 tons of food. “The truck left on a Friday, and the following Monday I heard from Feeding America that the load was already distributed,” said Ullrich. “And the food bank in Florida said they were really pleased with the variety and the quality of what we sent.”

Meanwhile, Ullrich was lining up more produce shipments from other fertile growing regions in the state. Two weeks after the Hudson Valley load, a shipment left Hansen Farms in the Finger Lakes packed with apples and cabbage bound for Florida. Another is slated to leave western New York in November.

In coordinating the shipments in central and western New York, Ullrich networked with her counterparts from CCE’s Cornell Vegetable Program and Lake Ontario Fruit Program. “It made sense to put loads together in those areas, because like here in the Hudson Valley, those regions consist of large farms that do a lot of transportation, know all of their neighbors and are well-positioned to host shipments in their warehouses. It does take some work on their end – especially during a hectic harvest season – but it’s not crazy difficult for them to manage it.”

Pennings said he’s not surprised that it didn’t take any arm twisting to get his fellow growers on board, and he said he’s honored to be part of such a big-hearted network. He added: “This is also a perfect example of why we have Cornell Cooperative Extension services all around the state and people like Maire working on our behalf. She took what was a small idea and really connected the dots to make it a big success.”

R.J. Anderson is a writer/communications specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension.