Heritage Businesses in WNY / Amos Zittel & Sons Inc.
An industry that understands hard times
Evan Zittel (fifth generation) shown with Brussels sprouts.
Contemporary photos by Stephen Gabris
4415 Southwestern Boulevard, Hamburg
Growers and retailers of plants/vegetables/flowers
How old: 122 years
Size: 300 acres, with 3 acres of greenhouse
How many employees: 120 during the growing season, 40 in winter
Amos Zittel began farming in 1921, leaving school at the age of fourteen to work on his father George’s forty-five-acre farm. In 1940, he took over the farm and bought his brother’s share and other farmland nearby, which became available as families were no longer available to work it. The Zittels, however, were blessed; kids kept coming and the business expanded. In response to changes in produce marketing, Zittel and other farmers bought land and founded the Bailey Clinton Market. Amos Zittel’s grandson, Bill, remembers working at the market when he was eight, and being in charge of vegetable sales at age fourteen “with Grandpa never far away.” In 1956, in response to volume demands from large “corporate stores,” Amos worked with W. D. Henry, Henry Agle, Ronald Draudt, and others to organize the Eden Valley Co-operative. The Co-op is now a major distributor ($7 million average annual sales) of Eden-grown food, sixty percent of which is consumed in the Buffalo/Rochester area.
Amos Zittel is shown with Bob Matista, Buffalo News reporter, as he gives the daily produce prices.
Most Zittels went to Cornell for agriculture education. When they returned home in the 1950s, Amos’s sons, George and Paul, brought new ideas, crops, and methods. The use of plastics, tunnels, trickle irrigation, and other innovations changed things. Now, much of the business is run by the fourth generation: Bill, David, and Kevin, with business manager Terry Zittel. The fifth-generation representative is Evan. They make it work by dividing responsibilities—vegetable, propagation, greenhouse crops, and retail—and communicating. Bill says, “We found out that quick morning meetings were not enough. Now we talk every morning, but we commit to a serious, full lunch meeting on Wednesdays. We don’t always agree, but we talk.”
The Zittel team: Paul and George (third generation) are in the middle, with their sons (fourth generation) Bill and Kevin at left and David next to George.
Trials and challenges
• Labor and changing regulations aren’t easy, but the Zittels’ attitude is to create a desirable workplace with a family feeling. They retain many loyal employees, some for as many as thirty-five years.
• “The phytopthera (late blight, affecting especially potatoes and tomatoes) really got us in the seventies,” Bill says. “But you adjust, change, figure it out.”
• Catastrophic events: The big storm of November 2014, when seven feet of snow dumped quickly on parts of WNY, hit the Zittel farm harder than most others. “There was a domino effect of hoop houses collapsing—a total of three acres of greenhouses down,” says Bill. They rebuilt, with new technology. “Catastrophes have an upside,” according to Bill. “People pulled together for us. Suddenly there was Dan Henry in our driveway with his tractor, and other tractors came. In this industry, people understand about hard times.”
When asked what would have surprised great-grandpa George most if he could pop in, Bill Zittel says “This,” holding up his cell phone. “Technology. Sometimes I want to throw it across the field—but we can regulate water, misting, humidity, light—right from the phone!”
As for the big picture, Bill Zittel said they’ve learned lots over the generations: “We learned how big we had to be, and what was our niche, our uniqueness. You need to figure that out, to make a living.”
Visit Amos Zittel & Sons Inc.website here.