From traversing the European and North African countrysides, fresh out of high school with little more than a Triumph motorcycle and the company of a friend absorbing the beautiful and impressive old growth vineyards of France and Germany, to harnessing advanced technology in order to develop industry transforming materials, Jeff Morris is Thomas Jefferson’s ideal farmer. In fact, as Jefferson noted, Jeff is a man that discovered that farming, “is a science of the very first order. It counts among it handmaids of the most respectable sciences, such as Chemistry, Natural Philosophy, Mechanics, Mathematics generally, Natural History, Botany.”
Jeff, one of five children, grew up in the idyllic post-war suburbs of Irondequoit, just outside of Rochester, NY. With a father employed by Kodak, and a mother who was a substitute school teacher, Jeff’s upbringing was about as quintessentially post-war “Rochesterian” as possible.
Summers in Jeff’s youth were spent on Seneca Lake, where his family helped maintain a cottage on the lake at Long Point. Those long blissful summers of his youth, instilled a love of the Finger Lakes in Jeff, and lit the fire of a passion for the region and for Seneca Lake that still burns today.
Although Jeff enjoyed a young adulthood filled agricultural hobbies and odd-jobs, his future was destined for the burgeoning field of ceramic engineering. Jeff obtained B.S. and Masters degrees in ceramic engineering from Alfred University, and had set off on a path to earn his Ph.D. in the field as well from Alfred. While working on his Ph.D., Jeff was simultaneously working as a research assistant with the Alfred University Research Foundation.
It was at Alfred that Jeff developed what he called reticulated ceramic. Holding the material in one’s hand, the reticulated ceramic resembles a fabricated piece of coral, or a sea sponge. Reticulated ceramics were revolutionary because they possessed a continuous porous phase and a continuous solid phase, and showed promising results when using the material to filter molten metal.
Having developed the material during his employment with Alfred, it was the University that owned the patent Jeff had obtained on the material. However, the year was 1979, Silicon Valley had made a large splash with the computer technology innovations that had occurred there, and Alfred University recognized the potential of partnerships between educational research laboratories and private industry, where educational facilities could help incubate technology that would then provide for well-paying high-tech jobs in the community. Consequently, Jeff managed to convince the Dean of the University to sell him the patent and permit him to start his own company.
An early arrival on the scene of next-wave technology companies, Jeff worked to help found the company Hi-Tech Ceramics, and based the company in Alfred, New York.
After successfully building a multi-national high-tech manufacturing company, Jeff returned to the summer destination of his childhood, and bought a cottage on Seneca Lake in Glenora, with his wife Laurie. Spending summer weekends at the lake cottage, Jeff would drive past a parcel of an old farm located at the crest of a hill on Dundee-Glenora Road that had been posted for sale for years, anytime he had begun the commute back to Alfred. The 113 acre parcel that contained grapes, peaches, apples, and plenty of tillable ground, was for sale was owned by Eastman Beers, a local legend in the field of agriculture. The sweeping views of Seneca Lake from atop the hill were breathtaking, but Jeff had fallen in love with the old barn that was situated on that property. In fact, the fruit crop bounty that was produced on the land was of little concern to Jeff at this point in time, he knew he would be leasing the land back to Eastman to continue farming and growing grapes... the fact was that grand old barn would be his, and he knew he had to have it. In 1991, Jeff closed on the sale of the 113 acres, and a series of life-changing events were set in motion.
Eastman Beers, had been a major part of the growth of the widely respected Spring Ledge Farms, an impressive operation that had been known for its pioneering spirit of grape growing in the Finger Lakes. Spring Ledge Farms got its start from Edmond A. Beers, Eastman’s father, who in 1918, started a four acre poultry farm at the site. After initial success, the Beers farm expanded after the acquisition of the old farm of James C. Henderson in the 1930’s. The Henderson farm, founded in 1820, consisted of 59 acres.
Additional acquisitions of nearby farmland, as well as the renting of 187 acres of other adjacent parcels owned by Edwin Elliot, Harry Carpenter and Guy Shults Farms, led to the development of a very sizable farming operation. Eastman Beers, who had returned from service in World War II in 1945, set out to focus the farm on fruit farming, specifically grape cultivation. For decades, Eastman cultivated at least 60 acres of Concord, Catawba, Niagara, Delaware and Ives, selling the entire wine grape crop to Taylor Winery. In addition to wine grapes, Eastman also cultivated table grapes, pears and peaches.
Spring Ledge Farms would prove instrumental in the transition of the New York wine grape industry from suppliers of mass quantities of wine grapes to the big winery houses located in the Finger Lakes, to smaller farm winery operations dedicated to crafting fine wines. In fact, it was Eastman Beers, who would work with Gene Pierce, Howard Kimball, and Edward Dalrymple to found Glenora Winery, and use grapes grown at Spring Ledge Farms for many of the wines.
As age crept up on Eastman, and the necessity for selling the entire farm became apparent, it was Howard Kimball who first approached Jeff about purchasing the remainder of Spring Ledge Farms, which consisted of approximately another 150 acres. In 1996, Jeff closed on the purchase of land. This acreage included the parcel where Jeff grows Valvin Muscat, among other varietals, and a large piece of the block on the east side of Route 14, the parcel that sits in front of the newly built Starkey’s Lookout, and adjacent to Glenora Winery. Serendipitously, Jeff was also able to acquire several other small parcels that were connected to this parcel, including part of what was the old Carpenter Farm, as well as other smaller parcels that were unused and under-utilized.
Although the farm possessed dozens of amazing microclimates, and an impressive diversity of soil formations indispensable for growing world class grapes, the farm came with an equally invaluable resource - Earl Andrews. Earl has worked the land at Spring Ledge Farms, subsequently renamed Glenora Farms by Jeff, since he graduated high school. Now 60, there isn’t a single inch of the farm Earl is not familiar with. His expertise, dedication and loyalty, are great assets for Jeff and Laurie.
Amidst Jeff and Laurie’s growing land holdings, Jeff continued to help his parents with the family farm his parents had retired to in 1972, only three miles away from the center of action for the burgeoning Glenora Farms. He considers this a period of “part-time farming,” as he had his hands in the earth, and his head in Hi-Tech Ceramics.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Jeff finally left Hi-Tech Ceramics for full time farming. Upon reflection Jeff insists “There is a lot of science you apply, that needs to be applied, to do a good job.” His passion for growing the finest grapes, taking advantage of every opportunity mother nature gives you in the challenging environment of the Finger Lakes, is truly a balance of science and logistics.
Logistics involves being prepared to act when necessary to protect and maintain the vineyards throughout the growing season, and finally coordinating with winemakers, winery owners, employees and complicated pieces of equipment, to ensure that the minute the grapes requiring picking, they are picked. Although the growing season may be long, Laurie stresses how quickly a small problem in a vineyard can decimate an entire vintage for a grower. A problem such as powdery mildew, if not addressed immediately, can ravage a vineyard faster than is even imaginable. Likewise, when a delicate grape such as Pinot Noir is ready to be picked, the grower and the winery have a very short window, sometimes as short as hours, to harvest the fruit. This attention to detail is the difference between simply making good wine, and crafting premium, world class wine.
Throughout the growing season, and particularly at harvest, Jeff recounts that you can either conduct an orchestra, or manage a hockey game. The orchestra is a smooth, tight, enjoyable and well coordinated affair. The hockey game, with its penchant for discord, fighting, and chaos, makes life more difficult than it needs to be, and jeopardizes the fruit. With a chuckle, Jeff comments, “ I’d rather conduct the orchestra.”
Read an overview of Terroir in the Finger Lakes here.