Nov. 24—The reason that families across Western New York are thankful each November are many.
Of course, there's the new births, marriages, college-break boyfriends and girlfriends and the new friends and neighbors that we meet each year and bring to the table every Thanksgiving.
But one thing that often goes unnoticed is that the source of all that is literally on the table is also typically within driving range.
Jim Bittner has been a farmer since birth. His parents ran a small farm and he grew up working on that farm, but really, he considers himself a first-generation farmer, because now his full-time job is doing what he loves.
Having gone to school with that candle of experience as a youngster, he burned down the house and roared out of Cornell, newly married to another Cornell student, Margo, and started really farming for his livelihood.
Bittner specializes in one crop that makes the holiday special, which is the apples for apple pie. He said that in terms of turkey, people should take a look at Tom Britt in Gasport. He's been raising "poults" every year for 35 years, starting in 1987.
When Britt was asked, "how it feels to be the man that makes Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving," he said it hadn't occurred to him.
"I never thought about it," Britt responded. "I hope people are happy. They do keep coming back every year!"
Other foodstuffs can be found at the Hiller's Sweet Corn Farm Market on Route 78 in Burt, Bittner said, suggesting a short ride southward.
The trip is worth it.
"We're running low on some items," Jeff Hiller said on Wednesday. "We ran out of butternut squash. We've got one more bag of white potatoes left. We're really getting down to the wire."
Hiller said that he and his workers grew most of what they had for sale right on his farm, but what other local farmers have been growing in the area is also on display at his market.
"We trade and buy from other farmers," he said. "I'm out cutting brussel sprouts right now. ... We just finished up with cauliflower. Today, we have romenesco left, but not a lot of it. We're taking some up to Niagara County Produce up on Millersport. Pretty much what you see here is what we've got left."
"So we cleaned up good this year."
Hiller attributes the good yield this year from a little rain when it was needed. He noted that the last couple years have been dry, which didn't help crops.
Bittner, too, noted that weather could be fickle.
"My biggest fear in the weather is hail. Hail is my ultimate nightmare," he said while driving to his cold-storage facility to pick up some prune-juice for his wife's winery.
Bittner talked a bit about a farmer's life. He said he had all the wagering he could take when picking what crops to plant and what to uproot.
"I don't need to go to the casino," he said. "I gamble every day"
After three straight years of hail storms ruining his cherry crop in the late '90s, Bittner said he really took a bath. If it hadn't been for a peach-processing opportunity, that might have been it. His net worth, he said, was zero and, honestly, he believed it was probably in the negatives, too.
Still, he sees opportunities for farmers starting out with even an acre or two. It can't just be a farm stand, he said, but if you promote and innovate, agri-tourism is the wave of the future.
"People want to go out and do things that's family oriented," Bittner said. "Take the kids. They want to pick apples. They don't want to buy apples from a farm stand. ... We do u-pick of cherries, it runs about five-weeks. But after five-weeks, I don't want to see any people."
"I'm a grower," he concluded. "I want to take care of my trees."
So, what's the future for farming in Niagara County?
Bittner said the joke's been, "Soy, corn and solar panels." He said the power of the government is focused in New York City and they don't care about farmers. However, he said, that by taking the tact that he makes what people eat, that helps the communication a lot. That's a very basic thing, he said.
"They don't care about us," he said, driving back into Appleton. "But they like eating. Their constituents like eating."
But as he said, processed peaches are coming out of China. Cherries are coming from the West Coast. Bittner himself had to leave apples on the trees, because they weren't worth the labor to pick.
However, he's still innovating. He talked about his irrigation plans based data from electronic sensors under the bark of his apple trees, a $1,500 a-piece tool. He also confided that he's buying a strain of tart-tart cherry trees for overseas consumption.
Ultimately for Bittner it's about staying ahead of the curve and passing something on. His two sons, Kevin and David, are also on the farm that he hopes to give it to them. This time of year is a lot of education and planning for the next year, he said, and all of them are getting ready.
"Losers are out," Bittner said. "Anything that's losing, we don't do that. ... Other than hail, my biggest fear is failure."