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Friday, December 27, 2013 at 7:11 pm

Mortellaro brothers savor life as onion farmers in Elba

post by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, elba, Genesee County Farms

This is the sixth in our series on Genesee County's farms and farmers. For previous stories, click here. (Obviously, I started this story in late fall and am only now publishing it.)

Onions. It seems simple, right? Plant a seed and a few months later pull up a bulb and soak in the pungent aroma of one America's most essential foods.

Try making a stew or a salad without an onion. Edible? Maybe. Good? Hardly.

But which onion? 

The cook considers white, red, yellow or perhaps green.

The farmer considers Bradley, Walla Walla, Candy, Sterling, Yankee, Sedona, Redwing and Crocket, among hundreds of other varieties.

A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but for the onion farmer, the name on the seed bag he plants in the spring has a lot to do with yield he can expect in the fall.

The seed, the weather, the soil depth, the week of planting, the plot location, length of storage and what's going on in onion markets all over the world are the layers an onion farmer peels away each season hoping to rediscover that savory recipe called profits.

"There are dozens and dozens of varieties," said Matt Mortellaro, co-owner with his brother Paul, of G. Mortellaro & Sons, and Elba-based onion farm. "It's hard to know each year which varieties are working well. Every piece of ground is a little different and every season is a little different. You can have varieties growing hundreds of yards apart and get different results. The rain falls more in one location. It floods a little more. There's the wind and the soil. You can have so many different conditions, which is why we grow so many different varieties."

Paul and Matt were born into this, growing onions on the muck.

Paul helped out on the family farm from a young age. Matt being younger was spared by more modern farm equipment the hours of grueling seed and sprout planting and weed pulling under the blistering sun on the black muck.

"Mainly, I remember riding around in the truck with my dad," Matt said.

Matt studied natural resources, conservation and biology at Cornell before deciding to concentrate on ag production and plant biology.

Paul set out as a young man to be an engineer, earning a degree with the University at Buffalo and he worked in that field for a few years before feeling the tug of the family farm.

"It was strange," Paul said. "The engineering wasn't bad, but it really wasn't the lifestyle I was used to. You go to work and you're done at the end of the day. I feel like I'm a farmer twenty-four-seven."

As a farm owner, you get up early to check the weather. You take calls from customers needing to pick up a load of onions at 11 p.m.  You make repairs, check crop reports and answer e-mails long after the guy with an office job has hopped in his car, made the long drive home and is tuning into Sports Center.

"That's typical for employees and I can't say I blame them," Paul said. "Without the ownership interest, they just disappear and there is no way to retrieve them. I guess I don't need that. I don't need to feel like my responsibilities end at five o'clock."

Paul and Matt's grandfather started the family in the onion farming business in 1935 with eight acres of muckland. 

Gerlando Mortellaro didn't speak English and worked other jobs to make ends meet. By the time he handed the farm off to his two sons -- Paul and Matt's father and uncle -- the family owned 110 acres of muckland.

The farm is 260 acres today, and while other family farms in the area have diversified and added crops on the uplands, the Mortellaros stick with with what they know -- onions grown in the dark, decaying organic matter that made Elba famous.

"I think I would like growing anything, but onions is what I know," Paul said. "I've been exposed to onions for 41 years. It's kind of in my blood now. I don't know what else to do."

Paul said he kind of imagines if he was plunked down in a strange country, it wouldn't be long before he started growing onions again.  When he meets strangers, he said, it's hard not to assume they're onion farmers, too.

 "I have actually said it a couple of times, kind of as a joke, 'tell me about your onion operations,' " Paul said.

Matt is just as focused on growing onions on the muck.

"I don't have experience commercially growing other things on mineral soil, so it's hard to compare," Matt said. "I know the frustrations of growing on the muck, but I don't know if that's different from growing different things on other soil types."

Both Paul and Matt have been able to find enough time away from onion farming to get married and raise families.

Paul is married to Tricia and they have two daughters -- Rosalie, 19, an engineering student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Grace, 17, a student at Notre Dame High School.

Matt is married to Stephanie and they have two boys, Mateo, 13, and Tiago, 10.

With the variety of onions the Mortellaros might choose to grow in any one season, there is one trait they all share -- they're what's known as long-day onions.

There are short-day onions and long-day onions. The two types use different triggers for when to form a bulb. For the short-day onion, it's just a matter of time, how many days since the seed was planted. Long-day onions know when the longest day of the summer has arrived and that's its signal to form a bulb.

Long-day onions not only grow better in our region, they make for better storage onions.

The Mortellaros sell onions all year long, even when temperatures outside dip into the teens and no plow can possibly till any soil.

In a good growing season, those 260 acres of muckland have filled the Mortellaros 50,000-square-foot storage facility on Transit Road with enough pungency to last into spring.

When customers need onions, or the price is right, Paul and Matt -- under the brand name Crybaby Onions -- almost always have onions to sell.

"With storage onions, we don't have to discount it to get rid of it," Paul said. "Out West, they sell onions for three weeks and then they're onto melons or something else. Here, you can just wait. If you don't like the price, you can wait. When you get a price you like, you go. That is a much better way to maintain steady customers. That's the beauty of storage, whether it's onions, potatoes or cabbage. You can sell it all in one week, but that's usually a disadvantage."

Storage adds to the pungency of an onion and Paul likes a pungent onion -- hence the Crybaby brand, but Paul warned the home cook not to think that storing a store-bought onion will improve its quality.

By the time an onion reaches the produce section of a supermarket, it's been through cold storage and a warming period, which is the onion's signal to sprout (an onion in its first year produces a bulb; in it's second year, it goes to seed). 

"The onion only knows it's ready to go," Paul said. "There's no turning back. It's really hard to buy an onion that hasn't been through the cold and warm cycle, so my advice is to eat an onion fast. Sprouted onions are actually very good, but you can always buy more."

With onions such a staple of America's diet, Paul and Matt always want to grow the best quality onion possible at the highest profit margin possible, even if Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate.

"Growing onions is somewhat of an art and somewhat of a science," Matt said. "Certain onions are ready for harvest in 95 days, others in 120. Depending on where you're planting, some need more time. Certain varities do better in different ground and some are marginal. Certain varieties produce more tonnage, but the bulb is not that great, and others don't have as high a yield, but have big, beautiful bulbs. So there's a lot of thought that goes into deciding what to plant in a particular piece of ground."

Onion farming, like the onion itself, may look simple from the outside, but then, just start peeling away the layers. The Mortellaros do it, day in and day out, 365 days a year.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

Torreys keep farming all in the family

post by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, business, elba, Genesee County Farms, Torrey Farms

This is the fifth in our series on Genesee County's farms and farmers. For previous stories, click here. (Obviously, I started this story in late fall and am only now publishing it. I've got one other story that I started at the same time as this and hope to finish in the next week).

When you farm 11,000 acres -- growing cucumbers, green beans, zucchini, yellow squash, cabbage, pumpkins, winter squash, onions, potatoes, carrots and tending milk cows -- you always have something to sell.

Whether you always have a buyer is another matter.

Each work day -- spring, summer, fall and winter -- Maureen Torrey arrives at the main office of Torrey Farms in Elba at 8 a.m. to start marketing the products grown on the farmland owned by her and her brothers John and Mark.

She talks to potential buyers not just in the Northeast, but as far away as Texas and California, trying to get the best price, and sometimes just trying to set a reasonable price, to move perishables before they spoil.

Torrey is a graduate of Iowa State University with a degree in journalism. She was a Cornell Extension agent for awhile then worked in merchandising for Chiquita for four years. The merchandising job gave her a taste of how she could contribute to the family farm.

"I realized I really liked the wheeling and dealing," Torrey said. "The markets are different every day. It's all by your gut. You're looking at weather patterns and what's available and what your gut is telling you. You look at whether to raise the market or lower the market and look at who's short around the country."

The roots of Torrey Farms goes back to the founding of the nation. In 1626, the Torrey family left England and settled in Connecticut. But the rocky soil of The Nutmeg State wasn't great cropland, so as pioneers moved West, so did the Torreys, looking for better farmland.

John Torrey arrived in Bethany in 1803, and while there are still Torreys farming in the Bethany area, Torrey Farms as we know it today began in 1948 when Elbert Torrey, the grandfather of Maureen, John and Mark, purchased the 375-acre Higley Farm in Elba.

Don't let the size of today's Torrey Farms fool you -- it's as much a family farm as the one with 100 acres and 40 cows. Besides the three offspring of Charles Torrey running operations today, Mark's children also work in management roles on the farm.

Jed is charge of grain crops, Travis, daily labor, Lucus, harvest and planting, Shannon, marketing and sales, Molly, human resources and Jordon in accounting and marketing.

"We're very much a hands-on operation," said Maureen, whose three daughters are all in college. Jill is at Cornell, Julie is at Florida State and former Elba Onion Queen Jamie is a freshman at the University of Arkansas.

The farm employs 80 workers throughout the four seasons and brings in as many as 220 workers for the spring through the early fall.

Most employees, as is the case in agriculture throughout the United States, are migrants and immigrants.

After the weather -- if not before -- ensuring the farm has enough labor to plant and harvest is the biggest difficulty Torrey Farms faces. Both John and Maureen agree on that point.

"More than 70 percent of all the food in this country is planted and grown by immigrants," Maureen said. "That's pretty significant. Without them, we'd be pretty hungry."

Yet, there's an endless supply of politicians in Washington -- and it's been this way since the 1980s --  seemingly intent on trying to make it as difficult as possible for farms to get the labor they need to feed Americans.

"Our biggest challenge is the labor, the immigration issue," John said. "You're always going to have the variables of the weather, but the last several years, what we're most uneasy about is immigration."

Fighting against hard-headed politicians in Washington has put Maureen Torrey on a national stage. She's testified before Congress and worked with both labor and agricultural groups trying to bring about sensible immigration reform.

It hasn't been easy.

"We're trying to get some people in Congress to stand up and be fair and do what needs to be done for the country," Maureen said. "They need to make strong decisions and stop worrying about elections. They hear from some advocacy groups, from people who are well organized and use social media and send tons of letters, but they need to look at the meat of the issue and see what it means for the country and who is doing the work and how it's getting done.

"We've always got to educate a new batch of congressmen," Maureen added.

Like just about any farmer you talk to, the Torreys have tried hiring native-born workers, but it never works out. After six hours, maybe two days, the domestic workers leave or don't come back.

The work is hard and dirty, and there are too many handouts from the government to it make worthwhile for citizens stoop and bend in farm fields.

Misinformation spread about immigrants sucking money from that same social services system is what drives border crack downs and makes it harder for farmers to bring in crops, Maureen said. People come here from Mexico to work, Torrey said, not collect welfare.

And often their wages get poured back into the local economy.

"They talk about (immigrants in) the schools, but this farm land and our housing all generate school taxes," Maureen said. "They're also the best shoppers for our retailers. Three weeks ago, 42 brand-new TVs went back on the bus to Mexico. Talk to the store owners in Albion. They love these guys. It makes their business for them."

Monday, August 5, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Son of a farmer, Tillotson makes his own way in the dairy business

post by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, Farming, Genesee County Farms, Pavilion

This is the fourth in our series on Genesee County's farms and farmers. For previous stories, click here.

When Brent and Polly Tillotson bought their house -- a farmhouse on nearly five acres built on Sparks Road in 1855 -- it wasn't necessarily with the intention of going into the dairy business.

The property put the young couple with two children close to the 1,100-cow dairy farm of Brent's father, Dave Tillotson.

Brent worked at the farm sometimes. He also drove trucks. He liked the idea of being his own boss, especially growing up in a family of farmers, but he hadn't quite arrived at that decision yet.

Then he started to hear about how Upstate Farms needed more dairy farmers who could deliver quality organic milk.

He and Polly started to talk it over, did a little research, tried to figure out what it would take and decided they liked the idea.

It wouldn't be easy -- there's more paperwork, different yields, higher feed prices and just more work -- but it also made a lot of sense, even for a guy who wasn't into organics for health or environmental reasons.

"It was just a business decision," Tillotson said while sitting behind a small, black metal desk in  his cube of an office next to his milking parlor. "You get a contract. The price doesn't fluctuate like it does in a normal milk market. I can bank on what we're going to get paid, make plans and know I'm going to have this place paid off in a certain number of years if I just follow the plan."

Getting a little help from his father certainly made it easier to get started, Tillotson said. He could, of course, tap into his father's expertise, but Dave Tillotson also had pasture land to lease and the kind of strong reputation that helps secure bank loans, even into six figures.

"The banks weren't busting to give me a loan," Brent said. "My father helped. They know he's a good dairy man and a good business man. He's also the best resource in the world with his knowledge of cows."

Dave Tillotson down plays his role in his son's business. He says Brent is his own man. He said he doesn't want to take anything away from what his son has accomplished. He won't take credit for anything.

"I don't stick my nose in it," Dave said. "I let him run his own business. I don't have a clue about their financials or what they're doing day-to-day. They take care of all that stuff. I have my own business to run. If he needs my help, he asks for it and I give it to him. If he doesn't want my advice, he doesn't get it."

If that sounds harsh, know that Dave was smiling and laughing as he said it.

He's clearly proud of his son's business, which has been up and running for about four years.

"I came from a family where there were three brothers and the farm got split up," Dave said. "I have two boys and a daughter. I always wanted to give them the opportunity to have their own farms."

Life on a dairy farm is never laidback, especially when the farm is organic and cows need to be regularly rotated from pasture to pasture and into and out of the milking parlor. The tasks of herd management include the proper timing and care for calving, and filing out of piles of paperwork.

To remain certified organic, Polly -- who has a full-time job away from the farm but also handles the bookkeeping -- needs to file forms that cover daily animal and paddock movements for the animals, what they're eating in pasture and what they're being fed in troughs.

Organic means no herbicides or pesticides in the food the cows eat and no hormone injections to boost production.

"The cow is as good as she is," Tillotson said. "There's no pumping her up to get more production. We can change her feed around, but only as long as it's all organic."

Just to get their initial certification, the pasture had to be properly prepared, which took three years. A mix of rye, fescue and alfalfa was planted and then the grasses had to grow without any ground sprays before the organic herd could set hoof on it.

When it came time to choose cows, Tillotson went for Jerseys. The black and tan cows may be smaller and don't produce as much liquid milk, but their milk contains more protein and is said to have a creamery taste.

That higher fat content -- what the industry calls components -- commands a higher price. 

A Holstein's milk might be three pounds per hundred weight of protein, the Jersey's milk is about five pounds per hundred weight.

It costs more to raise an organic Jersey and there's less liquid, but the higher milk fat concentration makes up the difference.

"We make more off the components than off fluid," Tillotson said. "Our milk production is lower, but the compenents are higher, so that makes up for a little bit of the milk production deficit."

The organic milk market is still a fraction of the entire milk market, but the demand for organic milk grew 2.3 percent last year, according to Mark Serling, who markets organic milk for Upstate.

The boom in Greek yogurt has also meant a boom for organic Greek yogurt.

"We signed their farm and others because we continue to see nice growth on the organic milk side," Serling said. "There is also additional demand on the yogurt said. It takes three times as much milk to make Greek yogurt and that really drives the need for additional milk."

The organic milk market is one largely built on myth. There's no scientific evidence, both Tillotson and Serling note, that says conventional milk posses any problem for human consumption. The nutritional benefits are the same.

"There's nothing wrong with conventional milk," Tillotson said. "The flavor is a little different. It's processed differently, but it's good milk. It's all about what you want for your family. If you don't want the antibiotics or the hormones in your family's food or what you drink, then that's what you want for your family."

Serling said it's a lifestyle choice, a choice driven by consumers so it's what retailers demand Upstate offers as a product choice.

Asked whether it's the flavor of the milk or health concerns that spurs the demand for organic milk, Serling said, "It's all of that and more. It's the feed, the flavor, the potential for avoiding pesticides, even approved pesticides, things of that nature.

"For our organic farmers, for all of our farmers," Serling added, "we really drive hard on quality, the highest quality milk they can produce. That's our focus."

When it came time to buy the start of Brent's Jersey herd, he and his father had to travel around the Northeast a bit. Many of the cows came from Pennsylvania, but there was one memorable trip.

On the way back from picking up Jersey calves in Vermont -- calves that cost $1,200 a piece -- Brent said he got a little tired of looking at the back of his dad's trailer, so he decided to pass him on the Thruway.

Brent had a full trailer. Dave was hauling four calves. The two trucks were going about 70 mph.

Jerseys have a reputation for being pretty smart animals and Brent doesn't doubt it. His stories about Jerseys often include the notion that they draw straws to try something and if the first one makes it, the others will follow.

"So, a lady pulled up beside him yelling hysterically 'you're cows are jumping out, your cows are jumping out,' but only one had jumped out," Brent said. "I think they drew straws again and said, 'you're going first. If you make it we'll go, too'. When my dad stopped the trailer, the cows were all up front saying, 'we're not going.' "

Of course, Dave worried about what sort of damage a calf could do to a moving vehicle and when he pulled over he could see a car on the shoulder about a half mile to three quarters of a mile behind him.

Unable to turn around, Dave walked back and found a lady had used her car to pin the calf against a guard rail.

"I think she watched too much Crocodile Hunter or something," Brent said. "She had a bandanna tied around the calf's head to cover his eyes."

Dave made a leash from his belt and walked the calf -- which wasn't injured -- back to his trailer.

"We were trucking along, so you know that first step was a doozy," Brent said.

There's some other advantages of milking Jerseys that Tilltoson has picked up on the past few years -- the cows, both because of their build and because they get plenty of exercise grazing -- stay in production about twice as long, or longer, than Holsteins.

The Jerseys do seem to like to walk, Tillotson said. In winter, they'll make several round-trips up the gravel road from the barn to the backwoods and back.

"I've always wanted to put a pedometer on one of them to see how many miles a day they walk," Tillotson.

The other advantage: organic inspectors know all the cows are his, raised on his land.

"Everybody always asks why I picked Jerseys instead of Holsteins and it's because we're organic," Tillotson said. "Nobody can say we're bringing my dad's cows over and milking them."

Tillotson's Grassland Farms Dairy is still a small operation. He only has a couple of employees.  The employees do most of the milking, including one old guy who just loves to come to work at 3 a.m. -- a real godsend for Tilltoson since he has a long enough day as it is.

"It's tough getting up in the morning and working until eight at night and then doing it all over again the next day," Tillotson said. "We've got a gentleman who is 66 years old. We put an ad in the paper and he said, 'that's right up my ally. I love getting up early. Even if I'm not working, I'm still up at two o'clock in the morning.''

"I said, 'perfect.' "

Tillotson has two sons, twin boys, Ethan and Cole, age 10. They help a little around the farm, but Tillotson wants them to be boys before they're men and he also wants to protect them from some of the more dangerous aspects of farmwork, so he doesn't demand many farm chores.

They do like helping with the newborns.

Brent enjoys their Little League games. He makes it a point not to let farmwork rob him of the joy of watching them grow up.

"I'm not missing a game because I've got hay to bail," Tillotson said. "The hay will be there tomorrow. I've missed things and then regretted it because they'll only be this age once."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 2:36 pm

CY Farms grew from the good land

post by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, byron, CY Farms, Genesee County Farms

The third in our series on Genesee County farms and farmers.

The house was ramshackle. There were broken doors and windows that wouldn't close, but the land was good. Carl Yunker knew it was soil he could grow something in.

"I was after the dirt," Carl said. "I said, 'if I got the dirt, I'll get the rest.' This is good land."

He couldn't buy the 200-acre farm and its 30 cows, but he could lease it. He moved his family from Sheldon to a house without plumbing in Elba. It was 1951. The house was more than 100 years old. The Yunkers, married in 1947, and with two young children, would put down roots near the intersection of Transit and North Byron.

Bernice went from cooking with gas to a wood stove in kitchen with warped floorboards.

That first Thanksgiving, she was expecting 17 people for supper. The night before, a cat crept in through the broken door from the cellar into the kitchen and feasted on turkey breast.

The day after Thanksgiving, Carl built a new cellar door.

In the kitchen, paint was peeling from one wall. Bernice drove into Batavia and bought the largest Rand McNally map of the United States she could find. She bought a series of smaller state maps. She decorated the wall with the maps, she said, so visitors would discuss the state of the union rather than the state of the house.

"I said if she lives with me for a year, she will stay with me for good," Carl said.

Craig Yunker

Craig Yunker, the Yunker's second of five children, was born in 1951 in Sheldon. He was raised in the house on Transit Road.

Today, the house that was falling apart 61 years ago, is now the home of Craig and Kimberly Yunker. 

It's fully restored, of course. Inside, the walls are white and the floor polished hardwood. Left exposed are structural beams that were hand hewn in the 1820s by strong men with axes and chisels.

Carl, who turns 90 next month, lives with Bernice in a farmhouse built in 1900. When the Yunkers first moved to Elba, the Merrimans, who farmed the land before the Yunkers, lived in the newer house while the Yunkers lived in the older house. After Carl and Bernice moved in, Bernice wanted a little storage room at the back of the house fixed up to use as an artist studio.  Carl expanded the room and added a second level, giving Bernice all the space she needed to paint and draw and display her work.

When Carl and Bernice met, she was a preacher's kid in Sheldon. They saw each other for the first time in the foyer of a church.

"When I saw him, he was sort of looking me up and down one Sunday when I went into church and I thought, 'you young snip, you,' " Bernice said. "I thought he was 17 years old and he was 25."

Bernice Yunker

Bernice knew nothing about farming when she met Carl, but she's proud to call herself a farmer's wife. That's the name of her studio -- Farmer's Wife Studio -- where she paints and teaches art classes.

Bernice has been a member of the Genesee County Art Society for more than 50 years. 

Her favorite subject is trees. She paints and draws a lot of trees. Well, she paints and draws a lot. Carl said she's a workaholic when it comes to art. When she has five minutes, he said, she's in the studio working on something.

Bernice has completed thousands of pieces of art. Earlier this year, she threw out about 700 of her paintings.

Living on a farm, Bernice said, her children learned the value of work. The boys started working in the barns when they were 7, getting paid for their work. By the time they were 12, they were buying their own clothes.

"I don't see how the city people to it," Bernice said. "These boys were never under my feet because they were working."

After all that farm work, Craig wasn't sure he wanted to be a farmer. His mother dropped him off at Cornell University for his freshman year and that's when he told her, he wasn't sure he wanted to farm.

He read Jack Kerouac. As Dean Moriarty took to the road, so did Craig Yunker. After the first semester of his second year at Cornell, Craig  left on a six-month ramble across America. He drove a 1963 Chevy. He packed  a Mamiya/Sekor 1000 DLT camera. In Las Vegas, his car was done and he was out of money. He managed to make it to California and spent some time at a commune before returning to New York.

He came home and went back to Cornell. Craig has a degree in agricultural economics and a master's in resource economics.

Carl had gone from tenant farmer to farm owner in 1963. When Craig came home, father and son became partners.

All of Craig's siblings found pursuits other than farming. Gail, the oldest, lives on a boat north of Seattle. Chris, three years younger than Craig, is a military man and lives in Virginia. Joy lives in Troy and Heidi lives in Medina.

CY Farms is owned today by Carl, Craig, Craig's son, Christian, and P.J. Riner, who is now retired but for years handled the day-to-day operations of the farm while Craig managed the business and CY's growth.

What started as a 200-acre tenant dairy farm is now 6,000 acres of turf, corn, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, onions and green peas.

How CY transformed from a small dairy farm to one of the largest crop farms in WNY is as much a story of persistence and hard work as good fortune, Craig said.

"I'd like to be able to tell you that I had everything planned out, but some things just happen," Craig said. "Our success is sort of a hybrid of luck and timing with some hard work thrown in, but a lot of it is just luck."

The big turning point came in 1986, when CY Farms was a 400-acre operation with 300 cows.

The federal government decided the country was awash in dairy products. The USDA wanted fewer cows and fewer dairy farms. The government set up a reverse auction -- farmers would set a price for their herd and the government would start with the lowest bid and buy up more and more herds at higher and higher prices until the target number of cows were purchased.

If farmers put in a bid, they obligated themselves to destroying their cows or exporting them to a foreign country.

"We submitted a fairly high bid and I was fairly confident that we wouldn't get taken," Craig said. "We only bid it because it's just one of those things where everything has it's price, so we said let's put in a number high enough that if we get taken we'll be happy. We didn't expect to get taken and we did. We were surprised that our bid got accepted, but we had already signed it so we had no choice at that point."

The Yunkers had a year to dispose of their herd. By contract, they couldn't produce milk for five years.

The story continues after the jump. Click on the headline to read more.

Friday, May 17, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Joe Bezon has spent a lifetime mucking and he wouldn't have it any other way

post by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, byron, Genesee County Farms, mucklands

This is the second in a series of profiles of Genesee County's farms and farmers.

Working the muck has never been easy.

When third-generation muck farmer Joe Bezon was a boy, he would work alongside his mother, each on their hands and knees, pulling weeds.

Seeds were planted by hand and it took manual labor to bring in the crop. When muck is wet, it's deep and muddy ground. When it's dry, the fine dust gets in your eyes and nose and the sun's rays radiate heat off the black soil.

Today, machinery and chemicals make sowing, harvesting and weeding easier, but no machine can control Mother Nature, or the government.

Winds damage crops and workers are harder to find as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) rounds up all the farm labor.

Still, Bezon, in his 75th year, toils on, and is quite happy doing it.

"I enjoy it and I got this (highland in Byron, where we were standing talking) and that (muckland in Orleans County) down there and I've got a son who helps me all the time," Bezon said. "If I had to do it all myself, it would be a different story."

Today, Bezon & Sons Farm is 383 acres, with 110 acres of muckland, and is run by Joe, his wife Edith, son Joey and son-in-law Jim.

The Bezons, along with the Mortellaros and the Halats, are the last of the original muckland farmers in Genesee County.

Before the 1950s, there were as many as 160 families working the muck, each with plots of three to 10 acres of land.

As machinery was invented to make farming muck easier, and more and more farmers figured there has got to be an easier way to make a living, the families of the muck thinned out.

The Bezons were among the first to start consolidating their holdings.

Joey Bezon, who like his father has been working the muck his whole life, is perhaps the last Bezon who will farm the muck, unless his son, who now works for CY Farms, decides to work the Bezon land some day.

"I have a little bit of pride in it because we're one of the only ones who stuck with it," Joey said. "There was something like 160 some 40 or 50 years ago and everybody just kind of threw in the towel except for only a handful who are left and could stay with it. We used to be big or medium size and now we're one of the smallest ones. How long we can stay in the game with everybody else getting bigger, that's the challenge."

Muckland is reclaimed swampland. Over hundreds of years, trees and vegetation rotted in standing water to create a rich black soil that is full of tiny wood chips, making it both porous and a good medium for retaining moisture. It's about 80 percent organic matter.

Early muckers grew carrots, lettuce, spinach, potatoes and onions. Today, onions are the big muck crop locally, with some potatoes, and some of the more played-out muck west of Route 98 is used to grow turf.

Onions need deep, loose well-drained soil that retains moisture. There's big onion production in the desert soil of California, but the black muck of Genesee and Orleans counties has more organic matter and retains moisture better.

"Muck is special because unlike sandy soils or clay soils, the roots grow aggressively in it and they get enough moisture to form the onion," said Paul Mortellaro who has also been working mucklands his entire life with his family.

We call it the Elba Muck, but a majority of the 6,000 acres of muck still being farmed is in Orleans County. There's a lot in Byron, and just a corner of the southwest part of the fields are in Elba. 

Elba may host the Onion Festival, but there hasn't been an onion grown in Elba for years, as far as anybody knows.

There was once more farmable muck in Elba, but to be useful, the mucklands need to be several feet deep. Much of the muck farms in Elba have been lost to oxidation and wind. What little of it left is used to grown corn and turf.

The local muckland was once part of the Alabama Swamp, which once covered 25,000 acres. 

After the turn of the 20th Century, local residents were increasingly concerned about odor, mosquitoes and disease associated with the swamplands in Elba and Byron. (source for historical background)

Perhaps the entire Alabama Swamp would have been drained at the time, but much of the area has rocks and stone much closer to the surface than the Elba Muck. To be tillable, muck must be several feet deep.

And even to this day, farmers still pull out rotting tree stumps that work their way to the surface of the muck every spring.

It took the invention of the steam shovel to make draining the swamps possible.

Western New York Farms Company, based in New York City, owned 9,000 acres of muckland, and at the urging of state officials, drainage work started in 1913. By 1914, there were eight miles of canals 20 feet deep in place and lumberjacks started removing trees.

Farming started in 1915.

While muck farming was immediately successful, Farms Co. always intended to lease the land to tenant farmers, and the first leases were signed in 1916. The first year, Farms Co. leased land for $50 an acre and made machinery and assistance available to farmers. The next year, prices dropped to $35 an acre, but no more help came from Farms Co.

In 1927, Farms Co. decided to sell off its land, offering plots on favorable terms to farmers.

Edith Bezon isn't sure when Joe's father and mother first bought into the mucklands. It was before 1936.

The elder Bezon was the son of a muck farmer 17 miles to the west. Joe Bezon said when his grandfather died he had a chance to take over that farm, but he couldn't see farming Elba Muck and muck 17 miles away.

The Bezon's started out with a couple of 10-acre plots that they worked by hand.

When Joe's mother was weeding, she used onion crates as cribs for her boys.

"I can picture that," Joe said. "I can take you down where the shade was. There was a lean-to. They'd put us in a crate and put another one on top of it. There was a ditch right along the muck. I filled it all in and put tile in it. She would put us in the lean-to and she'd take straps and tie two crates together and set us there."

It was the only way to keep the rambunctious boys safe while she worked.

"We would say we wouldn't, don't worry we won't, we won't go out there," Joe said. "But as soon as they got down to the second plot and they'd have their backs to us, we'd run down the road with a wheelbarrow that they carried the weeds with. We would run up and down the road with it. Of course, in those days, there was traffic going, but heck, today, there's no traffic down there."

As time went on, Joe's father diversified his holdings. He bought other land, including ranch land on Oak Orchard Road in Elba where he started raising Angus. Today, that land is a dairy farm owned by Joe's younger brother, Eugene.

Joe's older brother left the muck for good when he went off to fight in World War II.

When he returned, he helped his father run his two motels -- the Sunset Motel on West Main Street Road, Batavia, and the Park Oak Motel, once just off Route 98 and the Thruway exit in Batavia.

Joe and Edith grew up together. Both went to Elba Central School.

When they were first married, they had a place on Pekin Road, but in 1966 bought a farm and farmhouse on Searls Road, Byron.

There they raised their two sons -- Joey and Rick -- and two daughters -- Laurie and Amanda.

Laurie now lives just down the road. She married Jim, who works with Bezon & Sons and Amanda went to work in pharmaceuticals and lives in Philadelphia.

"She enjoys the city life," Edith said. "She always said, 'I only showed 4-H because my dad made me.' "

Rick works at Genesee Community College.

Joe and Edith have five grandchildren.

"The family is growing, but I don't know about being farmers," Edith said.

"We don't have any of the grandchildren working here because it's such a hard life and most years there isn't a lot of money in it," Edith said. "The past few years, we've been doing good, but in 2010, we had no crop at all on the muck. We got flooded out and it was so late, we couldn't put seed in. We had to go to crop insurance, but that's the first time we ever had to do it."

Besides onions on the muck -- the only crop the Bezons have ever grown on the muck -- the family grows on its upland farm cabbage, corn and soy beans.

For years, the Bezons would put in 20 acres of cabbage, which can be a pretty lucrative crop in good years, but the short supply of farm labor has them cutting back to 12 acres this year.

"It's all gone back to the family doing all of the work," Edith said. "I wish they would come up with a program for us where we could hire workers and not worry about the INS coming in and getting them all."

She said when there are immigration raids, officials round up all the workers -- here legally or not -- and take all of them back to Batavia to sort out, which is a major disruption the farm work.

On the farm, Joe also raises beef cattle. Edith calls it his hobby. Joe says it's the favorite part of farming.

All of the Bezon cattle is slaughtered and butchered right on the farm by Joey. The meat is sold to local residents -- the ones who pay their bills, Joe said.

By this time of year, the Bezons have finished planting their onion seeds.

While the Torreys and some other muck farms plant seedlings, the Bezons prefer seeds. 

Onion seeds are very, very tiny. They are rolled in clay, which helps make it easier to plant the seeds using machines.

Rows of barley are planted between the rows of onions to help prevent wind erosion of the muck and protect the tender baby onion leaves from wind damage.

There are little wood chips in the muck that can tear an onion leaf to shreds.

"The wind moves those little chips around like buzz saws and they will cut the tops right off," Edith said.

In the early part of the growing season, onions are in a precarious state. Paul Mortellaro said it isn't unusual to lose one in four acres of new plants to wind.

The Mortellaros typically plant seedlings, but whether seedlings or seeds, when you account for the plants, the fertilizer, the labor, the land costs, taxes and the water, expenses for an acre of onions is from $2,500 to $5,000.

The good years -- which don't happen often, Mortellaro said -- can generate about $12,000 per acre in revenue.

Some years, there's no profit, and perhaps even a loss on the onion fields of the mucklands.

The muck is like its own little microclimate, Mortellaro said. The black soil radiates the heat and makes the flatlands much like a desert in the midst of lush Western New York.

"I've seen it," Mortellaro said, "since the time I was 10 out there weeding -- clouds coming in from Buffalo and they totally disappear by the time they get to the Elba Muck. My brother and I used to speculate that there was a column of warm air rising up from the muck. It is a mini desert during the summertime. It can be really really dry."

If you have good eyes, on a dry, windy day, you can see spirals of dust rising 500 feet into the air, looking like a tornado, Mortellaro said.

The Torreys have added their own above-ground, automated irrigation system to their muck property, but the Bezons largely irrigate by hand.

There were years, Edith said, when she and Joe would sleep in their truck all night, waking at regular intervals to move the irrigation lines.

The Bezons put down about a ton of nitrogen fertilizer per acre of muck, Edith said.

You might think muck, being such an organically rich soil, wouldn't need fertilizer, but new plants in the spring need a lot of nitrogen to get started. After that, the wonders of the muck do the job, but the nitrogen once trapped by the swamp was long ago depleted.

"When they first broke up the muck, all this compost was giving up its nitrogen and it got to the point where it was all leached out," Mortellaro said. "After about five years, you couldn't grow a decent crop without putting those inputs into the muck, so going back as far as anybody can remember, you've had to put in quite a bit of fertilizer."

The onion harvest for the Bezons will be in late August or early September. Edith helps drive the harvest truck when the time comes.

The onions are first pulled out of the ground and left to sit in the sun for three days. The tops need to dry so they will fall off and not get caught up in the machinery.  Without that proper topping off, the onions are more susceptible to disease.

If there isn't three days of warm sun, it jeopardizes the harvest.

The onions are scooped up by a self-propelled onion harvester that was invented and built in Elba by Lee Shuknecht and Sons.

Throughout the growing season, the Bezons battle two of nature's persistent elements: Wind and weeds.

To Joe, some of his neighbors aren't very good muckers. They let weeds grow around their plots and don't do a very good job of maintaining their hedgerows.

Hedges, only about four-feet tall, separate plots in the mucklands. They act as wind breaks and catch some of the muck that might otherwise blow away.

Edith estimates that wind carries away about an inch of muck a year. She figures by the time her grandson is ready to retire -- if he becomes a mucker -- there won't be any muck left to farm.

It's not just wind, but also oxidation that depletes the muck, Mortellaro said.

The little particles of wood that make up muck dry out in the summer heat or during a winter drought just like old barn wood, Mortellaro said.

Even with wind and oxidation, Mortellaro isn't sure the muck is declining at the rate of an inch a year -- the process probably isn't that linear, but certainly, a lot of muck has disappeared over the past 90 years.

He's excavated enough around the the gravel roadways -- built on top of muck -- to see what the original level of the muck used to be, he said. He estimates that areas that were once 12-feet deep in muck are now nine-feet deep.

"It is discouraging," Mortelloro said. "You see the gravel road out there. The road doesn't go away and the fields keep getting lower."

The Bezons own 110 acres of muckland, but only 98 acres are tillable. There are swaths of former muckland that are now just rocks.

As for weeds, Joe is obsessive about weeds, Edith said.

You don't get good onions when weeds are growing in the fields, Joe said. Onions don't do well when competing for nutrients. At harvest, the weeds get all tangled up in the machinery and have to be picked out during grading.

"Joe has always really taken care of the land, because that's what he lives for, being down there mucking," Edith said. "He's been down there since he was born."

It used to be that weeds had to be removed by hand and carried off in bags or buckets. Now Joe uses mostly chemicals, he said.

"Weeding is not like it used to be," Joe said. "You were out there on your hands and knees. I've got pictures of my mother out on her hands and knees weeding in the muck. We didn't have chemicals in those days. Now, heck, you can put it out there and keep it clean."

Sure there are some hardships with farming muck, Joe said, but it's nothing like the old days.  The worst part of machine farming is maintaining the equipment. When it breaks, it is a lot more expensive to fix. 

So long as he's got help, though, Joe said he can handle the work.

All the machinery in the world can't change the weather or the wind or the nature of muck, Edith said.

"You've always got to be one step ahead of Mother Nature," Edith said. "Out here, some days, she can be very cruel."

Joe and Edith on one of their upland plots. Joe was plowing that day, preparing the field for planting.

Joey Bezon in a field that will soon be growing corn. The tractor is a loaner because one of the Bezon's tractors was in the shop being repaired. As farm machinery has gotten more complex, it's more expensive to fix and harder for the farmer to do it himself.

Muck -- sifted a bit by the wind so that the wood chips are a little more visible.

Onions and barley growing in a muck field. If you look at the picture in the slide show below at full-screen resolution, the little onion sprouts will be easier to see. In the distance, rocks that were once buried by muck. Wind and oxidation are reducing the amount of muck in the mucklands every year.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 11:50 pm

For five generations, farming has been all in the family for the Posts of Elba

post by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, elba, Genesee County Farms

Note: This is intended to be the first in a series of stories we'll do this spring and summer on the farms and farmers of Genesee County.

People worry about family farmers, but for the Posts of Elba, they're doing just fine.

With Jeff Post as a fifth-generation farmer, sharing ownership with his father, Dan, and uncle, John, Post Farms continues to grow, innovate and prosper.

"I think it's very impressive that our family has been farming as long as it has and stayed in business that long and been successful that long," Jeff said. "I take a lot of pride in being the fifth generation. I go to meetings and I hear guys say, 'I'm third generation,' and I think, 'that's nothing.' "

Jeff's great-great-grandfather bought the 100 acres that became Post Farms in 1890. There was a barn, a house and some cows to start with, and each generation has added on.

Today, Post Farms is a modern dairy with 350 cows and a robotic milking parlor that keeps milk flowing daily to the Upstate Farms Cooperative.

To support the dairy operation, the Posts manage 750 acres (some of it leased) and grow oats, wheat, corn, alfalfa and a hybrid grain known as triticale, primarily as feed for the cattle.

The day we visited, Dan Post and his dad, Ken, where prepping fields and sowing seeds for oats. John said the goal is to get the oats harvested this year in time to sow green beans, which will be sold later in the year for canning.

With Jeff's aunt, Laurie, also working on the farm -- there are also two hired hands -- the Posts have pretty much kept farming all in the family.

Dan said when Jeff was in high school, there was little indication he would want to be a farmer.

"He never seemed that interested and I never pushed him," Dan said. "In high school he was talking about going into the landscaping business, but when it came time to go to college, he said he was going to study ag and I was pleasantly surprised."

Jeff got his degree in animal science from Cornell in 2001 and then spent the next eight years working on other farms, learning the business.

By 2008, the family wanted him back on the Post Farms and so he returned home and now, at age 34, is herd manager. John, 61, handles crops and Dan, 60, and Ken work the fields. Laurie takes care of the calves.

Ken, at 86, said he still likes to be outside on a tractor, working.

"I'll probably never stop until I have to," Ken said. "I have to keep doing something. I can't just sit around doing nothing."

There isn't much time for doing nothing on Post Farms and Jeff said there is nothing written in stone about the division of labor.

"We all have to do a little of everything because there aren't that many of us," Jeff said.

Officially, the farm is owned by Jeff, Dan and John.

The last big expansion of the farm came in 1987, when Post Farms went from 180 cows to 230. It's grown slowly since then to 240 to 250 range.

In 2010, the Posts built a new milking parlor that features four robotic milking stalls.

Cows in the robot barn are milked three times a day with very little farmer intervention.

Because the feed in the the stalls don't have all the nutrients the cows need, the cows instinctively and by habit seek out the more nutritious feed in the milking stalls. 

A cow walks into the stall, the robot reads the cow's ID number to ensure it's time for it to be milked, and then a laser guides the milking apparatus to the utters. While the cow is milked, it munches on some tasty and nutrious feed.

"It's really being fed, and we're just milking it at the same time," Jeff said.

Only occasionally does a person need to come in and ease a cow into line to be milked. The cows pretty much take care of getting themselves fed and milked.

It's notable how friendly and curious Post cows are. Rather than shy away from a stranger with a camera, they try to move in closer for a better look.

Jeff thinks that's because with their milking operation there aren't people constantly pushing them around to go here or there.

Laurie thinks it's because Post cows get a lot of human interaction. They're just used to being around people.

From birth, the cows are kept in a nursery rather than individual outdoor shelters and are visited regularly by Laurie and other members of the family to make sure they're drinking their milk and are generally in good health (milk is dispensed for the calves from boxes with nipples in each of the nursery's stalls).

Besides providing the cows with a seemingly less stressful living environment, the robotic barn has helped the Posts keep to a minimum the number of hired hands the farm needs, Jeff said.

While more employees means more expense and more managerial headaches, a bigger issue, Jeff said, is immigration.

Jeff is currently president for the Genesee County Farm Bureau and immigration is a big issue for all farmers he said.

"You really never really know where your labor is going to come from," he said.

As Farm Bureau president, Jeff said the other big issues farmers face is the encroachment of development.

Housing is replacing more and more farms, and people moving closer to farms is creating its own set of issues.

"That's one of the biggest problems," Jeff said. "There's more people living in the country, and there's more people living in the country who didn't grow up around the sights and sounds and smells of farming."

Jeff doesn't expect New York's booming yogurt industry to have that big of an impact on dairy farms. The price of milk is heavily regulated and there are a lot of hurdles for dairy farmers to clear to increase production.

There's an assumption in media reports that changes in federal regulations will make it easier for dairy farmers to increase the size of their herds, but the fact is, Jeff said, there are 100 other other considerations involved in herd size.

The regulation change, he said, really just highlights the arbitrary nature of the regulation. The regulation is known as CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Strict and expensive CAFO requirements used to kick in at 200 animals, but to help dairy farmers during the yogurt boom, the limit was raised to 300 head of cattle.

"Personally," Jeff said, "I think that the whole thing is wrong. The government is basically saying it's an arbitrary number because they can change it at will. They said they think farmers should grow, so we're going to move back the number. That number doesn't mean anything. The whole thing, for lack of a better term, is a government shake down. Not every farmer that runs a small farm that is not meeting CAFO is going to go out and add another 100 cows because there are another 100 factors that play into (adding more cows)."

One of the biggest events in the history of Post Farms was a fire in August 2011 that destroyed the barn that was on the property when Jeff's great-great-grandfather purchased it in 1890.

Losing that barn was emotionally upsetting for the family, both Jeff and John said, but it's actually helped improve operations on the farm.

"You hate to see an old barn go because of tradition and all that, but the new barns serve us better," John said.

Jeff agreed, but he liked that old barn.

"You want to think of the family farm, driving up and seeing that barn," Jeff said. "That is the vision all of us have of this farm -- seeing that barn there because that is what people think of when they think of a family farm, that kind of barn sitting there."

The barn is gone, but it the new barn helps symbolize the progress and growth of Post Farms, Jeff said. The Posts are never afraid to try new things, even something Ken Post confirmed.

"We're not stuck in the old ways," Jeff said. "We're doing things that are efficient for us and make for a good life, a happy life."

Top Photo: Front row, Dan, John and Ken; and, Laurie and Jeff.


 

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