When National Geographic magazine released its annual list of 20 places to visit in 2013, listed among Malawi and Uganda in Africa was a more familiar destination – the Hudson Valley.
The region’s reputation as a desirable tourist destination has been growing in recent years. The travel and tourism industry in Westchester County alone generated $1.7 billion in 2011, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. The industry also employs 24,000 people in the county.
The increasing interest in Westchester as a tourist destination was behind a recent gathering of business community members in White Plains. The Westchester Green Business Challenge, an initiative spearheaded by the county and The Business Council of Westchester to help companies become more environmentally sustainable, held a panel discussion Feb. 5 focused on the county’s travel and tourism industry.
The Hudson Valley, which National Geographic called a cultural clarion, is known as much for its mom-and-pop shops as for its organic farms. The mid-Hudson Valley is home to 2,321 farms, which represent 6.4 percent of farms in the state. There are also 67 agro-tourism sites in the region, including pick-your-own farms like Hilltop Hanover in Yorktown Heights. The farm attracts 20,000 visitors a year, not including the nearly 5,000 students that come for educational field trips.
“It’s a destination-based entity. People want to come and connect with farms,” Hilltop Farm director Lucille Munz said. “They want to be a part of harvesting, picking and all that a farm offers, which is a wonderful thing for us.”
Munz said that the farm sees itself as part of the economic engine that supports the region’s economy. Hilltop generates most of its revenue from consumer supported agriculture (CSA), which supplies the farm’s operating capital. The farm contracts with people who pay up front in exchange for weekly fresh produce during harvest months. So far, there are 100 members in the CSA program and the farm hopes it can increase that number to 150 members soon. Munz also said the farm is “looking at doing something next year called a restaurant CSA, so that we can contract directly with restaurants.”
The food and beverage component of the Hudson Valley travel and tourism industry brought in revenue of approximately $436 million in 2011, and Hilltop would like to be bigger part of that growing industry. It already caters to six restaurants in the region, including Tomatillo and Sweet Grass Grill, both in Tarrytown. When Dave Starkey, owner of both eateries, opened Tomatillo in 2004, he said he was becoming more conscious about the food industry and food production.
“I’d just had two children so I was concerned about what I was feeding them, what I was eating and what I was going to feed my customers,” he said. “And just as important if not more important I was concerned about what kind of world they were going to inherit and the impact I was making on the environment.” That concern grew into an environmentally conscious philosophy he built into both restaurants.
Madava Farms, home to the Crown Maple Syrup brand in Dutchess County, is another farm destination that shares the philosophy of offering environmentally sustainable food production. Their garden is cultivated on six and a half acres of land and grows a variety of produce that goes to restaurants in the region. Visitors, however, can sample some of the produce at The Farm Stand, Madava’s eclectic eatery and market.
Sherri Darocha, director of tourism for the farm, said, “We are lucky enough to have a Culinary Institute of America chef here and he changes the menu every weekend.” She added, “Part of the reason is to help inspire guests to take the experience home so wherever they are originally from, whether Westchester or the city, it can continue.”
To accommodate those visitors, the farm provides a shuttle for those who take the Metro-North train to get to Madava Farms in Dover Plains.
The draw of the farms, restaurants and independent shops is a growing part of the region’s identity, said Natasha Caputo, director of tourism and film for Westchester, and the county is capitalizing on the growing travel and tourism market in the Hudson Valley. Last summer, the county launched a “Meet Me in Westchester” campaign, hoping to tie in the distinction as one of National Geographic’s top 20 most desirable destinations in the world.
“We have a very healthy travel and tourism offering and product for our visitors, and I think that’s really important for business,” Caputo said.