Daring is as daring does
Written by Olivia M. Hall, photos by Robyn Wishna
Shannon O’Connor and John Reynolds rarely do things the easy way. Over a dozen years, they have been building up their farm and cidery by hand, slowly filling 36 acres between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes with perennial fruit, a few vegetables and a roving brace of ducks.
“We called our farm Daring Drake because it’s very daring to start a fruit farm with no capital in your thirties,” O’Connor says with a laugh while watering the birds with her 14-month-old daughter Pippin strapped to her back and 7-year-old daughter Idunn and Scrumpy the dog close at her heels.
When the two Pennsylvania natives arrived in the Finger Lakes some fifteen years ago—Reynolds came to study plant genetics at Cornell and then worked at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva for a couple of years—they took their time to save up to buy their five-acre home farm in Interlaken.
“It takes an incredible amount of money to plant one acre of perennial fruit crops,” explains O’Connor, who also works as the director of the Ovid public library. “The cost of the plants, the trellising, all the years of maintenance before you actually see a crop. I think the pears took 11 years before they bore fruit for the first time. Pears for your heirs, as the saying goes.”
Add to that the sheer diversity of crops—more than 80 varieties of apples alone, along with numerous types of pears, quince, cherries, grapes and berries—that were at first crammed into their home plot and have now spilled over onto a larger parcel in Ovid. “It may be slightly insane,” Reynolds admits. “It makes management very hard.”
Not that they went straight for the bestsellers either. As soon as the state lifted a decades old disease-related ban, they planted gooseberries and black, red and pink currants. “When we first showed up at market with them, it was a really hard sell because nobody knew what they were,” O’Connor remembers. Now, though, they can hardly keep up with demand, with customers at regional farmers’ markets and members of their fruit CSA happily exploring unusual crops such as sea berries, ground cherries and elderberries.
Customers also appreciate the couple’s organic practices under the Farmer’s Pledge of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. Among other methods, Daring Drake’s pest management relies on the eponymous ducks, who earn their keep by indulging their taste for insects among the trees and producing eggs for the market.
In the couple’s long-term vision, however, they will be just as well known for their cider, perry and vinegar, which they sell under the Blackduck Cidery label. While they chose the name to match the duck theme, their production practices also make them, well, black ducks among typical Finger Lakes cideries, according to Reynolds. “The style that predominates in this area is a very manipulated product,” he says. “I make cider the lazy man’s way, because I don’t have to do anything.”
The key, of course, is to know when and how long not to do anything—an understanding Reynolds has honed by making cider for years for his own use, working for a couple of seasons as an assistant winemaker at Sheldrake Point Winery, and talking to many sidra makers while traveling in Spain.
For fermentation of his cider, which can contain more than 40 different heirloom and modern apple varieties, Reynolds relies on ambient yeasts.
“People are afraid you’re going to have huge variations by using these wild techniques, but I think you build up a kind of house yeast,” he says. “But fermentation can take forever. If you use cultured yeast and add yeast nutrient, you’re essentially putting yeast crack in there and can get a ferment done in two weeks. I still have cider and perry finishing in May.”
The result is an unfiltered, unfined and dry cider that has left some regional wholesalers scratching their heads. “We knew we were never going to reach the masses with the products we’re making,” says Reynolds with a hint of defiance. “But we’ve had folks who really know cider tell us they like it, even that it’s some of the best stuff in the country. We’re currently talking to a cider-only distributor.”
Starting this summer, adventurous drinkers will have the opportunity to try Blackduck cider for themselves right at the source. “This year, it’s going to be low key, a board on two sawhorses kind of thing,” O’Connor says. But once they scrape together the funds, they plan on opening a proper tasting room, along with a U-Pick orchard.
“We want to make it a destination where people will hang out as a family,” she says. “We’ll even have fresh cider for kids. Traditionally, before Prohibition, people would come together in grange halls to drink cider and have social time. That’s what we want to do with our cidery.”
Olivia M. Hall is a freelance writer and anthropologist whose food research and travels have taken her around the world. Her food writing has appeared in such publications as Vegetarian Times and the German magazine TagNacht.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 edition of the magazine.