Fulkerson legacy includes seven generations
DUNDEE--In this relatively young country, a century farm is considered a marvel of continuity. Which makes Fulkerson Winery in Dundee something of a rarity. They're more than two centuries strong--they got their bicentennial farm award in 2006.
If the longevity of the farm is partly an inherited dedication to hard work, the future is assured. This pre-harvest time of year, as in many wineries, bottling has to happen at a steady pace in order to free up tanks for the coming harvest. This involves a lot of technical work plus lifting, carrying, labeling, packing and more lifting and carrying. Also cleaning, the task occupying most of the work time in a wine cellar. Harvest is beginning, which means picking grapes and at this vineyard, shipping some, juicing others. Tasting rooms are also hopping this time of year, so anyone not working on the harvest or bottling line needs to be helping out there, too. The father-and-son team of Sayre and Steve Fulkerson, who co-own the winery, are hard at work and have this covered.
In 1805, patriarch Caleb Fulkerson came here from New Jersey with his pension from the Revolutionary War (he'd lied about his age in order to serve) and staked out a farm here, embedding his black willow walking stick in a spring to mark his claim. The stick took root and became a tree, proving he'd found the fertile land he'd been hoping for. Caleb and his wife Deborah had eight children. Their son Samuel continued farming the land with his wife Jane. Samuel died young and Jane kept the farm going--and her six sons out of the Civil War. One of them, Harlan, planted black raspberries as an additional cash crop --the diversified farm had been growing grapes since the 1830s.
"It wasn't a commercial farm until the 1920s and 30s," Steve says. "It was a subsistence farm prior to that, and there's evidence it was at one time an inn and tavern." Harlan's son Roger expanded the grape plantings after a blight decimated the raspberries in the 1960s. His son Sayre studied pomology (fruit production) at Cornell University, and expanded and diversified the farm's grape production with the purchase of the Jensen Juice plant in 1979, enabling him to press and sell juice to home winemakers. The plant is still running each fall, serving an ever-larger customer base--currently about 6,000 home winemakers--and offering weekly seminars on home winemaking open to the public. "The question and answer time is the biggest thing," Steve says now. "People need to be assured they're doing the right thing, and we can suggest new ways to approach problems."
Sayre began commercial wine production and sales, and opened the winery with his wife Nancy in 1989. Their son Steve followed his father to Cornell, graduating with a degree in grape-growing and winemaking, and currently serves as general manager.
Each generation has brought its own insights to the business, matching their skills to the era in which they find themselves. "One of the biggest things about longevity for the farm is permaculture," Steve says. "We used tiling early on for drainage. Early on we also adopted IPM or integrated pest management," Steve says, explaining this means only spraying when the latest science says it's necessary. "We unroll hay through the vineyards every couple of years to increase organic matter, use grass varieties to penetrate the soil, hill to renew soil under the trellis, which also protects the vines from winter weather."
Sayre recalls his parents milking cows and selling their output until the 1980s. But starting the winery was a game-changer, involving the cultivation of different sorts of grapes and acquiring new skill-sets. "It hasn't been a straight line. I'd say a lot of it is trial and error," Sayre says. "My dad used to say don't worry, if the price is low it will all come back, you'll sell things next year. But that really didn't happen. We had to remove varieties and plant new ones. In some cases we planted the wrong ones and had to take those out and plant again. Combining a winery with farming isn't as usual now--but we were farmers who needed to find a home for what we were producing."
Steve's outlook is similarly shaped by today's needs. "I've been pushing marketing us as a destination not just a farm. I believe our product is the farm, not just what we produce on it." Steve created a self-guided walking tour with trails through woods, vineyards and fields; as well as a vineyard tour with a knowledgeable guide. This way visitors can understand the outdoor aspect of farming as well as the wine and juice that are its end product. "It's also about the experience," he says.
The winery produces about 12,000 cases of wine each year, in addition to juice. And Sayre says he keeps experimenting with different grape varieties as well as new ways to present the tried-and-true varieties they've long grown here. One in the second category is a lighter-in-alcohol fruity wine he makes by ending fermentation when sugars are still present. He's been doing this for 15 years but it's catching on now, Sayre says, "Because of the flavor."
Steven is the seventh generation of Fulkersons on the farm; last October, he and his wife Regina welcomed Sarah, the first of the eighth generation here. Only time will tell where the youngest Fulkerson's interests lie, but based on the farm's long history, if farming captures her interest too, it would not be surprising.