Maybe 10 years ago, Caitlin Merna LoVullo arrived in the morning darkness to begin stocking tables at the Lexington Cooperative Market in Buffalo. There was a knock on the door, and she found herself face-to-face with a fruit farmer named Dan Tower, who needed to unload his apples in a hurry.
Caitlin offered to help. Once they finished, Dan paused.
“Thank goodness it was you,” he said, as if he had always known her.
Caitlin, 33, told the story a few days ago, from a table in a 159-year-old Youngstown farmhouse that spent five generations in the Tower family. She and her husband, Bryan, 38, now own most of Dan Tower’s farm, barely a year after Dan stopped at his chiropractor's for what he thought was piercing trouble with his spine.
The chiropractor understood it was something more, and the doctors soon gave Dan impossible news.
It was pancreatic cancer, which seemed to make no sense. Dan, to those who knew him, was a force of nature. On his farm, he grew 35 varieties of apples, along with peaches, pears, cherries, apricots and far more, and he was a fundamental presence at many busy farmers markets.
"He was such a vital part of this community," said Steve Gedra, an old friend and owner of the Black Sheep restaurant in Buffalo.
Dan never smoked. He was not a drinker. A lifetime on the farm left him lean and seemingly younger than his 67 years, his age when he learned of his illness.
He began chemotherapy, but his world view was built on practical reality. Once his situation was clear, Dan focused on dying in the same way that he lived. He thought about his wife Iris, his five children, his stepdaughter and his grandchildren, and he did his best to make everything ready for them.
Dan and Iris thought they had one option. They doubted anyone would take the farm as it was. That meant they needed to sell at least 100 acres at auction, creating the possibility some large buyer might parcel off the farm for soy and corn.
“The legwork had already been done,” Iris said of the process toward that sale.
In the end, that near-decision led to the birth of today's Cornerstone Orchards, named for the biblical idea that the rock almost rejected can be the strongest rock of all.
Heather Lazickas, long involved in marketing for local food cooperatives, heard from Iris about Dan’s illness and the uncertain prospects for the farm.
“I loved them and I was sick about it," Lazickas said. She was familiar with the reverence earned by the Towers within what Colin Erdle, a grape farmer who serves as president of the Elmwood Village Farmers Market, calls a burgeoning local "do-it-yourself food economy."
Dan Tower, he said, was "one of the pillars."
Erdle joined Lindsey and R.J. Marvin, owners of the Barrel+Brine pickelers, in putting together an autumn fundraiser for Dan that drew passionate support from the Elmwood market, a response that had deep resonance for Iris.
"There was just so much love," she said, which only emphasized the meaning people took from their farm.
Dan died in May, taking a last peaceful breath at home, Iris at his side. Those who knew him say he was a guy of unvarnished and memorable character. In East Aurora, Gayle Thorpe of Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm remembers the depth of his support when she lost her husband, Mike, to cancer.
“Dan just went out and did what he did without fanfare,” she said, “and I don’t think he ever realized how important he was to everyone.”
With all that on her mind last fall, Lazickas suddenly recalled a conversation years ago with Caitlin LoVullo, a former colleague at the Lexington Co-op who had dreamed out loud about her husband Bryan's passion for the Earth, about how someday they would love to take a crack at farming.
It was a long shot, but Lazickas sent LoVullo a text message about the availability of the Tower farm, then stepped away for a while from her phone.
When Lazickas again picked it up, Caitlin had responded with a blizzard of missed phone calls and text messages.
She and Bryan were ready. Caitlin had worked for years in food cooperatives. Bryan, hungry to be outdoors, left a career in the family insurance business to work for the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, before embracing the role of a stay-at-home dad for their children, Dylan, Abigail and Emily.
Caitlin, raised in St. Lawrence County, is the granddaughter of a dairy farmer. As for Bryan, a childhood love of nature grew into a dream of someday trying his own farming theories on the land. The couple met with the Towers last November, and by the time they returned to Buffalo they shared one certainty.
“We can’t let this farm not exist,” Bryan said.
Within a few months, they purchased 100 acres - including the house - for a little more than $400,000, Caitlin said, not including the equipment. With Dan’s help, Bryan mapped out the orchards, down to every tree. The couple agreed Caitlin would keep her job at Lexington, while all Bryan’s energies are turned toward Youngstown.
Tom Scharlau, longtime operations manager on the farm, made the transition smoother when he agreed to stick around. He might have found work elsewhere after his friend’s death, but Scharlau spoke with gratitude of the leap of faith by the LoVullos – and of years of faith and kindness from Dan and Iris.
“With all respect," he said, "I want to keep it going for the guy upstairs.”
In this case, the guy is Dan Tower.
Scharlau is now “the linchpin,” Caitlin said, supervising work crews as the LoVullos go through their first harvest. Scharlau is routinely up before dawn every morning, preparing apples, peaches and other fruit to bring to market and such customers as restaurants, cooperatives and Thorpe's CSA farm share.
“I’m excited about the privilege of being here,” Bryan said, before speaking of his plans for regenerative farming. One of his goals is progressively building on Dan's use of native wildflowers as a means of attracting bees. He is also mulching trimmed branches and returning them to the orchards, a choice he prefers to burning them.
The couple intend to eventually use their working farm as a wedding destination, a place where you could be married against a backdrop of hundreds of apple trees, then stay in a bed-and-breakfast inside the old farmhouse.
Iris is not far away. She kept 60 acres of nearby land, where for now she still raises the Flemish giant rabbits her husband loved, while preparing flowers that she and her daughter Christel send to market. She speaks of "a kinship to the vision" of the LoVullos, and she wants to be around to help when they need it.
“She could have decided to just be done with it,” Caitlin said. “But everyone cares so much about this farm.”
Iris thinks back to Dan in explaining that commitment. As a young man, her husband had a plan to become a forest ranger, until his own father grew ill and called his son outside. Dan told Iris the two of them sat face-to-face on two boulders that are still near the main door.
The father said he could not manage the farm without Dan’s help, and he asked his son to stay. Years later, Dan recalled how he made his choice after seeing tears in his father’s eyes.
He remained on the farm until he was in his 60s, when he and Iris finally thought about retirement. The cancer took that decision out of their hands. It seemed as if the orchards they loved might come to dust, until husband and wife brought a young couple to the kitchen table.
The connection quickly rose into a friendship. Caitlin often reflects upon the first time she saw Dan at the co-op, when he seemed so utterly confident she would come through for him, which is the same thing she and Bryan seek to do with this new harvest.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of his work in this archive.
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