The story of Bialas Farms begins in 1939 with Sophie and Frank Bialas. Frank and his family had farmed for years, sharecropping for landowners, both on Celery Avenue and across the Walkill River in the Town of Wawayanda. It was The Depression after all, so owning land was costly. As most old-timers did, Frank and Sophie quickly realized that they were working far too hard for someone else and seeing little return for themselves. Frank and Sophie saved their pennies and purchased a few acres of prized Orange County Black Dirt on Celery Avenue, where Sophie had lived as a child. They farmed the land with their young and ever-growing family by their sides.
Frank and Sophie’s first wholesale crop was celery. Millions of seeds were planted in the greenhouses in February and transplanted into long rows outside in late April or early May. Harvesting would begin in August, with the celery being cut (always by hand, like we still do it), washed and boxed into wooden crates. Hundreds of crates would then be shipped by truck to New York City and sold wholesale. After the celery harvest, spinach was planted in the vacant ground and was harvested several weeks later. This way they had a bit of money coming in after the main crop was gone.
As the years went by, more acres were added (totaling 55) and more kids were born (6 altogether) and Bialas Farms grew to become one of the larger farms in the valley. Everyone helped out, too. Frank and Sophie worked all day with the hired help, and when the kids came home from school they’d go out to work so Babci (pronounced Bob-chee, Polish for Grandma) could come home and cook dinner for 8 hungry farmers!
Celery was the farm’s main crop until about 1972. Celery was very labor intensive and it just wasn’t financially possible to cover costs and make a living anymore. Due to economics, it seemed as though everyone in Orange County’s Black Dirt region was now growing onions. Growing 50 acres of onions, however, didn’t solve the money problems and each year seemed to find Bialas Farms more in debt. Switching to an entirely different crop meant the purchase of specific costly equipment to grow it.
Finally, in 1984, Babci Sophie decided to retire and give Sonny (son Frank) the opportunity to purchase the farm (grandfather Frank had passed away in 1965). Sonny had worked on the farm full time since the age of 16 and he knew there was nothing else he would rather do. He and Doris managed to scrape together enough money for a down-payment, and his young family continued to work like mules and lose money year after year. Sadly, this was more of a country-wide farm crisis than isolated situation. A neighboring farmer had spoken with Sonny about the possibility of selling our produce at farm markets, and in 1991 we did just that.
We attended our very first market in Middletown, NY, about 15 minutes from the farm. Sonny had set aside a small test parcel of the worst land on the farm (the best land was reserved for the primary crop, onions) , and we planted, harvested, and sold whatever we could from the makeshift stand downtown. We did surprisingly well, and made lifelong customers and friends, so Sonny decided to give NYC’s Greenmarket a try. We started with 2 Greenmarkets in 1992: 102nd Street in Manhattan and Albee Square in Brooklyn. We’ve tried out many different market locations all over the Hudson Valley and NYC in the last 25 years, and now we’ve finally settled into a routine that works for the whole family. Despite fires and floods and droughts and the very nature of a weather-dependent business, we keep plugging away.
We established a large customer base in the markets, and with each year we’ve expanded our product line while reducing the amount of onions grown. Up until 1999, we still grew about 12 acres of onions. In 2016, we only grew 3 acres worth. Orange County Onions are typically a storage onion. Selling them in January or February would give the farm a bit of income in the winter months when farmers markets are traditionally closed.
We now start several crops in our three greenhouses in early March and transplant them outdoors when the weather allows. We also use the plastic-covered structures to grow a wide variety of potted herbs in the spring. Due to economics and the demand for high-quality locally-grown vegetables, we’ve found it necessary to lengthen our season into the winter months by growing things inside the temperature-controlled environment of our greenhouses. The majority of crops grown here in the spring, summer, and fall, however, are grown from seed sown directly in the fields. Farmer Sonny plants throughout most of the summer and into fall, so we can continually harvest things like radishes, cilantro, spinach, lettuce, corn and broccoli.
There was a time in our country’s history when every family had a farm or garden on which they relied to produce the food their family needed to survive. It is no longer the case, and with farmers making up less than 2% of our country’s entire population, some of the simple things have been lost. Most folks don’t get to eat tomatoes fresh off the vine, or melons still warm from the sun. Peas now come in a can or steam-fresh bag, not in a pod!
We’ve tried to keep those snippets of homegrown goodness alive by selecting heirloom varieties of certain crops and we make our seed selections based on what tastes best, and not what travels or stores best. With our world becoming increasingly impersonal, it’s more important than ever to us to preserve our farm and family values. Our Farm Tours and Annual Thanksgiving Open House at the Farm are some of the ways we open our doors to people, young and not quite so, who want to experience the feel of Black Dirt between their toes and see how their food grows.
We want to educate people about the way our food is grown, but we also think it’s important to take the time to appreciate nature and family and how valuable those things are in the grand scheme of things. We are all busy, but never so busy that we can’t take a moment to bond with those friends who have become part of our food community. We are proud to continue the tradition of bringing the freshest produce to customers around the Hudson Valley and we appreciate your business and your friendship. After all, we can’t do this without you!