Tucker Farms grows deep roots in the region
By Richard Figiel
It’s tough to be a farmer in the Adirondacks, and doubly so at a scale that supplies wholesale markets out-of-state. And it’s hard anywhere to keep a family farm alive for more than a century and a half. Tucker Farms, surrounded by mountains eight miles north of Saranac Lake, has managed all of that. It’s one of the oldest and among the larger farming operations within the Blue Line.
In mid-February, Steve Tucker met me on the rumpled ice covering the barnyard and we waddled like ducklings, arms out for balance, to a climate-controlled storage barn. It was built some years ago when the farm’s traditional, underground, sod-roofed potato barn finally collapsed. Surrounded by towers of wooden bins, Steve and his brother Tom talked about family history, the challenges of farming, how different potato varieties come and go.
The farm encompasses about 300 tillable acres; 60 planted with potatoes, six for other vegetables, the rest in grains. All Tucker potatoes are certified “seed potatoes,” which means the farm is inspected three times a year to ensure the crop is free of disease and virus, and true to variety. Most of the crop is then sold to other farms and gardening wholesalers, potatoes normally being planted not by actual seeds but by the tubers themselves. The rest of Tucker’s potatoes go to area restaurants, Saranac Lake school district lunches, and direct to customers by the bag. Other family members are involved in various ways, and part-timers get hired during the growing season, but Steve and Tom are the only full-time workers at Tucker Farms Inc.
When my visit ended and I slid back to my car, I realized I had left my briefcase in the barn and went back. The two men had turned on a long conveyor of roller bars carrying potatoes from a hopper to a big crate. In an island of bright light within the dim cavern of the barn, the brothers were bent over the rattling conveyor picking out culls. It struck me I could be looking at a scene from more than a century ago.
When hotels first appeared in the Adirondack interior, in the mid-1800s, they opened an opportunity for enterprising early homesteaders to move from subsistence gardening to market farming, providing food for hotel guests and staff. Benjamin Hobart took that step when a guide named Apollos Smith opened a hotel on the St. Regis River. Hobart lived a few miles south of the hotel in what is now the hamlet of Gabriels. He helped Smith build a dam on the river so the hotel could sit by a pretty lake.
A garden planted at the hotel in sandy riverbed soil soon failed to meet the need. Hobart took the effort to his higher terrain, where a mix of sand and loam began providing Paul Smith’s Hotel with vegetables for a growing clientele. That little market-garden later became part of Tucker Farms, on Hobart Road, through marriage between the Hobart and Tucker farm families.
Anyone driving Route 86 north of Saranac Lake might be struck by entering a high plateau of fields rimmed in a panorama of mountains from Esther and Whiteface to the High Peaks to Santanoni. This stretch of highway was once part of the Old Northwest Bay Road, the first to penetrate the Adirondack interior. It brought settlers like the Hobarts from the Champlain Valley in the early 1800s. They cleared a rare expanse of level forest and turned it into one of the region’s surprising pockets of agriculture. Sorting out crops that could handle frigid winters, light soils and a short growing season ultimately led to the humble potato. By the late 1800s potato fields spread across this plateau and became the chief vegetable crop of the Adirondacks.
Unfortunately, this was just the time when farming—never extensive—fell into a steady decline that continues to this day. Geography and climate put Adirondack farmers at a competitive disadvantage. But ironically the Tuckers’ mountain-isolation, and hard winters too, have helped Tucker Farms survive. Seed potato operations benefit by separation from other growers where diseases can spread. Likewise, high elevation and cold temperatures tend to suppress overwintering pathogens and pests. The Tuckers ship to farms throughout the East.
Vivid colors burst into the white world of the potato by the 1990s—new varieties with skins and pulps of blue, red, purple, hot pink. Tom recalled that “Dad would have nothing to do with them. He was Irish [and potatoes were white]. When the check came back for our first trailer-load of blues, they suddenly appealed to him. It was four-times value-wise.”
Around this time Steve heard that the chef at The Point, nearby on Upper Saranac Lake, was looking for a local source of vegetables. The Point was known as the most expensive resort in the country, with a matching food budget. Steve brought over a seed catalog. The chef circled arugula, bok choy, dozens of items, and Tucker Farms planted a high-end vegetable plot.
A process of diversification has carried the farm through tough times. Agritourism is an important part of that. Twenty years ago, on the suggestion of someone at Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Tuckers created a corn maze. Last year about 3,000 people went through “The Great Adirondack Corn Maze,” at $8 to $10 a head. A national industry has grown-up around corn mazes. One service offered to do a computer design and mark the Tuckers’ 8-acre field with GPS for $6,000. Instead, they got a neighbor to draw a design on graph paper and they laid out the field with flags on a grid. In 2022 the theme was firefighting—Tuckers are veteran volunteers. This year’s design features Mr. Potato Head.
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With all the digging done year after year in Tucker fields, do any surprises ever turn up? One year they found a couple of stone scrapers used to clean hides. Otherwise it’s just potatoes and rocks, sometimes big rocks joining the piles in hedgerows. Lately the farm has found a market for big rocks, especially when they develop a coating of moss. “Landscapers come from Lake Placid to pick them up,” said Steve, “but instead of dumping them in the truck they are carefully placed, so as not to disturb the moss. Homeowners like to put them in their yards to mow around.”
For several years Tucker Farms has hosted events: birthday and retirement parties but mostly weddings. The venue looked unlikely to me, but it was mid-winter, and the million-dollar mountain vista was hidden in clouds. The family normally tries to handle things themselves. With weddings they ran into trouble: “The bride tells us how she wants things and ‘Don’t believe anything my mother says!’ and then the mother changes things around and the bride comes back to us ‘What you let her do that for!’—We needed someone with people skills.”
Every year, students from Paul Smith’s College’s culinary school take a field trip to Tucker Farms, getting a down-and-dirty look at food. They come out from a campus built on the site of the old hotel that burned down in 1930, the hotel that was supplied with food by the Tucker brothers’ great-great-great-uncle Benjamin Hobart. It all has a nice, circular shape to it—something like a potato.