Hidley Farm and Forest

by Dick and Shari Gibbs

Shari and Dick both came from southeastern Minnesota, their family farms not more than five miles apart. Having graduated high school in the same class of 44 students in 1962, they went on to different colleges, but kept their friendship alive and “a-love” through letters and summer courtship. They married in 1966 and within three days arrived in Troy NY. Shari taught school to support Dick in his studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he earned a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in 1971. One would think that Shari’s career as an educator and Dick’s 35-year career as a research scientist developing NYS Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC] programs to control emissions from motor vehicles would have kept them busy enough. Add a family to the mix and life is complete. Right?

Wrong! Their farm roots ran deep; they always wanted to own a small farm. With careers, two young girls to raise, and confronting critical health issues (Dick-diabetes and Shari-lymphoma), Hidley Farm and Forest didn’t happen until 1981 when they purchased 100 acres behind the old Hidley farmhouse that they had purchased in 1972. A framed copy of the deed to the land hangs in the entryway of their home, a record of the indentured servitude of Johannis Heidleigh to the Dutch Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1787. It has been a long journey renovating the house more than once and learning how to manage their land: 50 acres of cropland and a woodlot to which they added another 30 acres for a farm/forest total of 130 acres.

Initially their focus was primarily on the cropland that a neighbor farmed. The forest was there as a place to remove dead trees for firewood to feed the hungry fireplace heat exchanger struggling to warm the radiators of Hidley House. Eventually they sought counsel with NYFOA and chapter chair Mike Greason who became their forester.On his first visit to their mixed hardwood forest stand, Mike gave them sage advice and with a wry smile added, “The only thing wrong with this woodlot is that I don’t own it!”Through the years, Hidley Farm and Forest has become more than a source for firewood and bales of hay; it now has many dimensions and Shari and Dick’s very lives are wrapped up in its care.

The 50 acres of cropland is now dedicated to hay that is grown and harvested by a local young farmer. Dick works to maintain open fields, does brush hogging, tilling, and reseeding. At this time, the woodlot could have a commercial harvest, but other goals in their forest management plan allow for keeping it in improvement cuts. They share their firewood with their friend and neighbor Charlie who cuts, splits, and stacks the majority of this resource.

They have heated their home with Timber Stand Improvement cuts that were first marked by Mike Greason and now by their forester Mary Spring. They selected a NYS built Econoburn wood gasification boiler that burns very clean and is linked to a 1,200-gallon thermal storage tank in the house basement. The boiler is housed in a shed a short distance from the house and the central heating system provides all household heat and domestic hot water. The shed holds about eight cords of dry firewood. Thus they no longer need to move firewood outdoors during winter.

In conjunction with another retired DEC scientist, Larry Skinner, they have about 200 maple trees tapped. Larry and his wife Kathy handle all of the work to tap, collect, boil, and market the finished syrup, producing under their name “Skinners Sugarbush.”They produced about 100 gallons of syrup last year.Anyone who has done sap knows that Larry’s efforts require a lot of expense and timely dedication.Hidley Farm provides about three acres for the sugarbush stand, some firewood for Larry’s use in evaporating, and helps with tree management.

Dick and Shari share the farm with neighbors and friends and keep it open for many types of users. Walkers, C-X skiers, mountain bike riders, designated deer hunters, meditators, photographers, and grandchildren all think of Hidley Farm and Forest as their special place and share in its maintenance and upkeep. The Gibbses think of their land as a many layered treasure enjoyed by all, and accept the responsibility of managing user interactions. For instance, the MTB riders have twisty, challenging, technical riding trails in the hedgerows and in the forest. However, some trails had to be moved out of the sugarbush to enable Larry to establish sap lines.

About 25 years ago Dick, Shari and daughters Jennifer and Rachel held their first “Thanksgiving in the Woods” down under a small stand of tall hemlocks.Perhaps ten family and friends, wrapped in the warmest coats they could find, gathered around a big plank table to give thanks for life’s bounty. Stones were heated in the pit fire and placed inside a row of old chimney flues to provide for warm feet. The snow-laden hemlocks overhead, howling wind, and cheek and jowl friendship made indelible impressions on all, and thus was launched a major tradition continued to this day. Every year Thanksgiving in the Woods presents a different challenge and opportunity.The feast has become an open, potluck festival for whoever dares to come ready for whatever nature has to offer. Always there has been live music and singing, fires, great food, and fellowship with a growing community of families and friends. This past year, in temperatures not topping 20 degrees, they hosted about 150 people from near and far. Asked why and how they carry on this tradition, they responded, “Why? ‘Tis a Gift.’ How? Only with huge efforts and enthusiasm from many friends.”

Hidley Farm was the birthplace of Joseph Hidley, a fairly well known early Hudson River Valley painter.The Hidley family cemetery is atop the hill on the farm and has a panoramic view of the western edge of the Rensselaer Plateau. When they purchased the farm, the cemetery was totally overgrown and hidden in a hedgerow.In successive restorations they have returned the Hidley cemetery to a place of solace for memorials and wedding ceremonies for friends and family. Because their lives have become so totally invested in Hidley Farm and Forest, they have chosen to have their ashes buried at the cemetery.

NYFOA has been important to Dick and Shari in teaching how to manage their woodlot in sustainable ways that conserve it for future generations while it yields positive benefits now. Woods-walks on their farm and other NYFOA owners’ land always lead to increased understanding as each woodlot is unique and carries a history different from others. Social interaction and sharing ideas and experiences with NYFOA members has been especially beneficial. It is through NYFOA that Dick was able to become a Master Forest Owner.

Shari and Dick were founding members of the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance [RPA] and this has become their primary retirement focus. RPA, now an accredited land trust, has taught them much about conserving and managing sustainable forests. RPA and NYFOA maintain active collaboration. For instance, Dick brought a chainsaw safety-training course, Game of Logging (GOL), to the CDC-NYFOA. It is now a collaborative project between RPA and NYFOA and offered regionally to all woodlot owners. GOL is made available through the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH).

For Dick and Shari, owning a woodlot and farmland is more than a couple of old folks who, nearing the last stages of life, find they have a bunch of trees in their backyard. Their advice to woodlot owners is to be engaged with your forest. Seek advice. Conserve and protect it. Absentee or aloof ownership doesn’t make for good decisions. Treating forests as something to pass forward requires engagement, hard work, and a willingness to keep learning. It requires a PLAN! To protect Hidley Farm and Forest from nearby development and to pass their treasure forward, Dick and Shari are in the process of establishing a conservation easement for the land. NYFOA will continue to be a valuable resource on this journey.

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