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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 6, 2010

On-line farmers’ market, stargazing, and cyclists’ tour may all be in Hilltowns’ future

By Zach Simeone

HILLTOWNS — The creative juices have begun to flow towards boosting the economy in the Hilltowns.

The Helderberg Hilltowns Association, which is making strides to strengthen the economy on the Hill, held its first-ever meeting last month. Farmers and politicians alike shared their thoughts at this preliminary gathering, and learned about www.HelderbergMarket.com, which may launch as early as June 4.

“I have a handful of farmers that have contacted me already and are interested in signing up,” Sarah Gordon told The Enterprise this week. Gordon, a Knox native, has been designing the website, which will serve as an online Hilltown farmers’ market.

“Everything on the website will be automated,” she went on. “Customers will be able to log onto the website, browse items, add them to their shopping cart, pay with their credit card, and have them delivered to their door.” If all goes as planned, the first delivery day would be June 10.

And, the Dudley Observatory, a not-for-profit organization based in Schenectady that supports astronomical research and education, is looking at the Helderberg escarpment as one of several potential sites for its new observatory. The aim of this site would be to bring people to the area to learn about and look out into space.

The Helderberg Hilltown Association began to evolve late last year as Harold Miller, a Berne native who now lives in Mexico, built a network of individuals interested in assembling an association of Hilltown farmers and business owners who would act as a virtual chamber of commerce for the Helderbergs, to promote low-impact, agricultural, recreational, and heritage tourism for an economic boost.

“My goal,” Miller told onlookers at the April 17 meeting, “is to have an organization that encourages low-impact tourism, to encourage people to come to the Hilltowns, and to visit the farms; to buy produce here; to drive through the countryside; to hike; to picnic; to eat lunch and dinner at a local restaurant; to stay the night. I would like to think that someday, when people from below the Hill want to take a short vacation, that they’re not going to go to the Berkshires and spend their money. They’re going to say, ‘Let’s head for the hills — the Helderberg Hilltowns.’”

Miller initially listed three steps in that direction: organizing a Hilltowns farmers’ market that would rotate weekly among Berne, Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville; creating a brochure that would list farms and activities in the Helderbergs; and suggesting tour routes to places of interest in the Hilltowns. Miller said that hospitality in the Hilltowns is also an issue, given the lack of hotels.

And, the historic hamlet of Rensselaerville was chosen by the Preservation League of New York State as one of this year’s Seven to Save, meaning greater chances of bringing in grant money to preserve Rensselaerville’s historic buildings, and possibly working to increase heritage tourism as an economic jumpstart.

The group will hold its second meeting on May 18, at the Senior Center on Route 443 in Berne, at 7 p.m.

[For further coverage of how this low-impact tourism initiative has come together, and how different types of tourism have succeeded as economic stimuli in other areas, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, and look under archives for Dec. 24, 2009.]

Consulting the SAGE

Sarah Gordon, owner of SAGE [Sarah Avery Gordon Environmental] Consulting in Albany, has been designing HelderbergMarket.com as what she hopes to be the first successful e-commerce opportunity for all interested farmers throughout the Hilltowns, and a component to the initiative of boosting the local economy.

More specifically, the goals of the website are to:

— Increase local demand for Hilltown agricultural products;

— Increase the volume of direct producer-to-consumer sales;

— Increase the economic feasibility of rural and regional economies;

— Decrease the amount of time required for farmers to market their goods, thereby increasing time spent on agricultural productivity;

— Capture a consumer base large enough to support a growing Hilltowns agricultural community; and

— Employ modern technologies to overcome the barriers of a traditional farmers’ market, while capitalizing on the popularity of online shopping.

On Thursday, May 13, at 7 p.m., there will be an informational session for the website in room 170 at Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s middle-high school.

“It’s open to anyone interested in coming, but I’m encouraging them to RSVP, because I’d like to know how many copies to make of the information I’ll be presenting,” Gordon said this week. She can be reached at 669-3447, or at sage.consulting@yahoo.com.

Gordon will also provide quality control for the foods being sold on the website.

“If I show up, and your potatoes are looking like something a customer’s not going to be very happy with, I’m going to give them a refund,” she said. “I don’t want to send something out there that’s going to damage the reputation of this resource.”

She will, herself, turn a small profit from these transactions.

“The farmer sets his price, and the farmer gets 100 percent of the asking price,” she said. “On top of the farmer’s price, I’ll assess a 23-percent commission, and add it to the price from the farmer. That will pay for delivery expenses, my time, and my staff.”

She has also developed a tentative weekly schedule for the website: On Friday, farmers will be contacted for their weekly product lists, which will then be entered into the online inventory system, and customers can begin shopping. Customers can continue adding products to their online shopping carts through Tuesday at noon, and all orders received since Friday will then be aggregated according to farm, and farmers will pull the ordered produce to be ready for Wednesday pick-up. Wednesday night, the HelderbergMarket.com staff will sort the products into the individual orders, which will then be delivered on Thursday.

At the April meeting, Gordon provided the audience with some agricultural data, showing the struggle of the modern farmer. Albany County has lost 70 percent of its agricultural land to development since 1940, and 26 percent since 1982, Gordon told the crowd. Between 2002 and 2007, the county lost 11 percent of that land.

Gordon grew up on a farm in Knox. Her father, an Albany County legislator, was the keynote speaker at the April 17 meeting.

“The lack of local markets, I think, is seriously contributing to the decreased profits that we’re seeing in agriculture, and, as profits drop, people are seeing more pressure to do something profitable with their land,” she said. “That leads to subdivisions, and people turning their agricultural land into residential plots.”

If all goes according to plan, the online shopping will begin in less than a month.

Open space, outer space

The open space and undeveloped land that Hilltowners cherish provide the clear skies over the escarpment that are an invaluable resource for astronomers.

Ronald Barnell, an astronomer who volunteers on the site-selection committee at Dudley Observatory in Schenectady, told those at the April 17 meeting that he thinks, because of this spatial availability, the escarpment could be home to the largest telescope in the state, a title currently held by the one housed within the State University of New York College at Oneonta.

Chartered in 1852, Dudley has been without an actual observatory since the 1960s, according to Robert Ward, chairman of the site-selection committee.

“We have been studying the idea of developing a new observatory for more than a year and, in the last six months or so, we have intensified the site-planning activities,” Ward told The Enterprise this week. “Certainly, in that period, we have been very aware that the Helderbergs would be ideal from the perspective of dark-sky conditions.”

In the meantime, Dudley educates middle- and high-school students through its Rising Star internship program, Director Janie Schwab said this week.

“We give telescopes to students and teachers, teach them how to use them, and then they keep the telescopes in exchange for doing our public observing,” she said. “They then bring the telescopes to schools, and parks, and street festivals…and let people look through them. They learn how to chat up the audience, and tell them about what they’re seeing.”

At the April meeting, Barnell pointed to an obstacle, referencing studies by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, looking at the growth of the population, and its correlation to increasing light pollution below the Helderberg escarpment. The studies showed that, by 2040, “There will be a megalopolis from above Saratoga to below Albany, and in between the river valley there,” Barnell said. This would cause problems for the Dudley Observatory, as well as any site located in or around the Helderbergs.

“You need to be in an environment where you have dark skies,” Barnell said. The skies in the Helderbergs, and the view they provide of space, rival that of the Adirondacks, he said.

Getting organized

In addition to farmers and other interested residents, officials from all four Hilltowns attended the Helderberg Hilltown Association’s first meeting, including: Berne Supervisor George Gebe; Knox Supervisor Mike Hammond; Berne Councilman James Hamilton; Westerlo Councilman Jack Milner; Rensselaerville Assessor Jeffry Pine; Berne Planning Board Chairman Gerard Chartier; Berne Planning Board member Timothy Lippert; and Daniel Driscoll, a longtime Knox Planning Board member who helped organize the meeting.

The keynote speaker was Alexander “Sandy” Gordon, an Albany County legislator who has represented the Hilltowns since 1996, and a grass-fed beef farmer in Knox.

“It’s such a pleasure,” Gordon began, “to see people that are interested in pulling in the same direction that will be something that maybe strengthens our community, and brings us to a point where those of us that try to live from the land can actually afford to do so.” Hilltowners, he said, are blessed with an abundance of natural resources.

Gordon went on to mention that he had reached out to the Hudson Mohawk Cycling Club to suggest an agri-tourist bike path, and eventually discovered that his idea had popped up elsewhere.

“I found out that the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County is in the process of creating what they’re calling a ‘tour de farm,’” Gordon told The Enterprise. “It’s just the same idea I’m thinking about, and they’re like isolated ventures in the same direction. Think about how many things in history have been going on independently of each other at the same time. So, my idea certainly wasn’t novel, and I guess somebody’s at the next phase of it. So, let’s review it and see if it’s something we can implement and make useful.”

The importance of marketing in this kind of initiative was underlined in Gordon’s speech at the April meeting, as was looking at the underlying reasons for the failure of the Hilltown Market and Natural Food Co-op, which opened in Rensselaerville in January 2006, and closed last month for financial reasons.

Gordon’s address to the crowd also pointed to the fact that Hilltowners will have to find ways of reversing the decline of local agriculture in order to set the stage for agri-tourism in the Hilltowns.

“We need to know our farmer,” Gordon told the crowd. “Ask him any question, and talk her or him up.”

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