My grandparents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and worked on vegetable farms in the Mohawk valley. In 1929 my grandfather purchased the 155-acre farm in West Winfield. He developed a diversified operation which included a 33-cow dairy, 2 chicken houses with a brooder house in between, 12 acres of strawberries, 5 acres of red raspberries, and several acres of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and assorted vegetables. The farm relied heavily on family labor. My grandfather did not drive so at the age of 14 my father would have to get up at 4 AM each day in the summer to drive the Model A truck with my grandfather to the farmer’s market in Utica. They also had a route pedaling eggs in the villages of Frankfort and Ilion. This is where my father met my mother. My father took over the farm upon the passing of my grandfather in 1937. It was my father’s decision to then transition the farm to 100% dairy production of milk. The raspberries and strawberries were plowed under to make way for hay and small grain crops to feed the cows. There are still remnants of the raspberries and strawberry plants growing wild in the hedgerows of the crop fields yet today.
My father and mother were married in 1945 and began purchasing the farm from my grandmother in 1946. My grandmother passed away in 1959 and my father and mother became the sole owners of the property. The farm continued as a dairy farm. My father built a new dairy barn (the original barn can be seen in the photo above, circa 1960), added silos, and machinery shed in the 1960’s (color photo, circa 2005). My parents raised five sons of which I am the only one to return to the farm after college. I worked along side my father on the farm while building a successful independent artificial insemination business. Dad decided to retire from milking cows in 1987, sold the dairy, and rented the farm out to people who needed help getting started in dairying. This continued until 2005 when, at the age of 85, dad’s health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer actively participate in farm activities. The farm’s tillable land was and still is rented to a neighbor who grows small grains and hay using conservation tillage practices.
During the winter of 2008-09 I began researching other possible uses of the now empty buildings. The “buy local” food movement was starting to gain momentum and farmer’s markets were springing up in the towns and villages in the area. I came across an article on the use of high tunnel greenhouses for the extension of growing seasons. My alma mater, Cornell University, had a webinar on growing brambles in high tunnels. The more I read the more a plan began to take shape to transition the farm back to part of its roots which was the growing of berries and vegetables for local direct sale markets. Even though the farm was a dairy farm my father had planted a large, about two acres, garden every summer. He still enjoyed growing fresh vegetables and would pull a radish, pick a few peas, or pluck a fava bean pod and eat it on the way to passing the cows across the road for the evening milking. My mother would freeze and can the bounty from the garden to help keep the grocery bills down for a family with five growing boys. I learned the art of gardening by working with my father from a very young age so going back to raising vegetables would not be difficult for me to do.
In the spring of 2009 I purchased two greenhouse kits. The plan was to plant fall raspberries and heirloom tomatoes in one and strawberries in the other. The tomatoes and raspberries did exceptionally well in the tunnel. For strawberries, I wanted to try growing day neutral plants in vertical hydroponic towers I had seen on the internet. Using day neutrals would give me a crop within months of planting and extend over a longer period than June bearing varieties. Growing vertically would allow me to plant more plants in the same area to maximize space inside the tunnel. I did get a crop using the system but, there were issues with the towers. Plants on the bottom did not get the requisite light and moisture levels in the media varied from the top to the bottom. I scrapped the towers and converted them to a raised horizontal system of my own design. This eliminated the issues I had with the towers and they were much more successful. I now pick strawberries from plants that are planted in April from June until around December 1st depending on how cold it gets in the fall.
In 2012 I decided to expand my hydroponics by building a commercial nutrient film technology (NFT) system for fancy lettuce and greens. I now have the capability to harvest 200 heads of lettuce a week with plenty of room for expansion.
My father passed away in September 2013 and my mother followed in May 2014. In July of 2016 my wife and I purchased the farm from the Lillian Loiacono Trust to become the third generation to own the property.