Environmental advocate continues global work from family vineyard

When Suzanne Hunt met the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo as he toured the Finger Lakes 31 years ago, the governor asked the 9-year-old what she wanted to do when she grew up.

Suzanne Hunt
Suzanne Hunt

Hunt, representing the seventh generation of her family to till the Keuka Lake hills, might have said something about following in the family business. Instead, the precocious child said “I want to go to college to study environmental science or environmental policy law. I’m not sure which.”

Three decades later, Hunt’s day jobs include advising the family wine business, Hunt Country Vineyards, on sustainable technology, while maintaining a global profile as a sustainable energy consultant. But she’s also come full circle, having returned to the family farm in 2015, where she plans to marry her sweetheart next month. The wedding meal will feature foods she raised herself.

“I pretty much stuck to my plan,” Hunt said recently in an interview at the Branchport, Yates County, winery.  “Growing up here made me really care about these issues.” A childhood spent almost entirely out-of-doors couldn’t help but open her eyes to the environment.

Hunt credits her parents, Art and Joyce Hunt, with her abiding interest in the environment, noting how they were deeply involved in a movement to prevent a nuclear waste dump from being established a few miles away from their vineyard when Suzanne Hunt was an infant.

“We have a beautiful area here,” Art Hunt said. “And it needs to be healthy and pristine to grow safe food and excellent grapes.”

After college and graduate school, the younger Hunt worked for 12 years for agencies such as the Environmental Defense Fund and World Watch Institute. Her collegiate studies and later work took her from Costa Rica to Europe and to New Zealand; she’s worked on governmental policies from California to New York and Washington D.C.

Hunt’s accomplishments including developing carbon reduction strategies for Costa Rica and helping New York to develop sustainability guidelines for farms. She advised on the state’s recently passed food waste bill. Her exploration of bio-diesel for tractors at Hunt Country vineyards started her toward a grant-funded survey of biofuels for transportation for the World Watch Institute,  and ended up making her a global expert in that field.

After more than a dozen years in the nation’s capital, and learning that the family’s homestead at the winery would soon be vacant, Hunt returned to the Finger Lakes in 2015. Initially she came just to “detox from Washington.” But the move became a permanent one as she came to two realizations: One was that she could continue to do her work from the Finger Lakes quite easily, and secondly, she might be even more effective as an active participant in farming than as yet another inside-the-beltway D.C. policy wonk.

“I feel very fortunate to have walked in a whole bunch of different shoes, to understand where people are coming from, so I can translate for the stakeholders,” she said.

The Penn Yan High School grad never used to make much of her rural upbringing when she first walked the halls of power in Washington. Now she leads with the fact that she comes from a seventh-generation farming family that is part of the wine industry, as it gives her street cred when talking about climate and conservation.

Since coming home, Hunt has continued to contribute nationally and even internationally (she’s a fellow at a German think tank), but she has also joined regional boards and made frequent appearances at local public events on environmental issues. Last week she was part of a panel discussion at Ravines Wine Cellars in Geneva on the future of the wine industry in light of climate change, hosted by the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York.

“She’s tireless, and she juggles so many things at one time; I’m in such awe,” said Pamela Reed Sanchez, executive director of the Seneca Zoo Society. The two women met shortly after Hunt moved back to the area and was a featured speaker at a panel discussion on sustainability organized by the regional economic development council.

Sanchez was so impressed by Hunt’s comments that she introduced herself afterward and asked about the possibility of their working together on the zoo’s mission of conservation.

Hunt learned that the zoo gets 400,000 visitors a year, making it a higher profile setting for conservation messages than some groups whose main focus is the environment. She joined the zoo society’s board two years ago and since then has spearheaded the organization’s environmental innovation awards and companion symposium.

“She called upon her national network of superstars in this industry to be the judges,” Sanchez said, giving the awards greater weight. “That brought validity to the judging process. And it brought to the attention of national people some of the really creative, innovative things happening here.”

Connecting Upstate New York to ideas and movements seems to be a theme of Hunt’s recent work.

“She’s just constantly passing on information of things that are of interest to us all the time,” her father said.

The first year Suzanne Hunt came back home, she analyzed the economics of solar for the family business and found it could work, but hit a roadblock: “Our local agricultural banks had never financed a commercial scale solar project before,” she said.

So Hunt used her contacts in environmental financing to bring national experts to the area who could advise local bankers on financing solar for the Hunts and for other wineries. She organized a workshop for interested wineries so they could learn about the topic. Since then, the Hunts have installed 348 solar panels on their winery buildings, producing enough power for 70 percent of the winery’s needs. Encouraged, some 15 to 20 other wineries have also added or expanded solar power.

At Hunt’s urging, the vineyard applied for and won a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency to install a geothermal system to provide heat and air conditioning for the winery’s buildings. Last year Hunt Country added four electric car chargers, using a program from Tesla to help finance that project. They’ve also replaced lighting at the winery with LED bulbs to reduce power usage. Additionally, the winery is working on ways to reduce waste paper and plastic in wine production, from the non-recyclable backing on sticky wine labels, to plastic, shrink-wrapped “foil” that surrounds the top of the bottle.

Not every idea has been a winner, Hunt admitted, noting a demonstration model wind turbine that never seemed to work at their farm; the manufacturer is no longer in business.

Nevertheless, all of her efforts dovetail with the Hunt family’s ongoing mission to reduce erosion and chemical use by using natural fertilization and soil improvement methods. They use only chicken manure for fertilizer and constantly mulch between the rows in the vineyard to help the soils hold onto moisture and viability. In order to have enough mulch to cover the winery’s rows, they roll out baled hay and use yard waste from the surrounding community to extend the grape waste and plant material they produce on the farm.

“I have a lot of optimism for the future in that renewable energy, sustainable farming, will probably become mainstream because it’s the only way in the long run for us to survive as a species,” Art Hunt said.

Suzanne Hunt doesn’t do any of the actual wine production, but helps make that production more environmentally sustainable while acting as the go-between for the family farm and national policy.

She talks about how the vineyard has undergone marked evidence of climate change since her return – a drought that saw no rain for seven seeks, a polar vortex, extreme fluctuation in temperatures, extreme winds, and new invasive species.

She helped lobby for inclusion of money in the current federal Farm Bill to pay for soil conservation, but notes that the allocation of $15 million is dwarfed by the bill’s total package of $5 billion. Indeed, she says, much of the Farm Bill is at odds with conservation methods in farming because of its heavy support of single commodity crops and intensive farming. “The Farm Bill is essentially designed to encourage farmers to destroy their soils,” she said.

Hunt is a whirlwind of activity now, particularly as she plans for her wedding next month. She’s hoping to have more bandwidth in the near future. One side project is working with a national group of women she brought together to discuss climate change in regular group meetings.

“I think intuitively people are realizing women’s leadership is needed,” she said.

Hunt also is hoping to have more time to be reflective.

“I wish I had more time to write, to do more thought leadership.” But that will have to wait for the busy summer and fall season to pass, perhaps. “Being here in the winter affords time to get mental clarity,” she said.

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Suzanne Hunt

Position: Founder and president of Hunt Green LLC, a green technologies consulting firm; director of brand evolution, strategy and sustainability for Hunt Country Vineyards

Age: 40

Family: Engaged to marry Matt Kelly on June 22

Education: Bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Penn State, 2001; dual master’s degrees in international affairs and natural resource management, American University and United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica, 2004

Hobbies: Gardening, horseback riding, hosting concerts

Quote: “I feel very fortunate to have walked in a whole bunch of different shoes, to understand where people are coming from so I can translate for the stakeholders.”