BY Molly Congdon
REXFORD — The sweet taste of juicy melon fills your mouth, a perfect flavor that lingers on your tongue and leaves you longing for more.
You almost forget that you’re not actually biting into the orange innards of a cantaloupe; you just had a helping of Michelle Petuske’s Cantaloupe Jam.
Petuske’s Produce, a third-generation family-owned farm stand business, has just opened the doors of a second location — directly in front of Kulak’s Nursery and Landscaping in Rexford at 1615 Route 146 — and aside from the fresh fruit and vegetable offerings, the shelves are lined with jars tightly packed with gleaming sweetness: Pixie’s Preserves.
It all began in Halfmoon back in the 1970s on the corner of Halfmoon Drive and Harris Road when Will and Ruth Petuske were situated on a picnic table — huddling under tarps during the rainstorms.
Today, a steel roof protects both humans and produce from water droplets, and the thriving business has been taken over by Michelle — a Florida transplant who married into the family — and her husband, Rick Petuske.
They do it all: Sow the seeds, harvest the crops and retail them to the public, a true field-to-table operation. The field is located on Brookwood Road in Halfmoon and gets the hands-on treatment.
“We are very particular about what goes on our stand and we sort through everything,” Petuske said. “You shouldn’t ever find a moldy blueberry. If it wouldn’t go on our table at night, we wouldn’t put it on our stand during the day.”
Her favorite aspect of the business is planting and being a spectator of growth. “Watching something grow from a seed to something that we can pick and put on our stand for sale,” Petuske said. “We also have lots of wonderful costumers who have basically been lifelong, and seeing their families grow and their children grow and have families and still continue to support us is a wonderful thing.”
The addition of selling handcrafted jams was the cherry on top of the business; another attraction luring customers back again and again.
It all began when Michelle was 12 years old and she learned the art of preparing spreads from her mother. Since then, she has transformed into a chemist of sorts, finding the exact mixture that fuses fruits together to create an irresistible combination.
The secret? “Quality ingredients and making it in small batches, ensuring quality control,” Petuske said. “It’s all about trial and error.”
Glancing through the labels — alongside the basics such as Blueberry, Strawberry and Raspberry — you find: Fig, Ginger, Hot Peach, Lemon Blueberry, Mango Meltdown, Lime Marmalade, Hot Pepper, Pineapple, Garlic Jelly, Elderberry, Crabapple, Black Current, Plum Rhubarb and her famous signature creation, Apple Crisp (and yes, that is oatmeal inside that jar).
“My favorite is the Strawberry Rhubarb,” longtime Halfmoon resident Carol Hotaling said as she shopped at Petuske’s last week. “It’s amazing.”
It is not produced in bulk or with the flick of a switch; each batch is made from scratch by Michelle alone. The products of her labor are not just sold at Petuske’s Produce but on the shelves of Price Chopper, Shop Rite and other farm stands. But she likes selling them herself.
Each year, like clockwork, Petuske’s Produce opens in the spring and continues to serve the community until cold weather returns to the area.
As people walked around scanning the selections, Michelle watched from the counter smiling and quietly said, “Our customers are like our family.”
Petuske’s Produce hours of operation:
Rexford: 10-6 weekdays and 9-4 on weekends
Halfmoon: 8-6 weekdays and 8-4 on weekends