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WORKING THE GOOD EARTH
IN SOME WAYS, EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED; IN OTHERS, IT'S THE OLDEST STORY AROUND. ON THE HENRY FARM AND COUNTLESS OTHERS IN WESTERN NEW YORK, MAKING A LIVING IS A MATTER OF HARD WORK, BUSINESS SAVVY AND GOOD LUCK.

Harold Henry tilted the faded photograph under the fluorescent lights, thinking back over the better part of a century.

"That's a 1912 Federal, the first truck we ever had," he said, pointing out the "W.D. Henry & Sons" painted on its wooden bed. No cab to protect the driver from the elements, no inflatable tires to cushion the impact of jarring ruts on passengers' spines. But judging from the smiles in the old photograph, the five young men are happy to be aboard.

For 50 of his 72 years, Harold Henry made the predawn trips to Buffalo's wholesale markets to sell crops from the Henrys' Eden Valley spread. When horse-drawn wagons were the only way farmers could get produce and milk to market, he said, any truck was a wonderful thing.

"That was progress for you," he said.

Today, the Henry Farm has its own mammoth tractor-trailer, ferrying its products to places like Pittsburgh and Syracuse. With the addition of greenhouses and the land from eight adjacent farms they bought, Henry said, the entire operation, approaching 400 acres, has practically doubled in size since 1960.

Everyone knows the dictionary definition: a century means 100 years. But how many of us can really apply it? How many people can recount what their ancestors were doing a century ago, walk where they walked, watch sunsets from the same porch?

When four generations of your family has lived in the same houses, worked in the same buildings and wrung their livings from the same land, history isn't some abstract idea. It's your life.

From where Henry stands, he can look all the way back to the farm's founding in 1888 by his grandfather, through his father's years and his own generation's years, to the present day. His two sons, Mark and William, run Henry Farms now.

By some measures, everything has changed. Established as a dairy farm, it gradually shifted to vegetables in the 1940s, and shifted again in the 1960s, to focus on flowers and plants grown in greenhouses.

But at its roots, the job facing the Henrys, as other family farmers, remains much the same: Figure out how to wrest a living from the land by mastering the most profitable crops. Spend your days with one eye on the heavens and the other on the land, praying for deliverance from bad weather, rot, insects, government bureaucrats and other plagues.

The battle for space in supermarket produce sections has become one more facet of the global economy. Down to the last cucumber, local farmers have to overcome West Coast mega-farms pushing their products, and cheap imports from nations where farmhands would gladly work a day for what the Henrys pay each hour.

The dirt road running through the farm is a 50-mph highway now. The low roar of traffic can be heard inside the farm's office, where Henry surveyed the tools of today's farmer: fax machine, computer, cabinets full of government paperwork.

"It's a constantly changing world, I tell you," he said, pausing as the roar of a tractor-trailer speeding by on Route 62 obliterated his words. "Seems to go by faster every day."

Change along with it, and you have a fighting chance to keep a farm working, Henry said. A chance to preserve its possibilities for the next generation of Henrys.

By that measure, the Henry Farm has done more than survive: It has laid the foundation for the next century as well.

The Henry Farm story starts in the 1880s, with former Buffalo Mayor Grover Cleveland in the White House. The town of Eden, like much of Erie County, was a patchwork of farms that helped feed the Queen City.

William Heinrich -- a hard-working dairyman of Alsatian Lutheran stock -- decided he had worked other men's acres long enough. He looked at land about a mile from the house where he had been born and raised.

In 1888, he bought his first 140 acres, along a dirt road that ran down to Water Valley before crossing Eighteen-Mile Creek on its way to Buffalo.

The house he bought with the farm is still there. His descendants -- his great-grandson's family -- still call the much-remodeled farmhouse home. Widened and paved and widened again, the road would become Route 62.

Heinrich's land was mostly wooded and too wet for farming, dotted with standing water that concealed sinkholes "big enough to lose a cow in," Harold Henry said. He remembers his grandfather saying, of that first year on the farm, that all he managed to raise were three wagonloads of hay.

But bit by bit in the years that followed, William Heinrich tamed his acres. The trees fell to axes and two-man saws; the stumps submitted to dynamite.

Solving the water problem was harder. But by 1902 he had hired a man to install an intricate network of drain tile under the farm. The tile drain turned a swampy bowl into a colander. "That's what made it possible to cultivate this land at all," Henry said. "Still is."

Once civilized, the Henry acres began producing vegetables and crops to feed the cows. The dairy barn held as many as 36 head at a time. Every morning, Henry said, the milk was hurried to Water Valley to catch the 7:30 a.m. train to Buffalo.

When World War I led to Americans' suspicion of things German, William Heinrich didn't leave any doubt which side he was on. In a gesture of "patriotic sentiment," Harold Henry said, he changed his family's last name. Henry it would be.

Gradually, in years leading up to the Great Depression, Henry Farms changed its focus from producing milk to vegetables. It was a calculated move, Henry said, partly influenced by the lessons in farm economics that Harold's father, Walter, and other Henrys studied at Cornell University's agriculture school.

By the time World War II erupted, Harold said, W.D. Henry & Sons was producing "every vegetable in the (seed) catalog, pretty near," said Harold Henry, pronouncing it "pert' near" like farmers do. An apple orchard, grapevines and egg-laying chickens were all part of the mix at times.

As the United States mobilized against the Axis powers, producing food was declared a national priority, just like manufacturing ammunition -- and the Henrys produced enough to feed an army. His brother went to war, but Harold Henry was kept home to keep the harvests coming. The government imported Jamaicans to work in the fields, presaging the Puerto Rican and Mexican workers the farm would rely on in decades to come.

Continuing the search for profitable crops, the Henrys tried their first flowers in the 1940s, he said. As Harold Henry took over with his two brothers, Walter and Earl, the possibilities for flower crops had begun to blossom.

There's a second barn on the farm, built in 1898 by Harold's grandfather. Its main beams are hand-hewn hemlock a foot thick, held together with nothing more than wooden pegs and a precision fit, as was the standard of the time. Its arching roof kept a winter's worth of hay dry for the horses and cattle bedded down in stalls on the ground floor.

Sparrows, chasing each other along the rafters, are the only animals who live here now. The barn, once the nerve center of a thriving dairy farm, can serve only as a storage shed.

"When I was a boy, our most profitable crop was lettuce," Harold Henry said with a chuckle. After a winter of potatoes, cabbage and canned vegetables, the spring's first wagonloads of greens brought a premium in Buffalo.

"The first spring vegetables used to be a treat for people," said Henry. "Now the consumer can walk into any supermarket any day of the year and find anything they want."

No more lettuce. Or tomatoes, for that matter, now that the state has seen fit to give tax breaks, low-interest loans and other aid to new greenhouse tomato operations in South Buffalo.

But Henry isn't pining away for the good old days. The farm remains competitive in corn, squash, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower and other crops. The quality standards for today's vegetables have risen dramatically, he said, and consumers are the winner.

Those consumers buy flowers, too -- poinsettias for Christmas, tulips, lilies and daffodils for Easter, perennials by the armload.

When three weeks of sunshine in May got people out working in their yards, the orders started pouring in from the chain stores and supermarkets.

Acres and acres of plants, tended through the winter in Henry greenhouses, were packed into Henry trucks and shipped off. Thousands upon thousands of hanging plant baskets were boxed up and sent on their way.

By the time the weather turned gray and rainy, in the last week in May, the Henrys had managed to sell nearly the entire crop, Henry said, a significant success.

"I don't think I've ever seen the greenhouses this empty this early in the year," he said.

Though he's mostly retired now, running errands for his sons and taking coffee, hot chocolate and cookies to the farmhands, Henry still follows agricultural developments closely. He marveled at a new kind of genetically altered corn that promised resistance to its insect arch-enemy, the corn borer.

"I'd be glad if it worked," he said, "because then maybe we could use less chemicals." They're expensive, time-consuming and highly regulated, Henry said. Every time a pesticide is applied to fields, farmers must keep detailed records for government inspectors of pesticide use.

Most people have no clue about how much more complicated the farmer's job has become, Henry said. Maybe this would help, he said: "Remember that when you look at a field of cucumber or sweet corn, there's a whole lot of paperwork behind it that you don't see."