‘Passion to work the land’

Jake and Erin Vennie-Vollrath buy Moonstone Farm

Erin and Jake Vennie-Vollrath and their daughter Anya pose at Moonstone Farm between Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale. (Photo provided)

SARANAC LAKE — Asparagus, rhubarb, lumber and llamas. When Jake and Erin Vennie-Vollrath bought Moonstone Farm on state Route 3 this fall, the farm had been successfully producing for over 100 years.

Well, except for the llamas. They’re there “because people like llamas,” said Jake.

“They’re cool animals,” he said. “We’re glad they came with the farm.”

“They need a little love,” said Erin. At the time, a peculiar form of precipitation best described in Norwegian — sludd — was falling, on top of 6 inches of melting snow. A pall of gray clouds gave late morning a look of late afternoon. The farm’s chickens were in the greenhouse for the winter, but the llamas didn’t mind being outdoors. The three llamas greeted Erin, discovered she had no treats for them and went back to eating hay.

The farm is an easy stop for tourists passing on Route 3 between Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale. In the summer its honor system farm stand sells eggs and vegetables. Kim and Carolyn LaDuke, who owned the farm for many years, established relationships with local restaurants that seek out fresh, local products. Asparagus and rhubarb, grown under cover, became farm specialties.

“We’re hoping to continue the farm’s relationships with local chefs in town,” said Jake. “There’s going to be increasing demand. Travelers coming to the area are seeking that local experience.”

The Vennie-Vollraths are looking forward to the opening of the Hotel Saranac and the next incarnation of the Dew Drop Inn as part of a resurgence of Saranac Lake.

“There’s a lot of promise in Saranac Lake moving forward,” said Jake. “This is the best farmers market in the region. It’s vibrant.”

Jake and Erin are both from Wisconsin, where they grew up with farming and gardening experience. Erin’s grandparents had a farm, and her parents always had gardens. Jake’s dad had a farm.

“My dad did it on a really large scale, but he had five boys helping him,” said Jake. “As a teenager you despise the hard work, but then when you grow up you see the value in it.”

The couple also saw the value in small farming during two years of Peace Corps service in Madagascar. They learned and practiced agriculture and sustainable farming, and when they got back they began thinking about a farm of their own. And when Anya, their toddler, was born, “We were thinking, how do we want her to grow up?” said Erin.

They know farming isn’t an easy life. “It’s just a constant struggle for any farmer,” said Jake. “It’s not about making money, for a lot of farmers. It’s that passion to work the land. The passionate farmers around here impassioned us.”

Jake works for the Adirondack North Country Association, and Erin works for the Nature Conservancy in Keene Valley. Before they found Moonstone, they spent a year-and-a-half touring local farms.

“Saranac is a cool model,” said Jake. The food pantry uses local foods, and there are a number of small, sustainable farms producing local products. He points to the Essex Farm Institute as a great resource for small farmers, and Cornell Cooperative Extension with its educational programs and support for young farmers.

When they found Moonstone, it had a lot of good selling points. “For farmers, the infrastructure piece is really difficult,” said Jake. The farm came with infrastructure: a tractor, a sawmill, barns and outbuildings. It also had institutional memory, in the form of Kim LaDuke.

“We hope to use him a lot,” said Jake. “He carries the knowledge of the farm when he had it, and the knowledge of Ray McCasland when he had it, and Ray carried the knowledge of Percy Mullen, who bought it in 1940.”

LaDuke had also started rebuilding the farm buildings with wood from the sawmill. It’s another project the Vennie-Vollraths hope to continue. The farmhouse, built in 1850, needs work again.

“One of the main things we want to do is preserve the historic buildings,” said Jake. “We’ll probably keep doing the sawmill business.”

It’s a lot of work, but the Vennie-Vollraths are ready to roll their sleeves up. Little Anya is already an enthusiastic participant, which makes both parents smile.

“Small farms are proving we can make a go of it,” said Jake, “even if we don’t get a lot of the incentives big farms get.”


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