Growing From The Ground Up

August 2, 2018

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN PUTNAM COUNTY—

GROWING FROM THE GROUND UP

Meet the Makers series focuses on Eleanor’s Best, a Putnam-based agricultural business that is blossoming nationwide

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Eleanor’s Best, purveyors of artisanal jams, jellies, preserves and marmalade, is flourishing thanks to the growing appetite for quality specialty products nationwide. According to a 2015 study cited in Food Quality and Safety magazine, “Consumers are particularly committed to certain types of specialty or organic foods…70 percent of respondents…prefer all-natural products while 68 percent prefer locally produced food.”  And those numbers are rising.

Eleanor’s Best is helping to satisfy this increasing demand. As the company expands, it is also contributing to a rapidly expanding segment of economic development within Putnam County—agricultural business.

“There’s a misconception that economic development means attracting industry—big-box chains and large-scale manufacturing,” says Jill Varricchio, president of Putnam County Economic Development Corporation. “But agricultural businesses are becoming the backbone to Putnam’s continued economic growth. Our extensive network of parkland and our protected waterways—once considered a barrier to economic growth—are the very same characteristics that are attracting agricultural businesses,” she explains. “As these companies form networks, they create and sustain opportunities for a host of products and services.”

Eleanor’s Best was founded by Jennifer Mercurio, an attorney with a 20-year career in international corporate and technology law. Ms. Mercurio’s family tree reaches back generations and has yielded a number of women named Eleanor, whose many and varied accomplishments included perfecting the art of preserving fine fruits—a time-honored process that became a family tradition as well as a strictly guarded family secret. Initially, Ms. Mercurio gave jars of her handcrafted marmalade to colleagues and friends. They were so enthusiastic that she decided to try marketing her preserves under her own private label, named after her forebears.

Ms. Mercurio and her husband had Putnam County on their radar for some time before moving here from Manhattan to more than a decade ago. It seemed to offer the best of both worlds: accessibility to New York City and a rustic character with deep sense of community. They found a farm that would fulfill their dreams, in Garrison, New York. Although a former owner had allowed extensive excavations on the land, they were committed to healing it. In return, the farm gave back—nourishing both their family and their entrepreneurial spirit.

While close to New York City, Putnam is worlds away from its stresses. The move allowed the couple to continue their careers while enjoying the quality of life they had long envisioned. Over time, Ms. Mercurio’s husband shifted from being a high-powered political consultant to a rare book collector; today his business operates worldwide from their home. Meanwhile, Ms. Mercurio evolved from being an attorney to becoming an entrepreneur.

After they had their daughter—named Eleanor—Ms. Mercurio wanted to spend even more time at home. The slower pace of producing jams and jellies suited her. In fact, making jams and jellies is the antithesis of fast-food—it takes from one to three days to produce a batch.

The company’s location allowed Ms. Mercurio to buy from local sources and sell through local outlets before eventually reaching sellers nationwide. The company has grown concentrically. At first, Eleanor’s Best was available exclusively at the Country Goose in nearby Cold Spring, then in 30 stores from Westchester to Albany. Eventually, the jams, jellies and preserves spread to national outlets such as Whole Foods.

To keep up with demand, Ms. Mercurio has expanded her line of jams, jellies, preserves and marmalades from just three flavors of marmalade (bitter orange, Meyer lemon, and grapefruit) to 14 including blueberry jam, peach jam, quince jam, raspberry jam, and strawberry rhubarb jam. The company plans to increase output by building a new commercial kitchen space in a barn on the farm. Ms. Mercurio also intends to rent it out to other small farm and food creators, as well as caterers regionally to help buoy the local food system and support others with the entrepreneurial spirit.

Eleanor’s Best sources fruits that are grown locally according to organic methods—no pesticides or chemicals are used (although the ingredients are not necessarily “certified” organic, since legal certification guidelines can be cost-prohibitive), nor are there any additives, dyes or fillers. Each product is gluten free and vegan. Even the pectin is fruit-based—from farm apples, not grains—and therefore is GMO free. Her citrus fruits come from Arizona, California or Florida and are equally carefully scrutinized. Sources for other items such as labels to bottles jars and packaging also must meet high standards for authenticity and sustainability.

Still, Eleanor’s Best keeps a lid on costs in order to offer her line at mid-range prices, often lower than competing industrial brands that are mass-produced and typically include fillers. “There are only four or five ingredients in every selection, and they’re recognizable ingredients people can trust,” Ms. Mercurio says. “Everything is authentic.”

In addition to few ingredients, Eleanor’s Best employs a relatively few number of people in the production process. A handful of others fill orders coming in from gourmet specialty shops and larger chain stores across 45 states. Eleanor’s Best direct ships wholesale orders and also works with distributors filling the farm to table niche.

And they have diversified. Today Mercurio Farms produces eggs from free range, organically fed “happy hen” chickens; raw wildflower honey; beeswax hand and lip salves; pure Grade A maple syrup tapped from trees their own trees and boiled down in their farm sugar shack, as well as vegetables, herbs, flowers and orchard fruits.

Mercurio Farms composts and recycles as much as possible. Manure is used to nourish planting beds throughout the farm. Their bees, which produce honey and beeswax, also pollenate everything growing on the farm. The flock of Jacob sheep that graze the land not only provide wool that is spun locally, but also inexpensive lawn mowing and fertilizer. Ms. Mercurio finds time to knit and crochet the wool into items for the family. Next year, they hope to bring in pigs, and they are researching their options for making the farm go solar.

 

According to Ms. Varricchio, agriculture in Putnam County is a diverse, multimillion dollar industry and a crucial land use that strengthens the local food supply, economic vitality, quality of life, community character, picturesque landscape, environment, and recreational opportunities. “Right now, there are approximately 11,309 farmland acres in Putnam County with farm sizes ranging from 1.25 acres to 1,200 acres,” she says, noting that their activities range from equine and livestock operations to greenhouses; nurseries; orchards; and maple syrup, hay and corn production. “As residents seek relief from the state and local tax burdens while maintaining the quality of life they enjoy in Putnam, contributions to the local economy from agriculture businesses are figuring ever more strongly in the picture,” she explains.

Ms. Varricchio recently developed the “Meet the Makers” series to highlight Putnam County’s distinctive assets and how they are creating unique development opportunities.