Home gardeners embrace optimism each spring. Market growers combine informed aspiration with hard reality. Jeffrey Rugen, with 15 acres and eight greenhouses, lives in Hope.
The week after a spring storm dumped more than a foot of snow on his place, knocking out the power and forcing him to tend to generators reluctant to keep the hothouses warm, Jeffrey said, “Farming is not as romantic as people think.”
His Hope Valley Farm is tucked amid the hills and creeks of southern Hamilton County. In the 1800s this area supported about a thousand residents, many of them living off the land, their vegetable plots, orchards, fields and livestock sustaining them. Now, according to Jeffrey, the population is half that number, and when it comes to growing food, “I’m kind of a lone duck.”
His parents, Richard and Elizabeth, bought a farmhouse and fallow fields in 1990, leaving their busy janitorial-supply business on Long Island for a quieter environment. They first came to the Adirondacks as honeymooners and camped at Fourth Lake, Stillwater Reservoir and elsewhere as Jeffrey, now 61, and his sister were growing up.
Jeffrey left a solid landscaping business on Long Island to help his parents in their new endeavor. Fifteen acres in cultivation means a lot of crops—and here, on the cold cusp of Zone 4, everything ripens in roughly the same window. But Jeffrey saw a way to lengthen the season. “My father was overwhelmed when I bought the first greenhouse. I guess I was more hungry than he was. I wanted to get bigger faster.”
The focus was to be organic vegetables, and then “we saw a big interest in flowers,” he said. Hope Valley bouquets are now sold to CAMP-of-the-WOODS, in Speculator, and local florists.
Jeffrey is a lone duck in another way now. His 83-year-old father died after a short illness in March 2020 and his 81-year-old mother in fall 2021. What had been a shared burden now falls on Jeffrey’s shoulders. He orders the seeds; plants them using an intricate machine that places just the right number within a cell; propagates cuttings; plows the fields; fertilizes, weeds and harvests. His former wife, Francia Patrick, helps with flowers and in the greenhouses. A handful of neighbors are there when the work days run from dawn to dusk. Hope Valley sells six-packs of annuals and vegetables plus robust perennials. The bicolor corn is popular, as are sweet peppers, carrots, leeks, chard, kale and peas. But the real cash crop is garlic. After picking in the field, more than 45,000 heads of garlic fill an entire greenhouse, destined for individuals, festivals, restaurants and wholesalers, some who buy 100 pounds at a time.
Losing his business partners is not the only change at Hope Valley. Though winter temperatures of 30 or 35 below are rare now, summers are cooler and cloudier, Jeffrey said. “When I first started farming here I was picking tomatoes the first two weeks in July. Now it’s first two weeks in August.”
When the three Rugens ran the business, they could go to several farmers’ markets, including Delmar and Speculator. Now Jeffrey is concentrating on just the Indian Lake Community Farmers’ Market, more than an hour from home, but a place where Hope Valley’s presence makes a difference.
“I’ve always been an outdoors person,” said Jeffrey. Despite the long hours, weeds, bears, insects and climate challenges, “farming just gets into your blood.”