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Family’s sideline grows into full-time farm

Roadside vegetable stand in ‘70s set stage for multi-generational business



Contributing writer

Some family businesses are planned in advance, with every last detail crafted before being put into motion; others unfold by happenstance and evolve naturally over time.

The latter has been the pattern at Butternut Ridge Farm. The farm got its start 38 years ago when Bill Stevens, a longtime horticulture teacher at Washington County BOCES, set up a vegetable stand at the foot of his driveway on Route 40.

“It started out as just Bill selling vegetables at a table,” recalled Debbie Stevens, Bill's daughter-in-law. “We kept adding more acreage, and it grew from there.”

Today, Bill Stevens is 83, and a fourth generation of the Stevens family is involved in producing the vegetables, hanging plants and bedding flowers that Butternut Ridge sells from the farm and at farmers markets in Washington, Warren and Saratoga counties.

From its start in the 1970s, the farm quickly outgrew the roadside table. The family eventually converted their garage into a sizeable retail space for produce, fresh flowers, and plants.

The Stevenses began selling at area farmers markets nearly 30 years ago, but back then it was only once or twice a week.

“The farmers markets were definitely a lot smaller back then,” Debbie Stevens said. “When the Farmers Market Association began talking about looking down the road and constructing a building with nearly 50 vendors, I didn't think it would be possible. But the Saturday market in Saratoga Springs has 50 vendors.”

What started out as a novelty sideline eventually became a way of life. The days of the Stevenses heading to farmers markets only twice a week are long gone. Butternut Ridge now sells its produce and flowers at markets in Glens Falls (twice a week), Queensbury, Saratoga Springs, Clifton Park and Malta.

Career change

The region’s growing interest in locally sourced food sent Debbie Stevens’ career in an entirely new direction. For nearly 20 years she had worked at C.R. Bard, a catheter manufacturing company in Glens Falls.

“I got a job there right out of high school and thought I’d be there until I retired,” she recalled. “For a long time, I helped out on the farm here and there in my spare time. But sometime around the early ’90s, my husband, Glenn, said, ‘We need you full time.’”

Debbie essentially followed in her husband’s footsteps. Glenn’s plan had been to retain his job as a carpenter until retirement, but his dad’s farming project changed that.

“When his father was looking to scale back his duties, he thought he’d show Glenn the ropes,” Debbie Stevens explained. “Glenn never thought he’d end up doing it full time, but he fell in live with the challenge of it. And he loves working with the plants.”

Though the idea of helping to run the family business was undeniably appealing to Debbie, leaving the security of a steady paycheck and health benefits was a bit scary.

“I was a little afraid,” she admitted. “Having insurance is nice, and when you go out on your own, it's much higher.”

But she said the risk was worth it in the long run.

“I never thought I’d be doing this full time, but I love it,” Stevens said. “I enjoy going somewhere different each day and meeting different people. I also love setting up at the markets. ... On the way over, I think about how I’m going to display everything. The worst part is loading everything back in the truck at the end. It’s tiring but fun.”

By traveling to the farmers markets, Debbie Stevens has long been the face of Butternut Ridge Farm. Glenn, on the other hand, is content to work behind the scenes, overseeing the farm tasks, from planting and spraying to caring for the harvesting equipment. The couple took over the business from Glenn's parents 20 years ago, but Debbie said her father-in-law regularly offers horticultural advice.


Local vegetables in demand
Looking to the future, Stevens sees the farm moving more strongly into vegetable production as the demand for locally grown foods increases.

“We're probably going to be cutting back a bit more on flower bedding and doing more with vegetables," she said. “People don’t need flowers, but they need vegetables, and we sell whatever we grow. The demand for local food seems to grow each year.”

Already the demand has outrun the family's 60 acres behind Bill and Helen's home on Route 40. The family leases an additional 50 acres of farmland from Washington County, and Debbie and Glenn have several more acres at their nearby home.

“During peak season, we don’t get a day off,” Debbie Stevens said. “But we do get some down time in the winter. This year we went to Florida, but I also did some waitressing because I'm not one to sit around. I don't have to go to a gym, because working on a farm keeps you in shape -- and tan.”

Sitting around won’t be an option in any case if the business keeps expanding.

Debbie’s and Glenn’s daughter, Miranda, now runs the Saratoga Springs market on Saturday mornings, and the couple's grandchildren have even gotten in on the act.

“It’s a real family operation,” Stevens said. “My grandkids love to help out; they're good workers.”

And what about the roadside operation that began nearly 40 years ago?

“We still sell vegetables at our stand on Route 40: tomatoes, apples, squash, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, zucchini and cabbage,” Stevens said. “I’m so busy that I can't be there, so it's self-serve. I usually have just enough time to restock the vegetables once during the day. But we’re going to twice as many markets this year, so it’ll be a challenge.”

She credits the family’s entrepreneurial spirit for the farm’s survival and growth.

“My father-in-law's love of horticulture started it all,” Debbie Stevens said as she packed the truck for another farmers market. “It all began with just a few vegetables. It grew from there, and it just keeps growing. Bill and Helen are so proud of the business and now getting into the fourth generation. They’re glad to see it carrying on.”

Butternut Ridge Farm is on Route 40 in South Argyle. For more information, visit www.glensfallsfarmersmarket.com or call (518) 638-6656.

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