What was an endless patch of melting glaciers 12,000 years ago, has since become the most fertile soil in America.
This 22-square-mile area is known as the “Black Dirt” region and has been the secret to New York’s fascinatingly fragrant and enviably appetizing onions for centuries. The best part is that it’s only an hour’s drive north from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
Much of this beloved miracle crop—which more recently features herbaceous root vegetables such as rainbow carrots, parsnips, burdock root, salsify, and Jerusalem artichokes—owes its stature to the rich soil in which it is farmed. Next to the Florida Everglades, this 26,000 acres of muck is the largest concentration of soil this fertile in the country, and it’s where Alex Paffenroth’s family has been farming for four generations.
“When the glaciers melted, they left behind areas of marshland that built up over time and turned into decayed plants,” Paffenroth tells us. “But it wasn’t until the early 1900s when German, Dutch, and Polish immigrants took over the land and decided to drain Orange County, New York. Underneath, they found a deep black soil that was incredibly rich in nitrogen and sulfur—key elements to fertilization.” This black soil, called muck, is like a big sponge that retains enough moisture to provide plants with a constant supply of water and nutrients. It’s what farmers like to called ‘supercharged,’ as if loads of the best compost and fertilizer were added to regular dirt. Because it’s free of rocks and sand, it’s particularly suited for root crops, a specialty of Paffenroth Gardens in Warwick, New York, along with the onions his family’s farm has cultivated for generations.
Paffenroth took over the family business in 1967 after receiving a hardship discharge from the army due to his father’s passing. He continued to grow onions until about 1987, when the notorious Nor’easter of ’87 took over his entire crop. “At first I was so discouraged, but then I decided to go in a different direction and diversify my crop. This was about the time when green markets were coming on to the scene, so I started selling at local markets and found my way to the Union Square Greenmarket.”
In a turn of fate, the Greenmarket became Paffenroth’s main outlet for selling his crop and the experience encouraged him to further diversify. “The more I introduced unique root vegetables to the inner city masses, the more customers were intrigued and showed up each Monday at my stand.” One of those customers happened to be Devika Kumar, FreshDirect’s produce merchant, who knew instantly that Paffenroth and the rest of the Black Dirt-region farmers had something special. “Some of the onions and vegetables still had thick, beautiful pieces of soil clinging onto their roots, which to me was a sign that they were fresh and came from extremely fertile grounds,” she says. “Right then and there, I set up a time to visit Paffenroth Gardens to see how we could bring this incredible produce to FreshDirect.”
Just months later, Paffenroth’s root veggies became a big hit, not only with our customers, but also in the media. His onions and root vegetables are now Zagat-rated and beloved by celebrity chefs like Martha Stewart. “Big names like the New York Times, various chefs’ cook books, and retailers like FreshDirect have gotten the word out about the Black Dirt area and the crops that I specialize in,” he says.
Shop Black Dirt Region Rainbow Carrots here.