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Back to their roots: Farm couple adds twist to traditions

One of the subtle pleasures of a drive through rural Niagara County is passing the farm fields planted with emerald crops, row after symmetrical row stretching out to the edges of the field.

But a different kind of visual pleasure, not to mention growing advantage, is offered in one field at Singer Farm Naturals, a 35-acre organic farm on Lake Road in Appleton that is famous for its tart cherry juice concentrate and its 60 (or more) varieties of garlic.

That field is planted in a 110-foot diameter spiral, which started three years ago "as a small experiment," said Thomas Szulist, who has operated Singer Farm Naturals with wife, Vivianne Singer Szulist, since 2007.

The spiral is just one sign of a modern couple's second act of finding their way back to the center.

The passion for garlic is his, the roots on the land are hers, and their interest in permaculture, the fostering of sustainable agricultural ecosystems, is mutual.

The heart of Singer Farm Naturals is the Civil-War-era Legacy Barn, which may have been built by the farm's founding Wilson family and was used by Vivianne's great-grandfather, Roland, when he purchased the Chestnut Ridge Dairy Farm in 1915.

This photo taken in 1915 shows the current Legacy Barn at Singer Farms Naturals as a three-story dairy barn, at left next to a silo.

The barn, which Vivianne calls a "plain-Jane, ubiquitous barn, a classic style that could be quickly raised," had three stories when it was first built.

In the next generation, Roland's son, Harold Singer, operated the farm while his wife, Grace, worked as a well-known high school teacher in Wilson. Harold Singer changed from dairy to an orchard fruit farm, taking full advantage of the temperate breezes that create a microclimate near Lake Ontario.

The third generation traveled far from Niagara County. Tom Singer was working for Kaiser Aluminum in England when Vivianne was born to him and his wife, Jacqueline. The family moved to the Bay Area of California when Vivianne was young. In her teens, after her family moved to Washington, D.C.,  Vivianne returned to England to study, a stay she kept extending until she was settled there, raising a family of her own and working as a videographics designer.

But through the years, Vivianne Szulist said, "We visited Granny and Grandpa regularly" in their Wilson home. For her and her four siblings, she said, "It definitely got etched into our psyche that this was our place."

In 2004, Grace Singer died, and the appeal of Niagara County began to pull at Vivianne. In 2005, she returned home to a place she had never lived. Her parents also moved here after her father's retirement.

In 2006, Vivianne met Tom Szulist, who had lived in Clarence, raised his own family and worked as a stockbroker before becoming "disenchanted by all the greed," he said.

At the time they met, Szulist already had a well-rooted passion for garlic. He loved to cook, and his eyes were opened at about age 16 when his brother-in-law's father, who was from Croatia, allowed him to sample garlic "that he was growing along the side of his house," said Szulist. "The flavors were something I had never tasted before. And when I figured out I could grow it, it became a personal passion of mine."

The couple bought 20 acres from Vivianne's mother that was part of the original Roland Singer land. Much of the rest of the land is still a fruit farm operated as Bittner-Singer Orchards by Jim Bittner, who joined the Singers in 1991.

That circuitous route of various residences, occupations and focuses brings us to the Szulists, who both look grounded and at home in the Legacy Barn.

The barn had seen better days when the couple opened the farm for U-pick in 2007. They considered demolishing it and starting new, but Vivianne's mother urged them to keep it.

The renovation to repair, update and provide high-efficiency heating for the barn started in 2009 with the assistance of Vince Kuntz of Alliance Builders, Kevin Connors of Eco_LOGIC Studios and David Lanfear of Bale on Bale Construction.

"Our intention was to take this old barn and drag it into the 21st century," said Tom Szulist.

Today, the interior of the barn is clean and open, with hand tool marks visible on some of the massive 10-inch by 10-inch chestnut beams that span the ceiling.

The barn includes a sales counter, rustic table displays of healthful grocery products, a refrigerator case for the tart cherry concentrate, diaphanous white fabric panels and a long farmhouse table on a cozily worn Persian carpet.

But its real secret lies between its interior and exterior walls, where durable hay bales provide plenty of insulation with very little environmental impact.

From the barn, it's a short walk to the planted spiral, where more than 200 mostly heirloom tomato and hot pepper plants fill the rows, along with an assortment of herbs, including hyssop, catnip and holy basil. The center patch of the spiral is planted with Jerusalem artichokes, which protect the neighboring ginger from sunburn, and more than 120 hibiscus plants. "The ginger likes to be shaded," said Tom Szulist. "They work in symbiosis. We try to make happy communities of plants."

Walking the spiral, rather than stepping over the rows, takes about six minutes, said Szulist. The first circumference is 345 feet, the second is 307 feet and each revolution after that is 12 feet smaller.

One woman who worked in the spiral last year as part of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program "found it was an amazing experience," he said. "It's like you are engulfed, you're in your own little world in the spiral. It has its own presence to it."

On the other hand, he said, "I heard from another worker that it was claustrophobic working in there. They felt that they were deep within."

Tom Szulist exposes the burgeoning bulb of one of the 70,000 garlic plants growing at Singer Farm Naturals in Appleton. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Then it's on to the garlic field, where 28 rows of some 70,000 plants stand tall. They were planted last October by hand in a labor-intensive process. Flags mark the places where one type ends and another begins, although Szulist's keen eye spots the occasional interloper.

The green stalks of the soft neck varieties are reaching for the sun, "like ballerinas," he said, while the hard neck varieties push up the edible flower heads, or scapes, which workers remove to ensure that the plant's energy goes into the bulb below ground.

After June 21, the summer solstice, said Szulist, the bulbs double in size every week for more than a month. He uses his fingers to push the rich soil away from the bulb root of a growing plant to see its progress.

Szulist loves all garlic, and hails its health benefits. Last year Singer Farm Naturals sold more than 60 varieties, with names that range from the sweetly evocative – silver rose, lotus, pink music – to the geographic – Kiev, Turkish, Transylvania, Kazakhstan. "Some are very spicy, some are sweeter," said Tom Szulist. "Some are creamier," added Vivianne Szulist.

Garlic plants reach for the sun in a field at Singer Farm Naturals in Appleton. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Pressed to pick his favorite, Tom Szulist furrows his brow like a parent challenged to name the preferred child. Finally he confesses a weakness for Krasnodar Red, a hard neck variety from Russia near the Black Sea.

Tom Szulist can wax eloquent on the health benefits of garlic, although he can also get effusive about the tart cherry juice concentrate Singer Farm Naturals bottles from fruit grown at Bittner-Singer Orchards.

The cherry concentrate, pressed from what is generally considered an ephemeral early-summer fruit, is available year-round. But the garlic is not. The first fat bulbs are almost ready to harvest now, and when they are sold out, they are sold out.

The final thing the Szulists grow on their farm is entrepreneurs. "We're also trying to empower people to start businesses within our farm structure," said Tom Szulist. One of the people beginning to spread her wings at the farm is herbalist Kristin Gregory of Reciprocal Roots. Her monthly Herbal Hour workshops draw people interested in deeply exploring herbs.

After Tom and Vivianne both earned permaculture design certificates in 2015, they both embraced it as "a bigger part of our farming operation and general philosophy," said Tom Szulist. "We see the land differently now and our practices reflect that. It is a way of working in harmony and reciprocity with nature, using the existing proven systems of the natural world to benefit our whole ecosystem; not just our needs."

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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