New York Makers: Adirondack Fragrance & Flavor Farm

July 06, 2016
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Adirondack Fragrance & Flavor Farm

By Christine Murphy

Most of us encounter turning points in our lives that set us on a new course, but perhaps none so specific as in the story of Sandy Maine, the founder and director of the Potsdam, N.Y.-based Adirondack Fragrance & Flavor Farm. Raised in Penn Yann, N.Y. and descended from the largest Danish settlement in the Finger Lakes, Sandy traversed the state to attend SUNY Potsdam, never suspecting she would set down roots. At school she met a fellow student, Louie, whom she would later marry. As luck would have it, she won a horse (yes, a horse) in a contest, and had the unusual but urgent onus of needing to purchase land to house her equestrian acquisition. A historic homestead on the banks of the St. Regis River with a charming story — it once supplied the food for Adirondack logging camps and the Sylvan Falls Hotel, a wilderness resort — was on the market. The monthly rent? $135.  “We moved here, the two of us and the horse, and that was the beginning of me living in the Adirondacks.”

Setting foot onto Sandy’s farm in Parishville is like stepping into a fairytale. The landscape in summer is verdant as far as the eye can see and buzzing with life; it is equally magical in winter, blanketed in the dense snow one expects in New York’s farthest northeastern reaches, just 25 miles from the Canadian border. After the initial electric shocks of the color palette, the next sensory encounter is the crisp smell of hundreds of balsam firs, and then the bleating sounds from the goats in the barn and the twittering birds in the trees. A walk through enchanted woods, past a whimsical “treehouse” built atop a boulder, leads to the St. Regis River, where the water is so cool and refreshing that Sandy rinses her face with it. And then there is the taste: of tangy goat’s milk yogurt made in her kitchen, and of tart red currants plucked from the garden. As she presides over this wild kingdom with a preternatural calm, and surrounded by a halo of sunshine radiating off her white hair, Sandy calls to mind a blonde rendition of Helga from Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. The true magic in this dreamy scenario lies in her mastery at bottling these visceral experiences into portable scents, soaps and sauces that can instantly transport people, no matter how far away, to an Adirondack New York State of mind.

It comes as little surprise that farming runs deep in Sandy’s roots. Her grandmother raised chickens and grew vegetables for canning. As a child, Sandy helped feed the chickens and sheep at her aunt’s farm, and ran wild through the vineyards of her uncle’s property in the Finger Lakes. As a teenager she became certified as an Adirondack wilderness guide, leading tours through the High Peaks, and from that experience, she says, “I really, really fell in love with the Adirondacks at an early age.” Farming and guiding imbued Sandy with a do-it-yourself, organic paradigm that, in her early 20s, manifested as a passion for medicinal and fragrance herbs. “If I had a cold, I was interested in what herbs would I use for that,” she explains, “I wanted to have a business that allowed me to share my love of the natural world with other people.”

This brings us to another turning point in Sandy’s path. A friend who owned a culinary and fragrance herb business offered to teach Sandy the basics of blending oils. On her first attempt, Sandy produced a batch so ambrosial that her friend was stunned, and for the first time Sandy recognized the strength of her nose and palate. As she contemplated an outlet for these skills, a Eureka! moment came. “I had this flash one morning about my grandmother and her soapmaking. She made soap with me once and I never forgot it.” Sandy refreshed her knowledge by reading soapmaking books at the library and eventually arrived at yet another turning point. “I just had a feeling when I made my first batch of cedar [soap] — I used white, northern white cedar oil — I remember it plopping out onto the counter with this resounding thud, and I just knew that my whole life was going to revolve around that.” In the fall of 1979, armed with a $15 investment, Sandy began making soap and marketing it at craft fairs.

And then a knock on the door changed everything. A sales representative who had scouted the soaps at a store tracked Sandy down at the farm, introduced herself and offered to sell Sandy’s products. After running the company out of her home for five years — “it got very crazy; the whole house was like a factory; there was only one room in the house that wasn’t used for the business and that was the bedroom” — this was the opportunity she had been waiting for. Sales multiplied tenfold between the first and second years, and this original business, SunFeather Natural Soap Company, evolved into one of the most successful all-natural soap producers in America.

Sandy sold the company in 2011 and began to consider her next project. Despite her formal and hands-on training, Sandy was wise enough to let nature be her guide. She says, “I always wanted this farm to be productive in some way. I mean, it’s definitely productive with me not doing a thing to it. You know, if you look deeply there’s the milkweed over there, and the monarchs are over there, and the bees are out, and there are so many things going on that you don’t even think about, but in my mind I wanted to do something productive with it.”

Enter Adirondack Fragrance & Flavor Farm  which differentiates itself from Sandy’s first company in that it captures the sensory experiences of her farm. This business is also her first foray into food, and as she says, “blending oils for scents and cooking is just a small jump from fragrance into flavor.” The aromas seem genuine because, well, they are. Balsam fir tree needles are pulverized into the soap bars as a natural exfoliant; the body wash and lotions contain soothing oil from the balsam firs; and the cologne and room spray are steeped with Adirondack grape spirits, all from her property. Even the sauces have a local infusion, as Sandy explains: “I actually add a little bit of balsam fir to the sauce, which you wouldn’t think [of], but when you try it, it’s really delicious, and makes it ‘Adirondack.’ ” Even with this differentiation in scent stories, Sandy continues to espouse the organic nature of her line. As a pioneer in the organic skincare field in the 1970s, Sandy is delighted that a mass market now exists for natural products, because “It feels good to live like this. It’s healthy. People want to have some kind of connection with the food they eat or the people that are growing it. That’s not going to go away, you know.”

The property that inspires her ideas also restores her.  “I’m lucky that I live here because I can go out my door and take a nice hike. I can go swimming in the river. I can go cross-country skiing. Being outdoors, physical exercise, breathing fresh air, I find all those things helpful.” Simply by living in her own New York State of Mind, Sandy has blazed a new trail for what an Adirondacks-based brand can look like: locally-grown, locally-staffed, regionally-identifiable, and extremely sophisticated. She feels that the time is ripe for other area entrepreneurs to join in and help grow “the Adirondack brand,” to show tourists that, as she says, “you’re gonna go there, and you’re gonna find all these interesting things going on, and there’s a folk life here.” And she will keep doing her part. She says with touching sincerity, “I really get a lot of satisfaction out of making products that can bring happiness to people, because I’m happy when I’m making them and I think that should be  everyone’s goal: to bring happiness to yourself and each other.”

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