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A renaissance man finds his niche in field of farming

APPLETON – Tom Szulist is a bit of a Renaissance man.

A successful farmer, he’s also an engaging environmentalist, a knowledgeable businessman and is able – and eager – to explain things in intricate detail like an engineer, simply because he’s all of these things.

Szulist and his wife, Vivianne Singer Szulist, started Singer Farm Naturals at 6730 Lake Road in 2009 as a sister company to Vivianne’s family’s five-generation fruit farm, Singer Farms. By the time they met in 2006, Szulist had already had two careers – as an industrial engineer and as a stockbroker, while Vivianne had lived in England and worked as a graphic artist while raising her three children. The two met following her return to the area and married a year later.

The Szulists considered constructing a new building for their new business when Vivianne’s mother suggested they use an old barn on-site, built in the 1860s.

That barn – lovingly restored and retrofitted with the latest in alternative energy technology these past few years – has become the focal point of their business and their mission.

Set aside some time if you have a chance to meet and talk to Tom Szulist – the topics can be far-reaching but always interesting, as evidenced during a recent chat.

How did you segue from stockbroker to farmer?

For 29 years, I was a stockbroker in venture capital small companies and later, much of the work had to do with alternative energy, so that gave me a leg up here.

But Wall Street only produces greed and does nothing to help society. It’s all about making money, and it was something that wasn’t enjoyable to do anymore. I did some soul-searching because we all need to have a purpose in life, and I think it’s not making money, it’s helping people and giving back to society.

How did you decide to “go green”?

My wife and I share the same views, that we want to do things in an organic and sustainable way … When we started this business, we took this barn built in the 1860s that was either going to have to be destroyed or rehabilitated, and we decided to do a sustainable rehabilitation. We felt using straw bales was very appropriate for insulation, and we had David Lanfear work with us on that, and then we used structural insulated panels for the roof from Thermal Foams Inc. in Buffalo.

But how would we heat it? We incorporated radiant piping in the floor and got an Austrian-made wood boiler in the winter of 2011. When wood is burned, usually at between 300 and 500 degrees, only 52 percent of its energy is released, but with this technology, over 95 percent of the wood’s energy is released, and the hot water we produce fills a 1,000-gallon storage tank because we can’t consume it quickly enough.

Then we had to decide where we’d get the electricity for the barn, and we installed a 10-kilowatt solar, or photovoltaic, system in late 2010, and it’s supposed to produce 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, but we get an awful lot of sun here, and it actually produces 13,000 kilowatt-hours. We have panels that tilt with the seasons.

Q: I’ve seen a wind turbine on your property. What other forms of alternative energy have you explored?

We also installed a solar thermal system in October of last year. It’s a passive system that works with evacuated tubes when the sun is shining. It can also help heat the building.

In May 2012, we put in a 10-kilowatt wind turbine system with a 120-foot tower that is supposed to produce 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, but, once again, it produced 13,000 kilowatt-hours this past year because we get a great deal of wind due to our proximity to Lake Ontario. We’re also putting in an electric drying system in a 400-square-foot area of the garlic barn to increase the quality of our garlic storage.

Speaking of garlic, is that your major crop?

People are either quite passionate about garlic, or they couldn’t care less. I grew it as a hobby in the early 1990s, and we’ve been growing it here for six years and now have 70 different varieties. It’s one of our biggest efforts. We’re the largest garlic farm in Western New York, with the most diversified product. And it’s all certified organic by NOFA – that’s the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.

There are seven different DNA categories of garlic, and then there are variations of those. The Turban variety, for example, is from the Middle East, and it’s the only group that’s harvested early. We just started pulling some of this. Now, the rest of the plants started to undergo a massive biological shift after the summer solstice, when the days started getting shorter. The bulbs will start doubling in size every week for the next three to four weeks. We’ll start harvesting the rest of the crop around July 10, and that’ll take us two weeks. All of our garlic will be out for sale in late August, and it’s also available through our website, (phone is 778-7077).

What do you, personally, like so much about garlic?

Garlic is a lot like stocks. You take one bulb and, say you get eight cloves – well, that’s eight times the crop (you can plant) for the following year. We’re up to about 45,000 bulbs now, and we do a lot of it by hand, but we’ve also designed some systems because it’s an extremely labor-intensive crop. That’s why 70 percent of the world’s garlic comes from China, because of the low cost of labor there ... We like to teach people about planting and growing garlic, not only to use it in our diet because it’s so healthy, but because it’s so easy to grow.

What other crops do you offer?

We produce potatoes, as well, and will plant some winter squashes – spaghetti, butternut and pumpkins. We also host the U-pick cherries for Singer Farms, because they’re a wholesale business. We’re open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week (they just opened the U-pick Saturday), and it should go for three to four weeks. We are also the largest distributor in New York State of tart cherry juice concentrate, used for gout and arthritis relief.

I know promoting education about natural farming and about alternative energy sources is very important to you. Can you address this?

We have a sustainable energy open house usually in July or August each year where we give tours, but we also help individuals with private tours who might be considering these different systems. We worked with the Sierra Club, Niagara Group, this year and had different speakers here (for the Renewable Energy Fair April 28). We want to help educate people.

Q: What plans are on the drawing board?

We’re going to install a wood kiln to take the excess moisture out of wood and use the wood for heating, and I’ll use it for woodworking, which is one of my hobbies. Instead of storing the excess energy created by our solar thermal system, we’re going to use it to operate the wood kiln.

We’re also building a house near the garlic barn, overlooking the ravine on Keg Creek. There was a mill there in the 1800s, and the wood used to build our barn was milled right there. We’re building the guest wing of the new house this year, and we’re exploring geo-thermal (heating) for that, and we’ll take up residence there while we build the main section next year. My wife is so artistic. She’s working on the house design. She came up with our logo, our packaging and the idea for the curved wall in the barn. Because of some of our ideas, this house will be quite unique.

We’re also planning an organic dinner in August, and we’re accepting reservations through our website. We’re calling it a “pigfest.” Humble House Farm in Gasport is helping us raise pigs (organically), and we’ll have organic vegetables and, of course, garlic in just about every dish.

Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email