Twenty years ago, the nearly 200-acre Tilly Foster Farm and Educational Institute in Putnam was close to being turned into a condominium development.
Today, the Brewster farm has become a tourist attraction, an agricultural gem and a vital educational resource.
“Agritourism has the ability to put a small town, or a small county like Putnam, on the map,” Tracey Walsh, Putnam County’s director of tourism, said during an Aug. 25 Physical Services Committee meeting of the Putnam County Legislature at The Barn at Tilly Foster Farm.
“Research has shown that a tourist will travel up to 200 miles to visit a destination farm. Families come here, they visit with the animals, see the garden and the art, fish, shop at Jar Worthy, picnic and unplug – except for the obligatory Instagram post,” Walsh added.
During the meeting, officials from Putnam and its partner non-profit agencies spoke about the history of the farm, its importance to the environment, the many community-focused activities that it provides and how Tilly Foster has boosted Putnam County tourism.
Putnam County bought the farm in 2002 using Water Quality Funds from the East of Hudson watershed agreement with New York City. Initially, the county leased the land to a non-profit farm and educational museum, but in 2014, the county took over management of the farm.
County officials asked the public what it wanted to see take place at the property. Residents formed subcommittees on agriculture, health and education, business and economic development, soil and water, infrastructure and tourism.
“That’s how we got the farm we have today, with its infrastructure restored, its diverse offerings for people of all ages and its wonderful experiences,” County Executive MaryEllen Odell said. “We simply listened to the public and we did what they wanted. The groups were smart and forward-thinking, and I’m grateful for their vision.”
Chris Ruthven, Putnam County’s deputy commissioner of parks, told the committee about partnering with the Watershed Agricultural Council to ensure water quality and creating a working landscape that is focused on conservation. The county restored the pond on the property and stocked it with fish that kids can catch and release. The county is in the process of acquiring an additional 135 acres.
“We’ve been very good stewards of this land,” Ruthven said. “This is a showcase for different techniques and a model for other landowners.”
The garden at Tilly Foster provides dozens of vegetables and herbs for Tilly’s Table Restaurant, the county Office for Senior Resources and a farmstand for the public. Farm Administrator Lisa Walker oversees the farm and cares for its many animals, including goats, pigs, ducks, donkeys and horses.
She also works with Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES’ Animal Care program at Tilly Foster. The Animal Care Program prepares special needs students for careers, said Catherine Balestrieri, director of Career and Technical Education at PNW BOCES, who noted BOCES is also considering other career-focused programs for Tilly Foster.
Alison Junquera said her son Drew, 18, who has autism, attends the Culinary Arts Program at Tilly Foster, which teaches special needs students the skills needed in the food service industry. Drew spent the summer interning at Bacio, an Italian restaurant in Westchester.
“Because of the farm and the BOCES program, he now has an opportunity for a fulfilling career,” Junquera said. “He has a focus and a sense of purpose. I am here tonight to tell you how grateful I am for this program and how wonderful it has been for my son and for all the students involved.”
Putnam has also partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension, which has hosted the Farm Agribusiness Summit and Open House on the Farm and the Master Gardener Plant Sale at Tilly Foster. It has also created a Pollinator Pathway, and runs a sustainable beekeeping operation, selling its honey at Jar Worthy, the candle and apothecary shop at the farm.
“The money the farm generates offsets the cost of running it,” Committee Chairman Carl Albano said. “But the value of this farm is about more than money. Our community deserves something like this.”
Odell said she has high hopes for the future of Tilly Foster.
“I hope that the farm and educational center will continue to evolve, to work with our partners to best serve our community, provide fun activities and keep our families connected to nature,” she said.
Rick has more than 40 years’ experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, running the gamut from politics and crime to sports and human interest. He has been an editor at Examiner Media since 2012. Read more from Rick’s editor-author bio here. Read Rick’s work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/pezzullo_rick-writer/