Agricultural Change in the Hudson Valley



The demographic makeup of the Hudson Valley underwent a shift in the early 18th century with the arrival of the German Palatine immigrants, brought to the region by Governor Robert Hunter in 1709 and 1710. In large part, the Palatines were from rural villages in the Palatine region of present-day Germany, then under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. Seduced by the sensational descriptions of the British empire’s colony, Carolina, in a book published in Germany in 1707 and republished in 1709, thousands in rural villages of the Rhine Valley poured into east London.

Their hope was that Queen Anne would grant them passage to this supposed land of riches they believed awaited them across the Atlantic. Eventually after disputes in the British government over what to do with these thousands of immigrants, the newly appointed New York Governor Robert Hunter proposed bringing 3,000 Palatines with him to the Hudson Valley to settle them in the pine forests. There they would produce tar and pitch for the British Navy in exchange for their passage to the colony. In short, they would sign contracts, indenturing themselves as servants to Hunter who promised them forty acres once the passage was repaid.

For the most part, Hunter’s plan did not align with the dreams of the Palatines for free land and who saw this indentured servitude as only a trick to re-ensurf them to landowners as they had been in the Rhine Valley. The British naval store proved to be a bust, since the pine trees were not the correct species for production of tar and pitch. Several remained in the Hudson Valley as tenants on Robert Livingston’s patent, which was north of their camp in present-day Germantown, New York, eventually owning land from the manor lords parceling their patents for sale. [1]

Manor Lords

In 1695, Henry Beekman petitioned the Government of New York for a patent for the land that is presently Rhinebeck, New York, receiving the grant in 1697. By 1714, Beekman opened his land for sale to the “High Dutchers” or the Palatines living in the area following the collapse of Hunter’s naval store project. Earlier in 1688, Colonel Peter Schuyler received a patent for what is today Red Hook, north of Beekman’s patent and including three of the four farms we researched in this project. By 1722, Schuyler began dividing his patent and selling it to fellow Dutchmen by the names of Knickerbacker, Statts, De Witt, as well as to Barent Van Benthuysen who is noted as a “yeoman” of Dutchess County. [2] These landowners in turn leased the land in lots of 25 to 200 acres, mostly to the Palatines, extracting rent in the form of agricultural production, including bushels of wheat, which would be ground at their landlord’s mills.

Map of Patent Owners in 1812, from Edward Smith, Documentary History of Rhinebeck

Map of the Patent Owners of Rhinebeck (prior to the incorporation of Red Hook Township), from Edward M. Smith, Documentary History of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County (Rhinebeck, 1881).

Diversified Agriculture

With the arrival of the Palatines, the shift toward productive farming among the European immigrants took shape as they began to lease lands from wealthy patent holders and manor lords. The farming practices were mostly diversified with a large portion of activity devoted to grains. Mills, such as those on the Sawkill at Montgomery Place, were erected across northern Dutchess County for processing these grains, and Red Hook was known as the “Breadbasket” of Dutchess County. Apples, at this time, were only a minor crop as orchards would have been small and often devoted to hard cider production. [3]

Diversified farming practices continued in the early years of the American Republic (1776-1825) with farming largely producing goods for personal and local consumption. Markets were limited to river traffic and the Post Road (present-day Route 9), which could become muddy in the rainy seasons. Indentures for leasing land from the Livingstons, Beekmans, and Schuylers continued during these years in northern Dutchess County. Apples grown during this period were largely for personal consumption on the table and especially for the production of hard cider. The most profitable cash crop during this time remained wheat and other grains that could be milled at the various mill sites in the area; more than one-third of the grain shipped from New York State came from Dutchess County. There were at least eight mill sites along the Saw Kill. The detail of the map below shows three of the mills on the lower, middle, and upper falls of the Saw Kill, which were constructed by manor lords in the late eighteenth century. [4

Map of the Town of Rhinebeck, in the County of Dutchess. Surveyed in December and January, 1797 and 1798, per Alex'r Thompson. (NYSA)

Note the number of grist mills along the Sawkill (right) and the White Clay Kill (left). Map of the Town of Rhinebeck, in the County of Dutchess. Surveyed in December and January, 1797 and 1798, per Alex'r Thompson. New York State Archives. New York (State). State Engineer and Surveyor. Survey maps of lands in New York State, ca. 1711-1913. Series A0273-78, Map #179.


Changing Markets

The population of Dutchess County gradually increased over the years 1820-1880. Although changes to the economic system in the Hudson Valley were well underway since the last two decades of the eighteenth century, the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 sparked a dramatic change in the kind of agricultural products farmers would pursue. The canal allowed for markets to open in in the more fertile western lands of Ohio and Pennsylvania to bring produce and grain from the Great Lakes region to New York City. This increase in commodity flows helped New York City to supersede Boston and Philadelphia to become a primary export market to Europe. This was particularly fortuitous for Hudson River Valley farmers to export their produce to a global market. However, it also meant that the agricultural output of Dutchess County had to shift. By 1835, wheat was no longer the primary commercial crop. This was not only due to the opening of the canal. The practice of continuous cropping with no efforts to rotate the crops or fertilize had depleted the soil.

By the New York State Census of 1865 no farmer in Red Hook or Rhinebeck reported any cheese production. During this era another important crop emerged: apples. In 1855 farmers in Red Hook reported 14,837 bushels of apples and 503 barrels of cider produced. Ten years later bushels of apples from Red Hook increased 61% and cider production increased 66%. [5]

Agricultural Education

After the Civil War, the expansion of railroads, marketing systems, telegraphs, and eventually telephones revolutionized the sale of produce and other agricultural products. Speculation in the produce market followed the example of the grain market in buying and selling before crops were harvested. Commercialization of farm life through farm insurance, mortgages, as well as the development of the mail-order catalog changed life for northern Dutchess County farms. During this period, interest in agricultural education became manifest in the rise of agricultural journals and the creation of agricultural experiment stations. Two stations in New York State—Geneva (1882) and Cornell (1879)—preceded the Hatch Act (1888), which provided federal support for the creation of agricultural stations across the United States to provide educational assistance to farmers and material for instruction in the agricultural colleges established through the Morrill Land-Grant Act (1862). Extension services expanded in the early twentieth century through the Farmers’ Institute, which provided lectures and demonstrations for rural farming families. [6


Farming practices during this era increasingly specialized, as did the types of cultivars produced by local apple growers. As much as during the antebellum years, farmers in the Hudson Valley were often both fruit growers and dairy farmers. The agricultural statistics for Dutchess County in the decade after the Civil War show that the number of apple trees growing in the county increased by 71% while butter production decreased almost 6%. In Red Hook, the number of apple trees in cultivation increased an astonishing 150%, yet the yield was a little more than 40% less in 1875 than in 1865. The price of apples went up during the Civil War, prompting farmers across New York State to increase apple production. A depression in the apple industry hit in 1875, lasting ten years before it recovered in 1895. [7]

In 1875, Red Hook reported having 30,517 apple trees, bearing 22,640 bushels of apples and 1200 gallons of apple cider. Red Hook resident, Burton Coon, wrote his memories of rural life in the 1870s, noting that this period marked the beginning of commercial apple production in the Hudson Valley. He records that several Newtown Pippins brought a good price in England since it was a favorite of Queen Victoria. He also notes that a speculator would come to the area to buy the fruit on the trees. Once ripened, the farmer would take the fruit to the river at Barrytown or Tivoli to be taken to New York City, having to do nothing more than put them on the barge. [8]

Cider Production

Apples that proved unsightly or inedible for table purposes were made into cider. The scale of cider production varied, depending on the scale of the cider press. The public press in Rock City (near Milan) east of Red Hook, described by Burt Coon, was “an elaborate affair…The apples were ground in a larger mill operated by a sweep to which a team of horses would be hitched. The press was under a kind of shed, and the juice would be squeezed out by turning an iron screw with a long lever.” While there were some public cider presses, such as the one in Rock City, most of the presses were privately owned and homemade. Some farmers would allow their neighbors to use their presses. This process involved grinding the apples in a handmill and then laying up the “cheese” with long rye straws. To operate these homemade presses, a large wooden screw would have to be turned manually with a crowbar. To learn more about the process of fermentation, see the section Making Hard Cider. [9]



During and following the World Wars, changes in technology and especially refrigeration allowed for new methods of distributing milk and dairy products. By 1935 the Hudson Valley farmer had to compete with upstate dairying regions who could now send their milk to the city in refrigerated trucks. Most farms in the county were selling in a local market at creameries or possibly even retailing milk individually. Of the Red Hook farms with cows in the mid-1930s, only 38.5% sold milk. Small farms were adversely affected by an outbreak of tuberculosis in the 1920s-30s and new standards of food safety, leading many to leave dairy production to larger industrialized competitors. [10] Other mechanized innovations between 1920-60 — such as vacuum-driven milking machines, barn cleaners for manure removal, and pipeline milkers and milking parlors — continued to push small farms out of the dairy business. [11]

World War II hindered farmers across the nation economically. To reduce costs, many farms lessened their payrolls and supplemented the missing labor with technology. After the war, tractors increasingly replaced animal labor on farms until by the early 1950s American farming families owned more tractors than they did horses and mules.  However, acquiring a new tractor would often cost too much for many families and were not always in supply, and farmers would instead build tractors consisting of various car parts, calling them “doodlebugs.” [12]

Despite the labor and supply shortages during the war, agricultural products were desired, and fruits, vegetables, and dairy did well in the market. John Losee writes in his memoir:

Apple growing was considered an essential industry. One of the products, pectin, made from apple pulp was an ingredient in K rations and C rations supplied to the armed forces. It compensated for the lack of bulk in the concentrated rations as they passed through the digestive system. Consequently, the processing industry received a AAA1 priority in needed supplies and services. [13]

But following the war, prices dropped. Consequently, a great boom in the cooperative movement emerged during the 1950s in an effort to distribute this surplus without the middleman and to distribute it at less expense and to better advantage. Yet it was clear that cooperatives could not solve all the problems of over-production and small returns, and many farmers began to return to individual selling. In this they were greatly aided by the trucking business and improvements to highways during the late 1950s and 1960s. The truck was a new and powerful agent in transportation. Because of the constantly rising freight rates, which were excessive and unwarranted, thousands of bushels of fruit began being distributed by truck instead of being shipped on the railroad. 


Despite the rapid decrease of dairy farmers in Red Hook, apple farms continued and even flourished in production, many with a focus on wholesale and little diversification in agricultural output. This specialization reflected a larger trend in agriculture across the nation, especially after 1950 as improvements in machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides made investments in crop-specific equipment necessary.

The land in Red Hook is suited well to orchards: flat and rolling with easily cultivated and well drained soil. By the mid-1930s, 84% of Red Hook farmers specialized in growing commercial fruit, mostly apples but some peaches and pears. At this time, life in the village of Red Hook centered on farming with its own bank, clothing stores, and newspaper, remaining fairly independent of the larger towns of Poughkeepsie to the south or Hudson to the north. Smaller orchards were hard to maintain since spraying was expensive. As noted in the survey from 1935, “many country roads are lined with gnarled old orchards, webbed with tent caterpillars in the spring, and unpruned for many years.” [14]

Even as farms consolidated and expanded operations, land use in Dutchess County followed the trend across the state of a steady decrease in the acreage of land being used for commercial farming. The area of land in the state devoted to farms had peaked in 1880, covering 78%. In Dutchess County, the area of land used for farming was well above average in 1910 with 90% of the total area identified as farmland. Of that 66% was improved land or cropland. These percentages steadily declined over the next eighty years with only 21% farm land and 11% improved/cropland. The decline in farmland has since slowed and the number of farms are actually increasing in Dutchess County since 1998 and the passage of the first Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan as well as the efforts of Scenic Hudson to purchase the development rights to a number of vegetable farms and orchards in the county. [15]


By the mid-1930s most families farming in Red Hook were native born. Of the 200 families surveyed, one or both heads of the family were foreign born in twenty-nine of those families. The majority of these families were formerly fruit growers in Poland or Austria and were especially attracted to the land in Red Hook. The structure of the labor on the farm consisted of the immediate family and maybe one or two hired men, possibly even the parents of the female head of house. [16]

The population in Red Hook steadily decreased over the years from 1890-1930 as the trend to move away from the country to towns and villages concentrated most population growth in New York City, Poughkeepsie, and Beacon. Fifty years prior the labor market was flush with young boys seeking work; however, with increased urban migration, that supply of labor diminished despite the demand. Whereas a farmer in 1900 could afford to hire up to four men, paying their board and a weekly stipend, in 1936, a farmer could barely afford to pay for one or two men a regular $30/month stipend plus board. Unlike other farming communities in Dutchess County, Red Hook had a lower proportion of farm tenants to rent the land because fruit farming required more seasonal labor than dairying, which needed year-round residence. [17]

After World War II the shortage of local farm labor led to an increase in hiring seasonal migrant laborers, most of whom were African Americans from the south. In 1960, the number of migrant, or “interstate,” workers (who were almost exclusively African Americans) in New York State totaled 27,600 people. By the 1970s, and especially after the passage of the H-2A Program in 1976, an increase in guest workers from Jamaica and Haiti began to out number the African American migrant workers. [18]


With the crash of 1929 and the implementation of federally-run programs, the experimental stations for agricultural education produced a great amount of literature to help improve apple crops with suggestions for controlling pests and picking cultivars that would be best for the region. The federal government provided subsidy programs in the 1930s, particularly focused on soil conservation and becoming associated (at least politically) with the New Deal programs for incentivizing soil erosion prevention and farm income support. Agricultural productivity in the United States grew steadily through the post-war period (less the years of an economic recession in 1957-1958) with the government assistance of the extension educational efforts, crop insurance, and price supports. Hitting a high in the mid-1970s with a boom in global commodity prices, farms took a hard fall in the 1980s as those prices plummeted. [19]

The years of federal Prohibition (1920-1933) affected the local production of hard cider and applejack in northern Dutchess County, but local cider mills were allowed to have “private” offerings, laying a foundation for the area’s future in agri-tourism. (Carr) Sweet cider production continued, producing over 60% of the total of the country in 1921. The tendency of cider to ferment into vinegar or hard cider was combated with pasteurization processes, and the US Department of Agriculture introduced apple juice in the early twentieth century as an alternative to the fermented beverage. [20]


[1]Philip Otterness, “The 1709 Palatine Migration and the Formation of German Immigrant Identity in London and New York,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 66 (1999), 8-23.

[2]Edward M. Smith, Documentary History of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County (Rhinebeck, 1881).

[3] Clare O'Neill Carr, A Brief History of Red Hook: The Living Past of a Hudson Valley Community (New York: Wise Family Trust, 2001), 24-25.

[4] Carr, A Brief History of Red Hook, 18.

[5] Martha Collins Bayne, The Dutchess County Farmer (Poughkeepsie, NY: Women's City and County Club and Vassar College, 1936), 30; New York State Census, Red Hook, New York, for the years 1855 and 1865.

[6] Elmer O. Fippin, Rural New York (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1921), 335-342.

[7] New York State Census, Red Hook, New York, 1865; Bayne, The Dutchess County Farmer.

[8] Burton Barker Coon, Fifty Years Ago: Rural Life from 1875 (Red Hook-Tivoli Bicentennial Committee and Town of Milan, 1977), 11.

[8] Coon, Fifty Years Ago, 12.

[10] Bayne, The Dutchess County Farmer, 34.

[11] Bruce L. Gardner American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 15.

[12] Gardner American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century, 10-14.

[13] John Losee, Memoir. From the personal collection of Sarah K. Hermans.

[14] Bayne, The Dutchess County Farmer, 37.

[15] Bernard F. Stanton and Nelson L. Bills, “The Return of Agricultural Lands to Forest: Changing Land Use in the Twentieth Century,” E.B. 96-03 (Department of Agricultural, Resource, and Managerial Economics, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, February 1996).

[16] Bayne, The Dutchess County Farmer, 16.

[17] Bayne, The Dutchess County Farmer, 47-48.

[18] Margaret Gray, Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 111-113.

[19] Gardner American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century, 83.

[20] Fippin, Rural New York, 288-289.