YOUNGSTOWN – Tom Tower likes to say, “If you eat a peach from Western New York, there’s an 80 percent chance it came from a Tower farm in Youngstown.”
That’s not hard to believe when you learn that this marks the 200th year of farming in Niagara County for the Tower family.
Peter Tower Sr. came to this area in 1815, a descendent of John Tower, who emigrated from Hingham, England, to Hingham, Mass., in 1636. A prominent carpenter, cabinetmaker and fruit grower, he settled what would become known as Tower’s Corners at Youngstown-Lockport and Creek roads.
Many of his Niagara County descendents still till the land, plant and harvest the crops and take them to market two centuries later.
Early one morning earlier this month, there were four Tower family members – Tom, Robert, Danny and David – each representing his own interest, at the Clinton-Bailey wholesale market in Buffalo to sell produce and/or buy a little to supplement what he hasn’t yet harvested or doesn’t grow himself.
That means six days a week, Tom Tower is up at 2:30 a.m. and off to the wholesale market.
“Saturday is my day to sleep in – until 4:30 a.m.,” he said with a smile. “I meet the girls here (on his Youngstown farm) to load the truck at 5 a.m. and get to the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market by 6 a.m.”
In the 1960s through the 1980s, the Tower families operated three fairly large, 250- to 300-acre farms in the area. Tom recalled that this was in addition to his father Richard’s 55 acres, which were adjacent to his grandfather George’s farm.
Tower, 66, knew early on that he wanted to be a farmer, and he always had his family’s encouragement. He recalled planting 2 acres of a French hybrid grape while still only a sophomore at Lewiston-Porter High School.
“I liked pink Catawba wine,” he said with a grin.
He headed off to Cornell University, where he would earn a degree in pomology with a specialization in viticulture, or growing wine grapes, in 1970, coming home weekends to help work the farm. After a stint as a vineyard manager for Gold Seal Winery in Hammondsport (later purchased by Seagram), he returned to the area eager to farm. He held a number of jobs, including as an ironworker, a carpenter (he built his farm stand over two winters), health teacher and operator of a small trucking firm, in order to finance his dream.
Tower was always bolstered by the awareness that “my dad and uncle wanted me to farm.”
In 1973, he bought the 55 acres upon which his farm stand now rests at 759 Lockport Road, also continuing to help farm the property at Lutz and Lockport roads where he grew up. Over the years, he also bought or worked additional acreage in the area, peaking at about 200 acres. It was centered around that “sweet spot, about a half-mile to a mile and a half from Lake Ontario, with that belt of sunshine,” he said.
It’s also where the lake winds protect the fruit crops from the bitter winter cold that kills the plants’ and trees’ buds.
“I’m cutting back some now and only actively farm 65 to 70 acres,” Tower said.
He is married to Kate Koperski, executive director of the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University.
Two nephews, Andy Howard and Patrick Tower, lend a hand on the farm, although they maintain full-time careers of their own off the farm.
Tower also has employed many high school and college students through the years – nearly all girls, appreciated for the deftness they exhibit while performing their “tactile tasks” in the fields and markets.
Peaches are still Tower’s main crop – in 1980, he was one of the largest peach-growers in the state – but he has lately also emerged as one of Western New York’s largest heirloom tomato growers, boasting 27 varieties. Of course, he also grows grapes, cherries, apricots, nectarines, plums, raspberries and apples, as well as potatoes, Brussels sprouts, pumpkins, squash and leeks.
He figures a full three-quarters of what he grows he sells at his farm stand and at the Elmwood-Bidwell market, which he helped found in 1999 with Buffalo architect and developer Karl Frizlen. They started with six farmers and now have 36 farmer vendors.
Tower is quick to discuss a new program offered this year at the Elmwood Bidwell market called “Double Up Food Bucks.” It is an incentive program to increase affordability and accessibility to fresh fruit and vegetables for low-income patrons. Those who receive help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program get another dollar to spend on fresh fruit and vegetables for every dollar they spend on these products at participating farmers’ markets, up to $20 per day. The Field & Fork Network brought the program to Western New York.
Lisa Tucker, co-founder and executive director of Field & Fork, has known Tower since 2008 and calls him “such a lovely, lovely man.”
“He is a wealth of knowledge, a unique farmer who will quote Yeats and Shelley,” she said. “He is so engaging. He’s incredibly brilliant, but accessible. … He’s traveled the world to learn more about agriculture and has an open-door policy at his farm for people from other countries … He’s been very warm and generous to me.”
Tower also provides fresh produce to Carmelo Raimondi, chef/owner of Carmelo’s Restaurant in Lewiston, well regarded for his ability to create gourmet meals around fresh, local ingredients.
“I was just there (at the farm stand) today, picking up 15 quarts of tomatoes,” Raimondi said. “Tom is truly committed to the area and to the land. He’s proud of what he grows, and I love how passionate he is about it. He’ll say, ‘Here, try this variety of tomato,’ for example. It’s like how I feel creating a new dish at the restaurant.”
Looking to the future, Tower said, “I have to be encouraged, I don’t have a choice. You have to follow the dollar and follow your heart. There are opportunities out there.”
One opportunity has been a chance for Tower to return in recent years to growing grapes for local wineries.
He has 4 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Sirah grapes, which he tends for Leonard Oakes Estate Winery.
“In the early 1970s to mid-’80s, we had 110 acres of wine grapes, then the market collapsed,” Tower recalled. “I was out of it for a while, then in 1986, I had the opportunity to buy the Cammack farm, and we had 60 acres of wine grapes, so I jumped back in. At one time, I was Bully Hill’s largest grape grower.
“But the agriculture business tends to be cyclic. I was completely out of it a second time, and Darrel Oakes kept asking me to grow grapes for them. He and I have been close friends all of our lives, and after the third bottle of wine was uncorked one evening, he kept asking me, and I said, ‘Oh, all right I’ll do it; quit bugging me.’ ”
Those particular types of grapes were nearly wiped out elsewhere in the state during this past harsh winter, but “everything came through fine here,” Tower said, because of his unique location.
The weather doesn’t faze him.
“It hails, we get a drought, we go through a rainy season – it’s all part of what we do,” he said. “In 2012, we lost 90 percent of our fruit (to an unusual frost/thaw/frost cycle in early spring). It’s part of our business.”
He enjoys having local schoolchildren visit the farm on field trips.
“I might be the only farmer these kids from kindergarten ever meet,” he said. “I think it’s still valuable to a community to have local retail farms.”
He added: “In my dad’s generation, the farm was only a half-step away, and everyone knew someone on a farm, but with each generation, it’s a step further away. We’re all responsible for each other – that’s what I believe. … I look forward; I don’t look back.”