Chris Kelder didn’t dream of growing up to be a farmer. “When I went away to Cornell, I wanted to do anything but,” he says. “But looking at other things in the business world, I kept getting drawn back.” He studied animal science and business economics, and came back to the Rondout Valley to begin what he calls his “trial by fire.”
He did make some changes to the 200-year-old family spread. “We dairied, and I realized, I have nothing against cows, but I wanted to be more customer-oriented,” Chris says. “We have a really loyal customer base and that’s key to our success.”
To win that base over and keep growing it like a fine crop, he’s built Kelder’s into a family-friendly farm focused on “creating an experience visitors won’t forget,” he says. “We want everyone to have a memorable time.”
Memorable is indeed a good word for a farm that, along with animals, fruits, and veggies, offers a massive jumping pillow for kids and a record-setting giant garden gnome. Kelder’s is an area leader in agritourism innovation and is an absolute original.
“I love the people I meet, and the diversity. Every day is different, every plant is different.”–Chris Kelder, owner
And it’s still very much a family operation. “My wife Jackie and I, and our son John, are all very hands-on,” says Chris, “from bookwork to planning to repairs to farming to customer service. We’re all involved with every aspect of farming and direct marketing—everything from plumbing to fun stuff.”
They never know who may show up on any given day. “We get local folks, people from New York City and from all sorts of other parts of the world,” says Chris.
“On a weekend day in the summer, the place can look like the United Nations. One thing we humans have in common that cannot be denied: we all enjoy food. It’s a necessity, but also a pleasure. And we think we have something for everyone here, from kids to connoisseurs.”
Hands-on activities to explore include fishing, picking your own goodies, taking a hayride, and milking a cow. Starting in August, there’s a corn maze; the jumping pillow, unique wooden playground, and mini-golf are open year-round. You can get up close and personal with alpacas, sheep, goats, cows, and donkeys, or watch the honeybees do their thing.
“It’s all about unplugging for a day, getting away from your phone, and doing something real and satisfying.” –Chris Kelder, owner
“It’s all about unplugging for a day, getting away from your phone and doing something real and satisfying,” says Chris. “And when I see a child’s face light up in wonderment about a fresh strawberry or someone witnessing milking for the first time ... the exploration of things we usually take for granted is beautiful to witness.”
Chris and Jackie bought the farm from his parents in 1994; in 1999, they opened their market in its current location. “The home farm is on a back road, and to do what we wanted to do, we needed to be out on 209,” he says. “So we bought the market property in 1997. We strive to add new things often and try to give it our own flavor.
We’re blessed with a gorgeous view, and I hope our customer service stands out and is memorable in a good way. And we keep prices reasonable; that’s the only way to keep the locals coming back.” It’s all about the customer at Kelder’s, and constantly evolving with the season and the times. “We have seasonal specials, of course,” says Chris, “and some online stuff coming up; that’s my son’s deal. He likes Facebook contests. He’s my internet crutch.”
No matter how “with-it” you are or what you’ve studied in school, farming is always an unpredictable challenge. “Like all farmers, we have to cope with freeze-outs, flood-outs, and the rest of it,” Chris says. “We manage by being diverse, so if something fails we have something to fall back on, because the one certainty is that it’s gonna happen. When you think you’ve got it figured out, something changes. You’ve gotta look around the corner, which is not always easy.”
Another resource that supports farmers and that Chris loves belonging to is the regional Rondout Valley Growers Association. “The RVGA is very important to the region,” he says. “Everybody works in the same direction, and the high water raises all of our ships at once.”
Kelder’s is an area leader in agritourism innovation and is an absolute original.
Hiring the right staff is also essential. Chris looks for “a happy person who enjoys people and is a team player, someone who’s not afraid of getting their hands dirty and keeps a positive attitude.” Those who fit the bill find they’re part of a constantly evolving adventure. “We’re learning all the time,” Chris says. “We network, we talk all the time about what works and what to improve on. We’re constantly striving. This year we’re going to expand on the fishing, and we’re growing more and more small fruits. We’ve got more raspberries going in. I love the flexibility of being my own boss, and the way you can see what works and what doesn’t as you go along. I love the people I meet, and the diversity. Every day is different, every plant is different.”
Going into its third century, it seems likely that the original farmers who started all this back in 1779 would be gratified, if a bit bemused. A giant garden gnome and a jumping pillow probably never occurred to them. But moving into the 21st century, it’s clear that the Kelder family would not change places with anyone on the planet. “Every day is an accomplishment,” Chris says. “Having a business that the next generation is interested in being a part of is an achievement; it doesn’t always happen in agriculture. But the only way to live is to find something you love and make it pay, and here we are.”
Kelder’s Farm: 5755 Route 209, Kerhonkson