Marilla supervisor’s race is a study in civility - The Buffalo News
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Marilla supervisor’s race is a study in civility

Leon Berner and Earl Gingerich Jr. – “Skip” to everyone here – are both farmers. One grows soybeans and corn, and the other, flowers and veggies.

Both are graduates of Iroquois Central High School.

Both are against any storing or spreading of fertilizer made from processed biological waste and both regret that the annual Marilla car show is now in Alden.

And both are running for town supervisor of Marilla this November.

Their campaigns have local people shaking their heads – and smiling.

This should come as a breath of fresh air in a town that has been racked with dissent over what some are calling a hijacked car show, as well as fears over effluents polluting their wells and washing onto their land from a company’s plan to store biodegradable sludge on an Eastwood Road farm.

And if people inside Washington were to take a look here, they also might learn a lesson about how political battles can be waged with civility and respect.

“Come election night,” said Berner, the registered Conservative running on the Democratic line, “I’m good with it if Skip wins ... better with it if I win.”

Whatever the outcome, Berner believes the two would work together in some way for the betterment of the town.

While Republican Gingerich grins and remains quiet about who he would chose as his deputy supervisor, Berner is not.

“I’ll chose Skip. Who else?” he said.

So on the night of Nov. 5, no matter the winner, the two will be at Kodiak Jacks, a favorite watering hole in town, sitting together, eating chicken wings and waiting for the results to come in.

Shared views

That’s where the two spent primary night in September.

Gingerich, 52, beat the incumbent Supervisor George Gertz for the Republican line.

And Berner, 64, beat Gertz for the Conservative line by two votes.

Many say Gertz lost because the Marilla car show had moved to Alden during his administration.

In addition, some town residents believed Gertz supported a local farmer’s bid to allow Quasar Energy Group to store bio-waste in his million-gallon tank and spread it on his farm.

Both Berner and Gingerich say they oppose the use of bio-waste fertilizer.

“I worry about who’s going to monitor this stuff and does it build up?” Gingerich said. “I am skeptical about the limits on what you can use it for. It is more restrictive on its use than our pesticides are which require me or any farmer that uses them to have a license to do so.”

Berner, 64, a certified organic farmer who will not use the product, worries about possible groundwater contamination.

“Marilla is a hilly town, and eventually everything rolls downhill,” he said.

At a meeting in September, Berner questioned the Quasar officials regarding what metals and what percentages of them were in their product. It’s the unknown that worries him.

As for the car show, some blame Gertz for losing the show to Alden because in addition to being a town official, he is a Marilla firefighter. The show had used the fire company’s ground for parking. The lot is owned by the Marilla Fire Company Benevolent Association.

Last year, Gertz told the Car Show Committee that they needed to get an insurance bond, in case anyone was injured. He said the town’s insurance carrier recommended it due to the crowds that reached 20,000 last year. If anyone is hurt, the town could be sued because the car show has no assets. The amount needed for the car show insurance was more than the Car Show Committee expected, and it cut into what they could donate to Mercy Flight.

Also the Marilla Fire Company Benevolent Association raised the rent on the grounds that the show used for parking. It also didn’t help that the air conditioner was shut off on a hot Saturday night when a celebrity dinner for car show people was held at the fire hall.

Gertz wanted the car show to be a one day event instead of two, and all this angered the Car Show Committee, who thought the town was trying to control the event and decided to move the show to Alden.

Neither Berner nor Gingerich are firefighters but are known to be strong supporters of the department. Both say they donate money to it.

Gingerich lets them use a field he owns for fireworks and supports their tractor pull. He said he wants to do all he can to see the show return to Marilla by 2015. The town will have to bid for the show as it is now an independent event after the current town supervisor declared it a non-town event last year, he said.

Berner believes the annual car show is unfortunately “a dead issue.”

“Nothing can be done now, the venue in Alden is better,” he said. “Their fire company is very involved – at no cost to their town.”

‘Skip’ Gingerich

Gingerich and his dad, Earl Gingerich Sr., run Claymount Farms, and are considered one of the largest land owners and farmers in Marilla.

Two full-time workers help run their 1,400-acre farm on Four Rod Road that extends into the Town of Wales. Three shiny silver silos store the grain, corn and soybeans for market. They have a contract with a French firm for peas and a barn full of young heifers they are fattening up for your dinner.

Gingerich runs what farmers call a “tight farm.” Barns are neat and orderly, and crops seen in the distance between the barns and outbuildings look like they were painted by Norman Rockwell.

An energetic, opinionated man, Gingerich talks and moves fast and has a laundry list of plans and ideas for Marilla if he wins in November. Gingerich said farming doesn’t leave a lot of free time but said the supervisor post he wants is part time.

Although Gingerich chose not to go to college, he did travel abroad on study missions through the New York State Farm Bureau, traveling to Russia, Poland, Hungary, Australia, New Zealand and Cuba. “I went to Russia at the time they were breaking up their huge combine farms into smaller ones which have been a better way for them. Now they can export crops while before they had to import food.” He was impressed with Poland’s farmers’ work ethic.

He is against any new subdivisions in Marilla and believes zoning and education are the answer to town issues. Gingerich feels strongly about having a transparent government, and does not believe in micromanaging employees as long as they do their jobs.

He said he will be leaning on his deputy supervisor during certain times of the year “to pick up the slack.”

He is an advocate for farmers rights and has served as president of the Erie County Farm Bureau and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County. He was a Marilla councilman from 1996 until 2003.

Leon Berner

Berner has run Berner Farms for 38 years, primarily a flower and certified organic vegetable farm. With his wife, Karen, they own 300 to 400 acres. He sells his produce along with handmade items and various decorations from a store on Clinton Street and also has a smaller store on Maple Road landscaped with rows of gorgeous potted flowers and plants.

A down-to-earth kind of guy, he’s been known to stop in at Town Board meetings with a straight-out-of-the-fields look, down to the manure on his boots.

The Berners have a son and two daughters. Lauren is in her 20s, and when she is not working on a neighboring Marilla farm training horses, she is on the rodeo circuit. Their eldest daughter, Brittany, who has physical and developmental disabilities since birth, is often seen in her adult-size stroller around town. At a recent Ag Day celebration, Leon placed a big sign on the front of her stroller “Vote For My Daddy.”

Son Travis is expected to graduate from Penn State School of Agriculture next year and could follow in his father’s footsteps.

With an eye on the future, Berner hopes to change things in town that will retain young people who tend to leave, not for “greener pastures” but for jobs and housing.

“They need a reason to stay right here,” he said.

So it is no surprise to anyone that Berner would like to see more land rezoned. But he draws the line at using any prime farm land for this.

“We need land zoned for new businesses that can provide jobs, as well as some small duplexes and housing for senior citizens,” he said, but he is not for any large complexes or buildings for housing. “They want to stay in town to be near their children, too.”

Basing his figures on the most recent census, Berner said over 400 people have left Marilla in the past 10 years.

“We need to find ways to keep people in rather than worrying about how to keep people out,” he said.

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