Barb Rexilius and Sue Abbott-Jones are not taking the traditional retirement route. They are not relaxing on the beach but digging in the garden, sometimes even someone else's. The only traditional element in their retirement is the product they are using to produce Adirondack Rhubarb Traditions' rhubarb concentrate and Rhubutter.
Before starting this grassroots rhubarb business, Sue was an elementary school teacher for the Saranac Lake Central School District and Barb was the director of nursing for North Country Community College. They met through a common interest in politics and the organization Voters for Change. They quickly became friends and are now business partners.
Necessity is the mother of invention. One day while Barb was cooking in her kitchen, she realized she was out of lemon concentrate.
Sue Abbott-Jones and Barb Rexilius pose with their Adirondack Rhubarb Traditions products.
(Photo — Diane Chase)
Barb laughs as she remembers: "I was being lazy and didn't want to go to the store. I needed lemon concentrate. Rhubarb is acidic. I had plenty of rhubarb, so I made my first rhubarb concentrate. Lemon concentrate is usually used as a flavor enhancer, not necessarily for the lemon flavor. The concentrate brings out the flavors of other things. It also helps permeate whatever you're using. I'd been making my own rhubarb concentrate for over five years."
Barb uses apple pie as an example. Using an acidic concentrate helps to break down the fibers in the apples so sugars can get into them.
"The concentrate we sell has no fiber in it, so we just developed the Rhubutter, which uses the fiber," Sue says. "We are trying to use every bit of the rhubarb we can. We are currently working on new uses like cleaning products and candy."
"This is an all-natural product," Barb says. "There are no dyes. No color stabilizer. No preservatives. We had to work with the bottler to make that happen. He knows the principles of cooking, while I can add a bit here and there to make something taste good. When you cook at home, you don't need to follow a recipe. You can't do that commercially. Without Wayne, we could not have come up with the product."
Wayne Rabideau from Adirondack Specialty Foods does the processing for other companies such as Well Dressed Food in Tupper Lake, Pray's Cider and Whiteface Mountain Maple Syrup. According to Sue and Barb, he is "out-of-his-mind busy because he also works for the prison and there are no other bottlers in the area."
Sue and Barb are trying to keep the funds for starting their business in the community.
"We are trying hard to keep everything local," Barb says. "We have purchased rhubarb from all over the place. We harvest rhubarb from anyone that will let us. There are so many people we have met in this community from trying to find rhubarb.
"We had to go out and get more rhubarb because we went through what we had."
Sue interjects: "We sold out in the first week. We had 300 bottles. We cleaned out Pray's of rhubarb and ended up going to wholesalers as far south as Saratoga."
Sue and Barb have asked local farmers to increase their rhubarb crop and have even planted rhubarb in their own yards.
"We are finding there are all types of rhubarb," Barb says. "We prefer the fatter stalks that have some red in it.
"The red rhubarb is slightly sweeter."
"Each bottle of concentrate contains two pounds of rhubarb," Barb continues. "We encourage people to plant rhubarb or harvest it, and we will buy at the current wholesale price of $1 per pound. It may not bring in a lot of money, but $20 just for something going to seed in your backyard would be nice."
Sue and Barb have guidelines that must be followed in order to purchase the rhubarb. They also have people who let them come and just harvest rhubarb.
"We will certainly go to a person's house and harvest their rhubarb, but we can't afford to pay for it, harvest it, cut off the leaves and chop it - though we are willing to buy it if it's prepared," Sue says. "So if anyone is interested, they can contact us.
"The rhubarb needs to be given to us within 24 hours after picking."
Returning patrons have started to inform Barb and Sue of the innovative ways the rhubarb concentrate is being used. One client adds it to lemonade to reduce the amount of sugar used, giving it a more robust flavor and making it a "more refreshing drink."
"We are working under the northern European philosophy where they use rhubarb in everything," Sue says. "In Europe you can buy rhubarb cut up and canned so you can make a pie year-round."
"In the old days, the people that lived in the northern climates would get their kids outside and eat rhubarb because it was the first thing that would come up in the spring," Barb says. "Back then you didn't have the oranges and tomatoes being imported, so rhubarb was the way people got their vitamin C. It was a crop that was used a lot by the older generation. Now we need to re-educate a new generation on the uses of rhubarb. I don't know what concentrating the rhubarb does to its health benefits."
Barb insists that you can't have rhubarb as a cash crop if the only use by the majority of people is as pie filling: "We needed a product that required more rhubarb and was essential to our other products. That's why our first product, rhubarb concentrate, was so important.
"Our big vision is that this area becomes the Rhubarb Capital," Barb projects. "Our second big vision is that we are selling this product and going south with it to Florida and California and all the places that ship their products to us. We can now send them something that is produced in the north."
As a nurse, Barb ruminates on the health benefits of rhubarb. The next stage of their business will be to find out what nutrients the concentrate contains. Rhubarb is traditionally high in vitamins K and C, and is a good source of potassium and fiber. The leaves are poisonous, but Sue and Barb even have plans for new product uses for that.
"I am of the belief that nothing goes to waste," Barb says with a grin. "I believe in using everything but the oink."
"We harvested more than 300 pounds of rhubarb ourselves, and that is about all we can personally cut," Sue says. "Then we bought from other people, and at the end had to go through a wholesaler.
"Right now our rhubarb wholesaler buys the rhubarb from Poland. Isn't that crazy? Right now the small farmers won't sell to us at wholesale, so we can't afford to get it from them."
At the time Barb and Sue started buying from wholesalers, they did not know the rhubarb was coming from Poland. Sue and Barb want to continue to get their rhubarb from local sources. They insist that the Adirondack rhubarb produces more juice because it is fresh and hasn't been frozen.
"We just have better rhubarb here," they say.
"A few years back, I had noticed that each year people's rhubarb was going to seed," Barb says. "I was wondering why people weren't using it.
"I went to my church and thought there was something we could do about this. We had a rhubarb festival for one year."
After interest in the festival waned, Barb and Sue conceived Adirondack Rhubarb Traditions. The rhubarb festival was met with enthusiasm in 2009, but with conflicts and the church's other commitments, it didn't continue. But Barb and Sue hope that with the introduction of rhubarb as a new cash crop, a rhubarb festival will be resurrected in the future.
"We find that rhubarb concentrate does not interfere with the taste of cooking but enhances it," Barb says. "When we make cookies, it adds this little zing at the end. It is an interesting phenomenon. We are limited to what we can do. Locally it is being carried at Nori's in Saranac Lake and Green Goddess Foods in Lake Placid. John Vargo of Eat 'n' Meet carries it and even uses it in his cooking.
"At the Fork 2 Farm Festival in Saranac Lake, John did a presentation using it and people were coming up to our booth asking about it," Barb proudly admits. "One day he came over to our booth at the farmers market and practically gave a class in how to use it. He has been amazing about telling other people.
"We are taking our commitment slowly," Barb admits. "We have been able to buy things based on what we sell. We are on a shoestring budget."
"We are Adirondack Rhubarb Traditions," says Sue. "The rhubarb is the tradition, but there is nothing traditional about our product."