Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Potato Farm Finds Ways to Survive

From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine


GABRIELS — Nestled in the northern Adirondack Park, with Whiteface Mountain in view to the east, a small, diverse farm is making its mark in the potato industry.

Tucker Farms, Inc. has been in business 152 years and is owned and operated by fifth-generation farmers Dick, Steve and Tom Tucker, in Gabriels, Franklin County, N.Y.

The farm produces 14 varieties of New York-certified seed and table-stock potatoes, and it supplies potatoes and other vegetables to several high-end restaurants in Lake Placid, a local tourist town that hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics.

The Tucker brothers say the key to success is diversification.

“You just can’t be doing the same thing as the economy changes and what people eat changes,” Steve Tucker said.

The farm plants between 65 and 70 different vegetables, but the main crop for the Tuckers is potatoes, which the farm began growing in the 1920s.

“It’s an ideal climate for potatoes,” Tom said. “We’re isolated from everywhere, we get a pretty good dew every night so they’re always getting some moisture. It’s cool so it’s not too hot during the day, so it’s kind of ideal growing conditions.”

The Tucker Taters brand was established 50 years ago by the Tuckers’ father, Don, the same year Tom was born. Don drew the brand’s original logo that is still in use.

The Tucker family has learned to thrive in a region known for the coolest temperatures in the state. The area has a substantially shorter growing season compared to the rest of New York.

“It’s picking the right crops that will survive,” Tom said. “Usually our last frost is around June 10th and our first killing frost is usually right around Labor Day, so you’ve got a pretty narrow window. If you go 50 miles, or even 40 miles, in any direction around us, you gain two weeks on the spring and two weeks on the fall, growing-wise, so that’s a month that we don’t have. (The main thing) is growing the crops that will fit in that window.”

The farm is comprised of 390 acres, and the Tuckers rent another 105 acres. They grow nearly 50 acres of potatoes, and their goal is to increase to as many as 60.

Tom’s son, Ben, is a high school senior at Saranac Lake Central and plans to farm full time following graduation, allowing the family to increase its acreage.

“I love being here, and I love the area,” said Ben, who is able to perform every job on the farm that his father and uncles do. “There is a little bit of pressure because the farm’s been in the family for over 150 years. I think that’s the main reason why it drives me to do it because the family’s been doing it for so long it makes me want to stay here.”

The Tuckers grow oats, rye and buckwheat as cover crops. Their potato-seed production is on a three-year rotation, so the two years it’s not potatoes it’s in grain, so they sell a lot of straw for landscaping.

The farm’s six acres of vegetables range from leafy greens to assorted colors of carrots.

“The restaurants all want something different. The more exotic, the more they want it,” Steve said. “So different-colored beets and different-colored Swiss chards.”

It’s hard to sell a common vegetable like green beans because everybody has green beans, according to Steve.

“Anything that helps the restaurants be different that’s what they’re looking for,” Tom said. “They want something that the restaurant next door doesn’t have on their menu, so we try to be as broad a range as we can grow.”

The farm typically harvests vegetables for the restaurants on Thursdays and Fridays during the summer. Their leafy greens and lettuces are picked first thing in the morning on Friday, and they try to have Steve on the road at 2 p.m. so he can deliver to the restaurants before their dinner hours.

The Tuckers also supply nearby Paul Smith’s College with potatoes for its culinary program. Every year the students tour the farm and get to see where all the vegetables are grown.

“Right now they’re taking 10 pounds of each variety, two varieties a week, and they’re doing all kinds of cooking trials with each of the different varieties,” Tom said. “The chef comes once a week when he picks up the next variety and tells us what they’ve done with them and the different things they liked or didn’t like.”

The farm has made connections with some of the local school districts. The Tuckers have been hosting kindergartners since 1973. The kids get to see potatoes harvested, and the Tuckers leave some potatoes on the ground for the kids to pick up and take home.

This is the second year the Tuckers have been selling potatoes in the Saranac Lake Central School district, and in past years they also sold potatoes to the Newcomb Central School district for use in fundraising.

Each family member has his own area of expertise and responsibility. Steve handles all the seed potato sales and does the spraying. Tom handles the purchasing, tillage, planting and crop rotation. 
Dick, retired from General Electric, lives 150 miles away in Schenectady and provides all the computer work, including updating the farm’s website. He also helps out with planting and harvesting.

The family has faced plenty of challenges over the years, in addition to the weather and the short growing season. Tom has advice to offer farmers trying to remain profitable.

“Always look outside of the box,” Tom said. “Always try to do something that somebody else isn’t doing already.”

“That’s why I’ve always felt bad about the milk industry,” Tom said. “That’s all they’ve ever done their entire life, but you gotta look and figure out how to do it differently than the next guy and try to make yours a little more unique from them. Always try to figure out something new and different to try to stay ahead of the curve.”

The Tuckers did this by introducing ag tourism into their operation nearly 15 years ago to help keep their farm in operation.

They provided you-pick strawberries for several years until they found it was too labor-intensive to keep the weeds out of the berry patch.

 They now offer you-pick pumpkins, the Great Adirondack Corn Maze, and they rent their farm out for weddings and other events.

But they were reluctant to get started.

“We would have never gotten into ag tourism,” Tom said. “We go to Cornell Cooperative Extension meetings three or four times a year to learn about the different vegetables, and it was Essex County’s Anita Deming and Amy Ivy that got us talking to at least considering ag tourism. Of course we’re sitting there, ‘Well, we’re a potato farmer, why do we need to worry about that?’”
seed potatoes brings income in the spring...

“But we were struggling and the free trade really screwed up potato farming, so that was one of those, ‘Well, maybe we should try something different.’”

The staff at Cooperative Extension was instrumental.

“They helped us along the way, so I can’t say anything but good things about Cooperative Extension and their promotion ideas and their willingness to work with farmers,” Tom said. 

“When counties and governments are cutting things that’s one program that I just hope they never cut out because it’s the only true education experience some people will get in the agricultural field. There’s an agency out there that’s willing to help them get information they may need to get good crops,” Tom said.

The farm began offering the Great Adirondack Corn Maze in 2004, and the maze is a different design every year. This season it’s a tribute to the area’s music festival and features a guitar, trumpet, drums and music notes.

“We wouldn’t be still doing it if it wasn’t making money, and it’s a great way to bring people to the farm to see farming and see it’s not what you read in a book, it’s not what you see on TV, that we’re still an active working farm,” Tom said. “There are a lot of people who just don’t have a concept of where their food comes from, so it’s a really good thing to do.”

Tucker Farms was affected by the drought that impacted many regions of New York state this summer. 

“We went three and a half weeks with no rain here,” Tom said. “So it was about the time that potatoes would have set the number of tubers.  It set nice tubers, but it wasn’t the number of tubers that it could have or normally would have set per plant. So the yield numbers are down, but the quality and the potatoes look nice.”

The farm wasn’t able to offer you-pick pumpkins this year due to the drought. The farm sits on top of a hill, and there is no easy way to irrigate. Tom said they usually offer wagon rides to the pumpkin patch at harvest time.

“We had beautiful plants and blossoms, but we just didn’t have enough rain at the time to get them to grow big enough,” Tom said.

There is little other agriculture in the area, and some of the wealthiest in the world have homes in the area. But the Tuckers would not choose another lifestyle.

“Farming is not easy,” Tom Tucker said. “Farming is a way of life. And not everybody is cut out to be a farmer, but the life that we have chosen, I can’t think of a better way to live.”

For more information on Tucker Farms, visit www.tuckertaters.com or search for “Tucker Taters” and “Tucker Farms Great Adirondack Corn Maze” on Facebook.

Editor’s note: Don Tucker, the patriarch of the Tucker family, passed away in his sleep Oct. 14, two days after the photos and interviews were completed for this story. He was 90.

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