People often don't realize we have local farms near Saranac Lake. All kinds of crops flow from nearby fields into our restaurants, diners, and delis. This is one of the reasons our local dining is such a pleasure to experience.
North of Saranac Lake, bordered by the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness to the east, and the Saint Regis Canoe Wilderness to the west, there is a broad plateau far more suitable for farming than our mountain and lake areas.
Not that farming here doesn't have other challenges. In the words of Steve, one of the brothers who are Tucker Farms, "Not everyone is fool enough to do it."
A FARMING HISTORY
Steve and Tom Tucker (above) are the fifth generation of Tuckers to farm this acreage. Since 1864 this farm has grown all kinds of vegetables, specifically ones which can be adapted to the ninety-day growing period available this far north.
Under the name Tucker Taters, they regard potatoes as king among their crops; for their rugged disposition, incredible culinary variety, and good keeping qualities.
They currently grow fourteen varieties: Adirondack Blue, Adirondack Red, All Blue (aka Congo, Russian Blue, Blue Marker), Daisy Gold, King Harry, Lamoka, Lehigh, Magic Molly, the field trial of NY150, Peter Wilcox (aka Purple Sun, Blue Gold), Reba, Red Maria (field trialed as NY129), Salem, and Superior.
Eight of which are available "for the table," ranging from red (both inside and outside!), basic white, buttery yellow, and my personal favorite, the purple known as Magic Molly.
Tom and I agreed that fantastic flavor is one of Magic Molly's best features. After experiencing one of the colorful potatoes from Tucker Taters, the fluffy stuff in the middle of the average potato has as much appeal as the inside of a couch cushion.
"I think a lot of people are accustomed to not having flavor in their meals," Tom said. "The color inside not only makes it taste better, it's telling you there's all kinds of nutrients there, too."
"Micro-nutrients," I said. "All that food that gets fortified, they can only put in what they know is missing."
"Exactly!" Tom lit up, exploring what is obviously one of his favorite subjects. "Food manufacturers want a consistent product. They always figure they can add flavor, but then the flavor, the whole point, is fake!"
"Since I've started cooking with local produce, I get so much more flavor," I said. "My husband, who I tease about being the King of Convenience, is now totally on board about ditching the frozen meals, unless we make them ourselves."
"Most people discover that, but they have to experience the good food, first. I was on a trip with some of my workers and they wanted to stop at a big chain for breakfast -- 'because you get so much.' I let them have their way, but I was really disappointed. There's more flavor in a smaller plate of the good stuff than in two whole plates of that frozen, mass-produced kind of things you get from chain restaurants."
"I've been spoiled by the restaurants here."
"Yes, so many of them use our produce."
FRESH AND FANTASTIC
That's real maple syrup being poured on those pancakes. This is maple country, so accept no substitutes.
Of course, that's not all -- there's nearby Packbasket Diner, The Shamrock, and DJ's Rustic Restaurant. There's the culinary students at Paul Smith's College, where they work with only the best ingredients. Lake Clear Lodge, famous for their efforts to offer sustainable foods to their guests, tries to choose items within a 100-mile radius to keep their offerings fresh and local.
That's just in the immediate area. Tucker Farms supplies dining spots all over the North Country. They grow an astonishing seventy-eight varieties of vegetables in addition to the potatoes. And, both brothers laugh, lots of rocks.
"We dig more up every year, even in ground that has been worked for over a century," Steve says. "Rocks only have a one-month growing season."
I have experienced this myself, planting rosebushes in my own and in friend's yards. Sometimes the hole will contain so many rocks I have to add a lot of extra soil.
Soil care is part of Tucker Farms' success. Most soil in the Adirondack Park is only 10,000 years old, and didn't have much time to accumulate richness. Especially considering the high granite content — a rock which breaks down very slowly. Years of replenishing the soil has paid off for these farms.
BUT WAIT, THERE IS MORE!
In 2002 they were recognized by the NYS Agricultural Society as a "Century Farm." These are farms with more than 100 years of continuous operation, on the same land, and by the same family. The program is meant as a tribute to the mutual traditions of progressive agriculture and community service.
Tucker Farms works closely with the local school districts, in a program they called School to Fork. This gets fresh vegetables into school lunches.
In the fall, there's The Great Adirondack Corn Maze. In an area known for its thriving art community, this still might be the largest work of art in the whole Adirondack Park.
"We had a fella come by one year, and complained it wasn't a classic maze," Tom said. "We admit it's not. It's the Adirondack Corn Maze!"
"If you stuck with one design, you couldn't have fun with the different designs every year!" I'm a big fan.
The Great Adirondack Corn Maze has been called "one of the best family-fun fall attractions in New York State." Every year a group of my friends, and a changing bunch of people who have heard how much fun it is, all head for the Corn Maze, ideally on a full moon night. It is open from early-August through the end of October, so we have a few chances.
We gather flashlights, glow sticks, whatever children are available, and an ever-growing collection of "corn puns."
We call jokes to each other while we make our way through the maze, in search of the mailboxes placed at random intervals (painted black so it's not too easy,) and gather token pieces of paper. When taped to the provided maze map (there's also tape in each mailbox) we can build a picture of the entire maze.
Which is totally optional, because all we win is the "satisfaction." Some years, we don't worry about it. We're too busy having a good time, or we hear the complimentary s'mores calling us from the big bonfire at the exit.
Whether we come with a mission to complete the puzzle or simply want to show off our knowledge of corn puns, the The Great Adirondack Corn Maze is a fall highlight that must not be missed.
Check out the whole range of interesting activities, farm tours, the chance to pick strawberries and pumpkins in season, and get home-grown produce along with gourds and corn stalks. Now, the farm is available for weddings, too!
This week in ADK farm and mountain cuisine: