ESF Education Helps Alumnus Launch Agritourism Success
Critz Farms expands into craft beverage movement
It's autumn and Matthew Critz '77 is excited about pumpkins; come springtime he will be captivated by all things maple. "I get really into whatever it is I'm doing and right now I'm getting a kick out of growing pumpkins," he said. Critz is the co-owner and president of Critz Farms Inc., a diversified agricultural operation focused on community entertainment and education.
Critz used his ESF education as a springboard for the development of a farming operation that has been named New York State Agribusiness of the Year by the New York State Department of Economic Development. For more than 30 years, Critz has worked to expand and improve his business, demonstrating entrepreneurial spirit, commitment to the public and passion for each of his many enterprises.
Critz Farms sits on a 325-acre property on State Route 13 in Cazenovia, New York. Much of the land is protected through the New York State Farmland Protection Program. The farm's primary crops include pumpkins, apples and a variety of conifer trees grown as Christmas trees and for landscaping purposes. Other crops include gourds, decorative corn, strawberries, blueberries, flowers, barley and hops. The farm uses these and other local ingredients to handcraft products such as sweet apple cider, New York cheddar cheese, pure maple syrup, balsam fir wreaths, farm-brewed craft beer and hard cider.
Critz Farms is also an award-winning agritourism destination that offers a broad spectrum of family-friendly activities. Open 10 months a year, the farm offers several U-pick crops, cider and maple syrup-making demonstrations, cornfield mazes, wagon rides, educational farm tours, seasonal events and festival entertainment. The property also features playgrounds, animal areas, a full service cafe, a gift shop and a tasting room.
Critz earned his bachelor's degree in forest engineering from ESF in 1977. Following graduation, he became a partner in a Christmas tree farm in the Adirondacks. "At ESF you are a forestry student first and foremost," he said. "Christmas tree farming seemed like a perfect way to put my forestry degree to practical use." During this time, Critz discovered his interest in retail, and when the partnership dissolved he decided to start a U-pick Christmas tree farm of his own.
In 1985 Critz and his wife, Juanita, purchased a 125-acre farm in Cazenovia-just 30 minutes from his alma mater-and began welcoming visitors. Critz dealt exclusively with Christmas trees until a friend suggested he grow U-pick pumpkins. "We tried it," he said. "We got a bunch of people out to pick pumpkins and it was fun, but we kept getting the feeling that they wanted more. They wanted a tractor ride, so we added that; they wanted animals, so we added those." From the start, Critz has sought to strike a balance between listening to the public and doing the things he enjoys.
In recent years, Critz Farms has emerged as a local leader in the craft beverage movement, specializing in the production of small-batch hard ciders and farm-brewed beers. The products are handcrafted from ingredients grown on the farm. The Harvest Moon Cidery, established in 2011, has been recognized at international wine and cider competitions for producing hard ciders of exceptional quality. The craft beer line is Critz's latest venture; he started the enterprise last fall, hiring a brewer, installing equipment and introducing a selection of full-flavored, American-style ales. In 2015, the cidery and brewery were consolidated to form the Critz Farms Brewing & Cider Company.
"That's one business I never thought we'd be in," said Critz of the beverage industry. "But it has worked out really well for us." Critz, who began his ESF education studying paper engineering, credits the program's chemistry-heavy curriculum for facilitating his leap into the beverage business. "I didn't have to teach myself all the basic underlying chemical principles because I already had a solid foundation," he said. He also expressed gratitude to the public, stating, "The community has provided a tremendous amount of support, allowing us to grow to the level where we can ship product all over, to places like New York City."
While the farm has a strong community focus, Critz still remains involved in what he refers to as "wholesale agriculture"- farming that does not directly involve the public. This year, for example, he plans to ship an estimated 900,000 pounds of pumpkins all over the East Coast. According to Critz, about 40 percent of the beverage business is wholesale. Diversification, he believes, is essential to any successful agricultural business. "What happens if one fall it rains every weekend and no one comes to pick pumpkins?" he asked. "There must be a balance between agritourism and wholesale agriculture."
While developing his nascent business, Critz also worked on projects that were essentially off-farm and out of public view. His ESF education proved extremely valuable to this work. When first starting out, he was involved in commercial landscaping. "All those botany and tree identification courses proved very useful!" he remarked. He also worked on wetland rehabilitation projects across the Northeast. "There was a lot of planning, reading drawings and laying out grade lines on those jobs," he recalled. "Having studied civil engineering, I was using all the stuff I learned every day." In addition to the skills and knowledge gained in class, Critz was grateful for ESF's outstanding reputation and alumni network. "As soon as people found out that I was an ESF graduate, I had instant credibility."
As the farm itself has evolved, so too have the obstacles facing its owners. "In the beginning, challenges included developing the farm, paying the bills and dealing with all that goes along with starting a business on a wing and a prayer," said Critz. Today, a new hurdle has emerged: a lack of labor. It was not difficult for him to find help 20 years ago. However, over time the labor shortage has become increasingly worrisome. Critz pointed out that today, less than 5 percent of Americans are directly involved in agriculture.
Critz sees agritourism and the local food and beverage movement as important ways for people to reconnect to their food sources and the roots of production. "Three generations ago, virtually everyone had a relative with a farm," he explained. "There was a known connection between the food you were eating and the person who produced it. This connection has been lost. We provide people with a way to rediscover where, how and by whom their food is grown."
The public eagerly awaits Matthew Critz's next move. However, on the subject of future farm developments, he stated, "I have no idea where we are going next." The next few years represent a transitional phase for the farm, as Critz's youngest son, Patrick-the current farm manager-starts to take over the family business. "Juanita and I feel as though the farm is an expression of us," said Critz. "Patrick will have to decide how to meld his own interests with those of the public. He really loves music and is involved in the brewery. Maybe that will be the way we evolve. Who knows?"
- By Kate Hill
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