In the field / Amos Zittel & Sons
A dynasty that keeps farming and innovating
photos by eric frick
If the first George Zittel could have gazed 123 years into the future to see his great grandson’s Eden Valley farm today, nothing but the veggies would look familiar. There’s a cooperative formed with neighboring farms. A market that serves as a community hub providing potatoes to paint nights. A sprawling modern greenhouse operation that connects local gardeners with plants from around the world. Experimental crops to find out if what’s trendy is also viable. And always new ideas on the horizon, all in response to customer demand.
But woven through every structure and seedling, George would surely recognize the Zittel family knack for constant evolution, ingenuity, and hard work, all meant to preserve farming as a viable livelihood for five generations of Zittels.
In 1897, George left his father’s dairy to buy his own land and switch to farming produce. George slowly expanded the farm and sold it to son Amos in the early thirties. Always looking for reliable ways to get his produce into the hands of buyers, Amos got together with neighboring farms in 1957 and formed the Eden Valley Growers, Inc. cooperative. The idea came about when Eden farmers had a glut of winter squash—while the south had a shortage—so they rounded up the extra squash, split shipping costs, and shared the income. This new co-op model later allowed the farmers to pool their crops and fulfill big orders from distributors, grocery chains, and food producers. Today the co-op ships over a half a million cases of produce like cabbage, sweet peppers, and corn all over the Eastern United States every season, including to local grocery stores like Tops and Wegmans. Most of the eight local farms that make up the co-op are still run by fifth, sixth, and seventh generations of the same families.
Amos’s sons George and Paul went off to agriculture school at Cornell University, then returned to take over farm operations in 1964. Amos stayed active on the farm even then, roping his grandkids into the mix.
“My grandfather got up at 1:20 a.m. every day, and woke me up then, too,” says Bill Zittel, George’s son, a fourth generation Zittel who now oversees the farm. “He’d even make me stay at his house to make sure I was there on time, even through my summers home from college.”
Bill, like his father and uncle, also went to Cornell. The family encouraged each generation to leave the farm, go to school, and bring back new methods and ideas to weave into the time-tested farming practices learned working alongside older generations. A lot of the farm’s sustainable practices are a result of this thinking, such as an intricate drip irrigation system that took nearly ten years to perfect via trial and error until it could serve a series of drastically different fields farmed by the Zittels.
During George and Paul’s time at the helm, the greenhouses began to take on a life of their own. Back then, most farms had a greenhouse or two to grow their own plants, giving certain field crops a protected head start during Western New York’s cold, wet springs. But the Zittels realized they could grow flowering plants for sale at roadside markets, which needed flowers to sell until the corn and tomatoes drew customers in. The Zittel greenhouses started with wooden trays of clay pots with hand-mixed piles of their own growing medium. By the 1980s, they were starting two hundred thousand geraniums a year, growing steadily to one million, two million, then expanding into a wider variety of plants.
While plants like tomatoes and marigolds start from seed, others come from plant cuttings that are imported from around the world. Because soil can’t be shipped across international borders, plant suppliers in places like Africa and South America send carefully packaged stems, vines, leaves, and bare roots to the Zittels. In the greenhouse, small teams of workers carefully place tiny pieces of plant material into soil-filled celled trays, which sit in a special warm, moist propagation area until they send their own little roots into the soil and become tiny plants.
When the November 2014 snowstorm destroyed most of the Zittels’ greenhouses, they chose to rebuild them bigger and better with state-of-the-art technology to better regulate airflow, temperature, and humidity. Today’s airplane hangar-sized greenhouses bloom with a canopy of hanging baskets and a patchwork carpet made up of millions of bedding plants, like crimson coleus, dark green pepper starts, stripe-leafed geranium, and lime green begonia. Zittels is one of the largest suppliers of plant material for Ball Seeds in Chicago, which ships to garden centers all over the country. During the late winter rooting season, workers in the Zittel greenhouses create fifty to sixty thousand plants each week. This farming offshoot not only diversifies the farm’s income sources should a catastrophe wipe out the field crops, but it also allows the family to employ staff far beyond the traditional growing season.
“Our goal is no downtime,” says Bill. “Whole families of people have worked here for forty and fifty years. We want to keep it that way.”
Zittel’s Country Market opened in 1986 shortly after Bill and his brother Dave returned home as Cornell graduates. The Market, rebuilt in 1995 on Southwestern Boulevard in Hamburg, gave the fourth generation Zittels—Bill, Dave, and their cousin Kevin—the opportunity to hear directly from customers what kinds of produce and plants they wanted, when, and why. Those insights have helped the farmers understand what their wholesale produce and bedding plant clients might want and have guided what the farm grows and sells. Most of all, the Market serves as a connection to the farm’s local community and the agricultural roots many Western New Yorkers remember.
“Everyone had a grandpa or a dad who grew things,” says Bill. “We’re not that far away from when it was the norm, and the pendulum is swinging back toward supporting local family farms and knowing where your family’s food comes from.”
The Market is also a destination for fun. Families flock there on autumn weekends for mums, pumpkins, and cornstalks, while busloads of school kids learn about where food comes from and the difference between sweet corn, field corn, decorative corn, popcorn, and candy corn. Diesel-engine train rides from the market to Zoar Valley and back take riders past the fall foliage on an hour-long trip. There are classes in planting succulents, hostas, show-stopping front step containers, and fairy gardens. And, of course, the produce that started it all.
Agriculture has always been an exercise in evolution as markets, climate, and customer preferences change. The Zittels’ ability to grow and change fast enough to stay one step ahead of the trends—but slowly and calculated enough to keep from being risky or wrong—has paved the way for the fifth generation—Dave’s son, Evan, who is a few years out of Cornell. He joins the previous two generations still active on the farm as they embark on what’s next. They’ve realized customers prefer corn pre-shucked, and recently outfitted on old 1896 cow barn with modern packing abilities to process the corn. Grape tomatoes bring in better margins if they’re clam-shelled at the farm’s packing house rather than at the distributor, so they’re exploring that avenue.
“You’ll never get more yield out of an acre than you did a hundred years ago, but costs and pricing haven’t caught up,” explains Bill. “You have to figure out how to do more with the same space.”
Hemp is another experiment. The Spoths, farming family friends for over 100 years, tried growing it the year before and shared both seeds and the how-to they had gleaned. The Zittels planted twenty acres of hemp during the 2019 growing season in a way that felt familiar.
“We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel on that one,” says Bill. “It’s the same as growing peppers.”
But once the plants popped up, the real learning began. Male plants from a neighboring farm pollinated part of the all-female field the Zittels had very carefully sexed, wrecking a good portion of the plants. Harvesting, hanging, drying, and budding each plant by hand was incredibly labor intensive. The drying facility the Zittels had contracted caught fire and burned down just days before the hemp was to arrive. And while more than 400 licenses for growing industrial hemp were given out in New York State, there weren’t nearly enough processors up and running to deal with the influx of crop.
“The state let the horse out of the barn way too soon,” explains Bill. “I’m glad we did it, but it was an expensive education. We’re ready to tackle it again if the market and processing are in place properly.”
Evan’s kids, the potential sixth generation of Zittel farmers, aren’t old enough yet to do much more than play in the dirt their family started tending almost 130 years ago. But their dad, grandpa, and uncle are busy figuring out new tilling, rotation, and nutrient delivery methods to make sure that soil is ready for their hands to work when the time comes.