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Life on the farm can be pretty good, as a matter of fact "very good," Stewart Ritchie told the city folk who visited his Buffalo Organics at Arden Farm in East Aurora Saturday.

Ritchie's farm was one of six that opened their barn doors to the fourth annual Erie County Family, Food and Farm tour.

More than 600 children and adults at the Erie County Fairgrounds boarded buses bright and early Saturday that took groups of them to two of the six farms. There they saw for themselves why -- believe it or not -- agriculture, at $70.1 million annually, is Erie County's largest industry and has an economic impact of about $400 million annually. It ranks 10th in agricultural production in New York State.

It was the first time 5-year-old Emily Rotolo was on a farm, and she "was going to tell in school all the vegetables I saw and lots and lots of apples."

It was the first time also for her parents, Erna and John Rotolo of Hamburg.

"We grew up in the city (Buffalo)," said Mrs. Rotolo, "and while you see farms when you are driving by, it was a great experience to actually be at one. I was really taken with growing vegetables organically."

The tour guides had plenty of other hard-to-believe statistics:

The fastest growing segment of Erie County's agriculture industry is in greenhouses and floriculture. The county's $16.1 million greenhouse/nursery and $8.8 million floriculture industries rank second in the state.

Dairy production makes up 40 percent of the county's agricultural income.

There are more than 8,000 pleasure and race horses in Erie County -- a fourth-place ranking in the state.

A $2 million grape production also ranks fourth in the state.

With 4,700 acres sprouting vegetables, Erie County ranks ninth in vegetable production.

At the same time, there was some not-so-good news.

Erie County's agriculture is being adversely affected by urban sprawl. Farmland preservation and land-use issues are a major concern as urbanization creates land-use competition and conflict.

But those on Saturday's tour had opportunities to see farmland as far as the eye could see.

Right in suburban East Aurora, Stewart and Deb Ritchie showed off some of their organic vegetables.

"We are the only organic farm in Erie County certified by the Northeast Organic Farming Association," Ritchie said.

He also explained how a city boy who "never studied agriculture but majored in business and history" wound up being a farmer.

Ritchie said he spent six summers working on farms, including Buffalo Organics, which is owned by Mark and Sara Roelofs.

"I became interested in nutrition," Ritchie explained, "and that led to organic foods, and that led to Mark and Sara leasing the farm to my wife and me four years ago when they decided to retire."

Most of the crop goes directly to the more than 100 families who belong to the farm's "shareholder program," Ritchie said. "They pick up two bags of freshly picked produce once a week throughout the growing season, and the surplus is sold at the East Aurora Farmers Market and the Lexington Co-op in Buffalo," he said.

Other farms on the tour included the Plato Brook Dairy Farm in Curriers, Palmer Dairy in Holland, Mead's Livestock and the Erie County Forestry in Sardinia and Masterson's Farms in East Aurora.

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