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PEOPLE AT WORK: Orefice takes over at Uihlein Forest

July 6, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer (aolivero@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Just 10 days into Joe Orefice's tenure as director of Cornell University's Uihlein Maple Forest, 42 inches of snow blitzed this mountain village overnight in mid-March.

Nestled in the forest off Bear Cub Lane, spring was just 16 days away for Orefice and his small band of employees at the research center. And with the end of winter and start of spring comes the tapping season for the 6,000 trees on the 200-acre property.

Orefice, his team and the forest's bounty of 1,600 gallons of sweet, sugary maple syrup had to halt.

Article Photos

Joe Orefice
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)

"It slowed us down for sure," Orefice said. "We were halfway through tapping and had to wait for the snow to settle."

These are the kind of "Welcome to Lake Placid" memories Orefice will take as lessons learned with regard to the weather's dictatorial nature on this agroforest near the High Peaks.

In Orefice, though, Cornell has tabbed a young ambitious veteran with experience working within a myriad of different realms in this field of practical study known as "agroforestry." He succeeds Mike Farrell, the man who has led the maple forest through a dozen years, each of which dealt the research center varying conditions through which to tap the trees.

Orefice realizes he is assuming Farrell's job during a time in history when climate change will alter some of what goes into the operation at the farm. But with his experience gleaned from his background working on his family's farm in northwestern Connecticut at the foothills of the Berkshires, his studies at the University of Maine and Yale University and his time teaching at Paul Smith's College, he is confident his lifelong journey in agroforestry has prepped him well for this next step.

"I'll miss teaching and working with students," Orefice said, "but I felt this was a really nice opportunity for me as a career move. I like the autonomy of this position, and I'm really excited to take on maple and agroforestry research. I have a background in forestry and also agroforestry and so this is a nice way for me to utilize my skill set to help the maple industry and advance agroforestry in New York state. I knew growing up I always wanted to be in the woods, but I didn't know what I wanted to do."

During peak tapping season, Orefice's days will consist of 16 hours of work. He brings with him an expertise in practicing silvopasture: integrating and sustainably growing trees and raising livestock and grass on the same unit of land. It's focused, he said, on more sustainable practices in terms of carbon storage and soil nutrition dynamics. It's good for animal welfare while the shade from trees also produces forage under canopies.

It's his knowledge in this field that he relayed to dozens of students during his time as an academic instructor and professor at Paul Smith's College since 2009. Growing up the son of high school and middle school teachers, Orefice always liked the idea of becoming a professor. It's a notion that he only grew to aspire to achieve more and more through college and graduate studies.

Fast forward to 2009, and the first time he stepped foot in the Adirondack Park was for his interview at the college. By the second trip, he was driving up a rented U-Haul truck to move in.

"I liked the small sort of town culture that's here," Orefice said. "In terms of the forest composition and type and ecosystem, I felt at home. It was similar to when I was living as a student in Maine, north of Bangor, on the coast, west of Acadia National Park, just inland.

"I knew the forest type. In fact, the Adirondacks is part of something we call the Northern Forest, which extends from Northern New York across Maine into New Brunswick (Canada) - the same forest type that goes across the top of New England."

Orefice spent eight years at Paul Smith's while concurrently pursuing a Ph.D. in agroforestry through the University of New Hampshire.

Looking back on his time at the college, he is most fond of the practical learning he was able to incorporate into his program of study for forestry students. That, and the leadership roles and careers his students have embarked on since graduation.

"Staying in touch with them is the most rewarding," he said. "Some are in Alaska, many are in New York working as foresters, Vermont, and I'm reconnecting with some of them through this new position in the maple industry. Some are in graduate school - that's the thing about Paul Smith's: there are students of value everywhere, even wild land forest firefighting out in California and the Rocky Mountains."

Orefice truly lives a life of agroforestry work and play. At his 76-acre North Branch Farm in Saranac, he raises cattle for beef sales and uses 6,000 square feet of greenhouse space to harvest tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and his family's heirloom: a specific variety of fig.

His great-grandfather, whom he was named after, imported through the postal service a 12-inch cutting of a fig tree from his family's farm in Italy.

"Just to have it in his backyard garden," Orefice said. "His family had olive groves in Italy and they (eventually) grew it in his backyard in Bristol, Connecticut.

The tradition was passed down to Orefice's father, and when the grandson moved to the Adirondacks nearly a decade ago, he brought the tree, genetically identical to the original, with him. He now has about 50 fig trees at his farm and sells them at farmers markets, including in Saranac Lake. They'll be available in August and September.

"I call it the 'Orefice Fig,' he said. "We didn't know it was a Rusulella fig, originally a southern Italian fig variety, which I recently found out from academic colleagues at the University of Naples, it's not common there anymore.

"It's kind of like, we preserved it. It's in isolation here. I'm the only person in the Park for sure (to grow figs), and within the Northeast, I'm probably one of the few."

 
 

 

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