‘Gourmet all the Way’ at Willow Brook Farm

Originally Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2013


People say America demands cheap food — I say that is propaganda. I believe Americans want food that is convenient and truthful, healthy and tastes great so we can brag about its deliciousness.


We are obsessed with how we look and how we feel — which is directly related to what we eat. We’ve lost our way and don’t know where to get wholesome food conveniently. Somewhere someone swapped nutrition for convenience in our food system — no wonder we eat endlessly … if we never have nutrition, our bodies crave more to eat. And doesn’t that cost more?


So why don’t these giant food corporations give us every chance for good health by allowing us to make our own food decisions and inform us about composition and production of the food we consume? Is it really so complicated?


Not at Willow Brook Farms! The Beneke farm family sells beef, pork, dairy, produce and sweet corn at a new farm store at a fair cost for food your body craves and offers bragging rights.


Kenneth Beneke is a third-generation farmer doing all of the right things to steward the land, care for the animals and create sustainable food to feed us so well.


Ken heeded the calling to the land. In fifth grade, a teacher called his mother and told her apprehensively, her son had said, “I don’t need to learn to read and write, I’m going to be a farmer.” Ken indeed fulfilled his dream.


All year long, seven days a week Ken “loves being outside” and of course acquiesced to academia because it isn’t just about the land and food production — you need skills like reading, writing and math to farm!


Willow Brook Farms is located just off Route 22 over the Dutchess County line and is primarily a dairy farm with a herd of 325 head (registered Holstein and Jersey cows) of which 115 are milked for Hudson Valley Fresh and Cabot milk products you can also buy at your supermarket. In farming it’s all about honesty and the farmer will never trick the folks he feeds.


Kenneth Beneke and his partner Jane Naylor manage the farm with the help of his parents, Carol and Henry Beneke and five full time employees. Kenneth’s German grandparents Joachim and Engel Beneke have a long history in food. They owned a deli in Brooklyn for many years and moved to the town of Millerton in 1943 to purchase the farm. Not knowing a thing about farming, the couple became self-taught dairy farmers.


Their son, Henry Beneke, Ken’s father, became a second generation farmer at Willow Brook Farms. Ironically his wife, Carol Beneke came from a German family as well, who also owned a deli — but in the Bronx! Together they had two children, Kenneth and Heidi, who both went into farming (Heidi is married to Lyn “Junior” Main and they run Berkshire Valley Farm) and still work together today. Carol remains the resident cleaner-upper and still works the land. She does the books, keeps sheep as pets and built both houses the families live in on property. Henry still farms sustainably on his land with his son now in charge.


Everyone is buzzing about “sustainability” but what exactly does that mean? Its meaning is vague at best but Sustainable Table said something hopeful: “Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer and supports and enhances rural communities.”


Is there any other way to eat? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.


The big business of food is doing exactly the opposite of honest labeling and sustainable agriculture. This is why people should opt out of processed food that harms your health, land, animals and threatens our food safety in the interest of profits.


Responsible food choices are vital no matter the cost. What is the cost of poor health?


Start by knowing who makes your food — like the Benekes. They have been practicing sustainable farming for more than 60 years on 925 acres of farmland.


But let’s ask another question — why do many milk cartons claim no antibiotics? It seems to suggest some milk contains antibiotics? More misleading information… the truth is if antibiotics are found in milk, it’s thrown out. It occurs only from human error. In layman’s terms, this means the milk from the cow wasn’t dumped after antibiotic treatment to cure the animal’s illness. Or the cow was allowed off the holding period too early and residue from the medical treatment remains. Antibiotics are banned in American milk supply, which is tested before purchase at the farm for distribution.


Dairy farming is the Beneke legacy but milking is hard work and as costs continue to rise for grain and fuel (a dramatic 70 percent increase in the last few years) and “everybody wanting cheap food …” Ken said, they are forced to diversify.


Beyond dairy and equally rigorous are beef farming, pork farming, vegetable farming, field work and maintenance that occurs at Willow Brook Farms daily from dawn until dusk. Ken also breeds the herds with know-how having been inspired by his uncle — the infamous Dr. George Beneke (a veterinarian who started the Copake Veterinary Hospital on Route 22).


The animals on Willow Brook Farms live very well and look beautiful. They are clean, comfortable and happy. “Happier the cow — more milk. Stressed cows carry bacteria,” Ken said. And good, wholesome milk means more revenues. These cows sure looked happy to me in this tie-stall barn! During the day they stay inside in temperature controlled tunnel ventilation systems that feel cool, calm, serene and rest on recycled rubber cushioned mattresses with fresh kiln dried sawdust that ensures chewing of their cud 60 times — a sign Ken told me his father Henry said indicated comfort, “Cows are creatures of habit — so everything is routine.”


In the evening, these animals take to the fields to graze and roam the hillsides surrounding the farm for exercise before they return to the barn for sleep.


For all of these reasons and more your food should cost more. It’s better for you and it supports community and commerce that is essential for economic development and the joy that ensues from a ride in the agriculturally-rich countryside we call home. Imagine our towns without family farms that offer diversity like the Benekes? Who needs high yield and feeding the masses? Feed yourself richly and well in your own community. Meet your farmer.


Willow Brook Farms is raising 20 Black Angus beef cattle the right way. Some he is even blending with Wygu (for next year) as an experiment with Kobe flavor, “based on extreme marbling,” Ken explained.


They also raise Berkshire pork and grow non-GMO sweet corn that is amazing and a family secret. “Our butter and sugar sweet corn is picked fresh every day. We’ve been doing it for 20 years,” Ken said. This leaves you little reason to rush to a supermarket this summer.


If that isn’t enough, the Benekes grow their own feed for the animals too — hay and corn on surrounding properties which keeps everyone busy. On Arethusa Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut they feed their awarded Jersey cows only Willow Brook Farms hay. Smart cows know good eating!


This year at the Summer Yearling National Spring Show it all paid off as the Benekes took home second place in the national competition for their heifer Holstein — which means instant notoriety and prosperity as the animals they breed will sell for more.


“It’s all about genetics and breeding,” Ken told me. “Willow Brook breeds for longevity, production and confirmation.” Which is why their herd includes show animals.


Gourmet all the way, The Farm Store at Willow Brook Farms (built from local trees by Kenneth’s best friend James Petkovich of JFP Construction) is open all summer Thursday through Sunday. Stop by for local ice cream and stock up on specialty food as well as Willow Brook Farms beef and pork selections. This third generation family of farmers all live on the farm, so ask questions about sourcing your food locally. And don’t forget to thank them for working hard to feed you so well. FarmOn!


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