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Suzanne Hunt: Protecting the Future, Cherishing the Past

Suzanne Hunt has built a rich life. As co-owner of Hunt Country Vineyards and Vice President, Policy at Generate Upcycle, she works hard at her two full-time jobs to fuel her passion for climate solutions and clean energy. At the same time, she is an integral part of her family’s seventh generation farm and second-generation winery in the heart of the Finger Lakes, Branchport, New York.

Hunt Country Vineyards

My passion has always been to protect and preserve the planet that we live on. Without that, nothing has value. We can’t succeed in farming if the climate is not stable. So, that’s been my driving passion. The farm is my other passion. That is where my heart is. I try to do both, and they directly benefit from each other.”

Returning to the Farm

Suzanne returned to the Finger Lakes and Hunt Country Vineyards after years in Washington D.C. in a high-powered career advocating for clean tech and climate change policies. She has been an ardent environmentalist since she was a young child. A graduate of Penn Yan Academy, she earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in environmental resources management from Penn State University, a master’s in international development from American University, and a second masters in natural resources and sustainable development from Universidad para la Paz in Costa Rica.

Hunt Country Vineyards

After becoming an expert and published author on biofuels, she created a consulting business to advise organizations on sustainability and climate change. She was, and continues to be, at the center of policymaking on these issues. In fact, she was recently at the White House to celebrate the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, which experts believe can change the game for climate action.

I came back to the farm to detox from D.C. It’s a bit of a pressure cooker, and I’m not really a city person.” Her intention was to figure out the next step in her career and fix up the farmhouse after her parents moved to a new home. But then she met her husband, Matt Kelly, who grew up in Rochester and loved the Finger Lakes Region. He was writing a story on Hunt Country Winery for a magazine.

She ended up staying. “I always intended to come back to the Finger Lakes, but I thought it would probably be later in life.” Another reason for her decision was that she felt both wonder and responsibility for her heritage. “My brother, sister and I are the seventh generation to grow up on this land. A while back, I was looking for a piece of stained glass to fix an old door and ended up finding pictures of ancestors in the attic that I didn’t know we had. I found my great grandfather and grandmother’s wedding certificate from 1863. They were literally getting married at the height of the Civil War.”

Her own wedding in 2019 took place in an old giant barn on the property that had the possessions of five generations inside. “It took me half a year to clean the barn out. It had my great, great grandma’s and great, great, great grandma’s China and 40 years of winery stuff. You just name it, and it was in that barn. Even buggies. I did leave all the buggies in the barn.”

Making Her Mark on the Winery

This sense of history has given her perspectives on farming and the world, specifically the need for resiliency, forward thinking, and long-term planning. “You have to be innovative in farming to survive. You can’t just keep doing what past generations have done. You have to be brutally honest with yourself and the changes that are happening around you, whether it’s societal, economic, or physical like climate change. You have to change, and change is hard.”

Hunt Country Vineyards

Her father and mother, Art and Joyce Hunt, were role models when it came to change. They took over the farm in the 1970’s from the previous generation and incurred new debt to plant vineyards. The vineyards were finally starting to have a full crop, when the grape market crashed.

Suzanne explains that her parent saw some of the most respected growers in the area lose their farms because they couldn’t change direction or innovate. This ended up being an important lesson for them, and they started the winery. Today Hunt Country produces a range of wines: reds, whites, rosés, sparkling, and dessert. They are also the oldest continuous producer of genuine ice wine in the United States.

Now Suzanne and her husband are expanding the winery into a destination spot by holding experiential learning events. In addition to traditional tastings the winery now provides “meaningful experiences where people put their cell phone away and learn new skills.” Visitors are learning how to build stone walls and rustic furniture; taking walks through the farm to discover edible and medicinal wild plants; and even participating in creative writing workshops.

She has also been redesigning the winery’s inside and outdoor spaces. Hunt Country installed soft, sustainable flooring in the tasting room, and now holds yoga classes there every week. She went through the old barns and discovered that the beautiful tools her ancestors made and used were shoved in corners. Now they hang on the walls.

Protecting the Planet

A major priority has been making sure that the winery reflects the commitment to protecting the planet, values shared by her parents and husband, who are co-owners along with Suzanne. Efforts such as installing solar panels and switching to electric vehicles won them the 2020 Sustainability Award from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.

Hunt Country Vineyards Solar Panels

They also created a new wine brand, Uncharted Terroir, which they describe as embodying “our family’s tradition of land stewardship, as we pioneer flavor identities in the Finger Lakes region and navigate the realities of an ever-changing climate to produce the highest quality wines.”

Suzanne says they wanted to gently spark the conversation around how climate change is impacting wine and make it real to people. “This wine celebrates the rugged, regionally adapted hybrid grape varieties that usually get poo-pooed in fine wine circles. It is important for the industry and consumers to understand that we can craft delicious wines from grape varieties that are resilient in the face of an uncertain future.”

She explains that extreme weather from climate change is going to make it challenging to get harvests of the premium European grape varieties every vintage in the future, so she wants to foster more appreciation for the hybrids that have come out of Cornell AgriTech’s breeding programs. Suzanne serves on the Cornell AgriTech Board.

Hunt Country Vineyards

Returning to the Finger Lakes also has had an unexpected benefit on her work with policy change. “I became much more effective as a policy advocate. I had been in the middle of the fray in D.C. for 12 years and then moved home to western New York out in the boonies on a farm. But suddenly, politicians actually cared what I had to say because I was a seventh generation farmer and business owner. It gave me more credibility. I remember having a conversation with a friend who said, ‘Are you kidding me? In D.C. policy wonks are a dime a dozen. Seventh generation farmers are like unicorns. They don’t exist!’”

Almost two years ago, Suzanne took nearly two decades of experience to help Generate Capital (and now their subsidiary Generate Upcycle), a public benefit corporation founded to provide project and corporate finance for building and re-building the world’s infrastructure in order to address climate change across the energy, transportation, food, waste, and water sectors. She supports their efforts on a range of climate solutions including food waste recycling, renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and green hydrogen. This involves work on policy, regulations, advocacy, and business development.

Engaging Others

Engagement in their community and industry is vital to the Hunt family. Art, Matt, and Jonathan (Suzanne’s brother) are all active members of the Branchport-Keuka Park Volunteer Fire Department. In fact, Art has been a volunteer firefighter for nearly 50 years. Additionally, Suzanne grew up getting together with winery owners and their families to taste wines and collaborate together.

She has extended that Finger Lakes spirit to her colleagues at Generate Capital. Recently, two dozen of them came to Hunt Country Winery for two days of meetings and team building. They met in the tasting room and then did a low ropes course set up by a friend who lives down the road. Local chefs who had moved to the Finger Lakes from Los Angeles showcased local food to pair with their wines. Suzanne would like to host more of these retreats for companies that are doing good in the world.

Hunt Country Vineyards

She also wants to be able to show others the practical application of environmental solutions. “It’s very different talking from a policy and theoretical perspective than pounding the nails and putting the technologies in place.” For example, putting solar panels on one of the winery’s building involved figuring out how to finance the project and getting permits. It wasn’t easy.

She also is concerned about the practicality of solutions that are being advocated. “Right now, there are many people saying we have to electrify everything. They aren’t wrong, but we have to have interim solutions because in rural areas, the grid goes down all the time. If you don’t have redundancies, people are going suffer.”

Moving Toward the Future

Suzanne does not know how long she is going to be able to go full throttle and keep up her intense work pace, but for now she is happy with her life. “It’s just really cool because I can leverage both parts of my life to help the other. I’m also lucky to have my husband and my parents really involved along with a small but amazing team at the winery.”

She has a strong belief in the Finger Lakes as a whole. “We have a history of collaboration in the Finger Lakes, and I hope that continues. We have all this great new blood and new talent coming to the area. I hope we can continue to meld that into a culture of collaboration and neighbors taking care of neighbors.”

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