Tonawanda News

October 8, 2012

The struggles and success stories of Niagara farmers

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Imagine pulling an apple right off a tree and taking a crunchy, juicy bite. Now, think about the last time you drank an ice-cold glass of milk with that chocolate chip cookie. Or spread that ear of steaming hot corn with a tab of soft butter and noticed how, when you finally took a bite, the kernels popped in your mouth in little explosions of flavor.

If you love to eat food — if you find yourself closing your eyes and whispering “mmmmmmmm,” to yourself while tasting something delectable — then you are surely what people these days call “a foodie.”

I know I am one.  While I hardly ever pay full price for necessary items like shoes or clothing, I don’t bat an eye at spending my last dime on fine, fresh food. 

So, when my Leadership Niagara Class participated in “Agriculture Day,” I knew this was my kind of adventure. One recent, sunny, autumn day, my classmates and I got a chance to tour a variety of area farms and see where some of the food on our grocery shelves originates. As always, I was enlightened about the Niagara Region.

“I think people should know where their food comes from,” said Leadership Niagara director Molly Anderson, who calls this agriculture day her favorite in the leadership program. 

Just to remind you, in January I signed up for the Leadership Niagara 2012 class. My classmates and I — a mix of bankers, educators, law officers and other area professionals — meet once a month to enhance our leadership capabilities and learning more about our community. I’m in the program at the request of my publisher, Pete Mio, and while I was initially hesitant to devote so much time on any one enterprise, I have been delighted in both my classmates and the program experiences.

Agriculture Day took us to a number of farms in Niagara County, including Niagara Landings Winery where we spoke with the owner about grapes and wine. Then we moved on to Gasport View Dairy Farm, home of hundreds of cows tended with amazing care and scientific precision; we had an delicious lunch at Becker Farms where the owners have cut their dependency on crops by opening a winery, a brewery and a wedding location and much more; we visited a farm market that grew from a young teen’s hobby of growing really great corn; and we toured a cold storage facility and learned of a process that keeps apples crisp long after they are picked.

As almost everyone knows, it hasn’t been a great year for farmers. Between our mild winter, fake spring and the dry summer, crop outputs are way down. But every farmer we talked to was optimistic about next year. And in the Niagara Region they can bank on the rich, soft soil of the escarpment to fortify their crops.

The images that will long stay in my mind are from the dairy farm, Gasport View. We toured the facility and watched as the family owners and small staff cared for about 700 black and white dairy cows. Owner Roger White told us his motto is “if we are good to the cows, they’ll be good to us.” And he and his wife, Beth and his son, Scott, unabashedly showed care and concern for each and every one of their cows. 

Now, for me, I’d rather see cows frolicking in green pastures, nuzzling their newborn calves and mooing happily. But, that’s not a logical concept for farming in the year 2012 where you have to have massive output to stay in business. These days there are mechanical milking machines and cows are artificially inseminated, because you have to have precision to produce some 5,000 gallons of milk a day. But Beth calls the newborns, who arrive nearly everyday, her babies. Son Scott, 35, told me he never really wanted to do anything else. “Even since I was a kid, I wanted to be out in the barn.”

I asked him what he thinks people need to know about farmers. “We’re not stupid farmers,” he told me. “You want to do this work you need an education.” 

And when I asked him how he felt about his cows, this straight-talking young man who has birthed hundreds of calves, asked me “Do you have pets?”  When I replied I did, he asked again, “Do you love those pets?” and I replied, “Absolutely.” He smiled. “Well, I love my cows.”

He told me that cows have all different kinds of personalities; some are docile and some are trouble makers. He told me he likes some of his cows more than others. “Like an elementary school teacher there are some that I can’t wait to get out of my class,” he said with a grin.

At every stop on our tour we talked about migrant workers and the farmers we met said they were typically the hardest workers around. Each spoke of how the government’s intercession requiring the of documenting workers is hugely ham-handed, involving piles of paperwork dumped on the farmer. One more challenge in an industry full of challenge.

But among the farmers we also heard success stories. At Harris Farm Market, started by Nate Harris when he was a teen selling corn off the bed of a truck, there is a beautiful new expansion, new crops and even an ice cream stand, in a venue that’s doing so well that wife Vicky and husband Nate are pretty happy with things as they are right now. 

At Niagara Landings, it was a joy to hear that despite nearly three quarters fewer grapes to be harvested this year by the largest grower of grapes in the county. The owner, Pete Smith, said he is already looking forward to next year, because this is a region that can compete with more reknowned vineyards, the kind of place where “we can grow as good a riesling as anyplace in the world.”

We learned that farming these days is best done with expensive machinery and fancy technology. Because, as our dairy farmer Roger White, said, “If we don’t keep up with technology and change with the times, the next generation won’t stay on the farm.” And, yet, in the long haul, it appears that Mother Nature is always the decider in the fate of the farms.

Local farmers these days are faced with “Skinny, skinny margins,” and fewer farms — down from 137 farms to about 70 in the county according to our tour guide, Krista Snell, who works at Farm Credit East, an area farm lending company. “The day of buying cheap land is over in Niagara County,” she told us.

Despite the challenges they face, we also learned that these farmers love the land and love what they do. To a person they appear devoted and intelligent. And they are passionate about producing the food, the milk and the wines we drink. 

All in all, it was a day well spent. I arrived back at my car worn to the bone from so much active learning. But, I was energized and inspired by the farmers we met and the creative force they displayed, and fortified by their message that when you love what you do your future is unlimited.

Want to support your local farmer? Take a cue from the owner of Niagara Landings. 

“I tell people to go to their local liquor stores and ask for my wines. That’s what seems to work best for us,” he said.

During the tour of the cold storage facility, where the shinest, crunchiest, most perfect apples are gently picked from the orchards and baggedfor purchase, our tour guide tells us how to check and see if something is locally grown. Ask your grocer, he says.

One of my classmates indicates that she asks for local wines when she’s out to dinner and if they don’t have local wines, she goes without.  

Says our guide: “I wish everyone thought like you.”

It’s pretty clear. We vote with our wallets. But when we support local farms, our bodies and our communities are the real beneficiaries. 

Contact Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.