Family farms struggle but survive, thrive
CAPITAL REGION Since the 1770s, hay has grown and cows have grazed at LaRue Farms in Ballston Spa.
The family farm is one of many in the Capital Region that continue to thrive in a world dramatically different from the one their founders knew.
As times have changed, so have the farms — what they produce and how they are run — but the desire to make a living from the land remains strong.
LaRue Farms, Ballston Spa
A picturesque gathering of neatly kept buildings surrounded by fields, LaRue Farms was started in 1774 by Joseph Rue on somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 acres. Built just off what was once the main road from Charlton to Burnt Hills, the farm grew over the years to include a sawmill, a tavern, a blacksmith shop, several large charcoal pits and a tannery.
It’s much smaller now. The sawmill
was disassembled long ago, and the tavern now serves as a shed. The other old-time enterprises are also gone, but as is expected on a farm, new things keep springing up.
Will LaRue, the seventh generation to work the farm, is in the process of buying the business from his parents, Linda and Albert, who still live and work there.
His earliest memory of the farm stretches back to when he was 5. That year, in exchange for doing chores in the barn every day, his grandfather agreed to buy him a calf to raise. That calf was the start of a herd that grew to 80 head of dairy cattle before LaRue sold them in 2006.
The 39-year-old now runs a custom woodworking business on the property, along with enterprises including Trail Plane Custom Snow Groomers, RPM Motorsports Custom Race Engines and Cold Fire Extinguisher sales.
His father also runs several side businesses from the farm, including a repair and fabrication shop. He sells firewood and performs custom lumber sawing and field work, as well as gravedigging. In addition, the elder LaRue is a dealer for Mobil Oil, Power Up Lubricants and Gates Hydraulic Hoses. He sells corn and pellet stoves and furnaces and also has a trucking business.
Traditional farming still goes on at LaRue Farms. The family grows 130 acres of hay, barley and soybeans and 160 acres of corn. They also board heifers for another farmer.
“The farm’s always been diversifying. It is right now — all the small businesses that we run just to keep things going,” LaRue said.
It’s not easy to keep the farm profitable. “The taxes keep getting higher every year, the cost of running this place keeps getting higher, developments keep moving in, taking the land that we lease,” he explained.
Despite that, it’s a lifestyle he said he’s willing to work hard to maintain.
He looked on with pride as his 16-year-old son, Matthew, described how he bought his first cow, how he drives a tractor to pick up hay and how he lends a hand in the woodworking shop and engine shop.
“It’s a hard life, but it’s a very rewarding life,” Will LaRue said.
Knight Orchards, Burnt Hills
Jeremy Knight, co-owner of Knight Orchards, looked up into the branches of a towering Tolman Sweet that’s been growing on the family’s 107-year-old farm since the early days.
“The big, old trees keep producing,” the 43-year-old said, inspecting the tree’s golf ball-sized green apples on a sunny Tuesday morning.
Back before that tree was planted, farm founders Clarence and Russell Knight used the land for a dairy farm. In 1919, they converted to fruit production, growing berries until their apple, pear, plum, peach and cherry trees began to produce.
Back then, barrels of fruit were transported to the railroad depot in a horsedrawn wagon over dirt roads.
Always in search of ways to make their farm more productive, the Knight brothers opened a roadside fruit stand in the 1920s. The stand evolved in the 1950s into a retail farm market, which is still in operation today.
The Knights’ farm became home to New York state’s first on-the-farm cold storage facility in 1932, and in 1958 boasted the first controlled atmosphere storage in Saratoga County.
Over the years, the farm has grown from 80 to 120 acres, including rented and leased land. Each year, the trees yield between 20,000 and 30,000 bushels of apples. The Knights also make cider and grow peaches.
On Tuesday, Knight and his brother, Josh, were finishing up planting more than 3,000 dwarf McIntosh apple trees.
“We should have been done planting trees a month ago,” Knight said, lamenting the rainy spring.
Weather is a constant adversary on the farm. Last year, the brothers installed a wind machine to help draw down warm air during unseasonable cold snaps notorious for killing tender blossoms.
A direct marketing initiative employed at the farm has helped to ensure the business stays viable.
“Dealing direct with consumers and wholesalers gives us better control over the quality,” Knight explained.
There is no let-up in the work at farm. Once picking and packing are done, it’s time to tend the younger trees, spray, mow and do maintenance.
“Come August, it’s right back into peaches again, then apples,” Knight said.
Indian Ladder Farms, Altamont
Indian Ladder Farms will turn 100 in 2015, and chances are it will remain a farm for the next hundred years — at least.
Owner Peter Ten Eyck established an agricultural easement on the property 10 years ago, so the verdant orchards with views of the Helderberg Escarpment will never become a housing development.
“This will always be a patch of green,” the 75-year-old said, standing in the midst of thousands of fruit trees.
The business was started by his grandfather, who ran it as a dairy and fruit farm. He delivered milk starting in the 1920s, and journalist Andy Rooney was one of his customers, Ten Eyck noted.
Beef cattle and apples became the moneymakers when Ten Eyck’s father ran the farm, but when Ten Eyck took over in the 1960s, he decided to get out of the cattle business and grow fruit exclusively. Trees never wander off, he explained with a grin.
In 1963, Indian Ladder Farms opened a retail operation. Today, it includes a gift shop, farm market and cafe. There’s also a farm school that teaches kids how to take care of animals, and weddings are held in one of the barns.
Noting a renewed interest in hard cider, Ten Eyck plans to add old fashioned cider apple trees to his orchard. He has started growing sweet cherries, too.
Across the street from the retail operation, his daughter and son-in-law have started Helderberg Hop Farm and Indian Ladder Farmstead Brewery and Cidery.
Farming is fraught with challenges. The most recent is a rash of fire blight that has cropped up in the apple trees, but a lifetime on the farm has taught him it’s all part of the cycle.
He said running the farm is his effort to do something worthwhile in life.
“I think somehow we’re better off for having had this happen here,” he said.
Pleasant View Farm, Altamont
Sunrise, clouds, storms, the birthing of animals, the miracle of a seed growing to bear fruit. Those are 94-year-old Everett Rau’s early memories of the farm where he was born and where he still lives with his wife, Peg.
The farm was established by his family in 1799. Rau’s grandfather, Peter J. Ogsbury, a Civil War veteran, signed the first legal deed to the property around 1870.
“My Uncle Willard, my mother’s brother, had a delivery route in Altamont before the age of pasteurization,” he said, recalling the early days of the farm. “He delivered raw milk, butter, cheese, eggs and any surplus vegetables and fruits.”
The farm sold buckwheat to a flour mill in Galway and other farm products to customers in Schenectady. Goods were delivered by horse and buggy until the family purchased a Model T Ford in 1923.
Rau took the reins of the farm as his father had before him. He and his wife raised turkeys there.
In 1951 they started Turkey Land, a custom turkey-stuffing and roasting business in Schenectady. The business did so well they had to start purchasing turkeys from an outside supplier.
Rau recalled how his wife would make 40 or 50 pies and 50 gallons of turkey gravy every Thanksgiving, all to be sold in their shop.
“Without her knowledge, love and hard work, the long history of Pleasant View Farm would not have continued,” he said.
Once Turkey Land closed in 1961, the Raus went back to farming, this time raising sheep and growing fruit. Rau’s son, Ken, and his grandson, Tim, have now begun planting vegetables, raising animals and restoring barns on the property.
“Tim belongs to a group of people that wants to eat natural,” Everett Rau said, listing off the vegetables now growing on the land: potatoes, heirloom sweet corn and tomato plants grown from seeds from Italy.
A new rafter of turkeys should be arriving any day now, along with some pigs, too.
Everett Rau will help his grandson take care of the young turkeys.
Tim said he’s learned a lot from the elder farmer.
“He taught me how to drive a tractor early on. And of course, there’s all those old sayings that the old-timers used to use: ‘When the maple leaves are the size of a silver dollar, it’s time to plant your garden.’ I eat that kind of stuff up,” he said, smiling at his grandfather.