The third in our series on Genesee County farms and farmers.
The house was ramshackle. There were broken doors and windows that wouldn't close, but the land was good. Carl Yunker knew it was soil he could grow something in.
"I was after the dirt," Carl said. "I said, 'if I got the dirt, I'll get the rest.' This is good land."
He couldn't buy the 200-acre farm and its 30 cows, but he could lease it. He moved his family from Sheldon to a house without plumbing in Elba. It was 1951. The house was more than 100 years old. The Yunkers, married in 1947, and with two young children, would put down roots near the intersection of Transit and North Byron.
Bernice went from cooking with gas to a wood stove in kitchen with warped floorboards.
That first Thanksgiving, she was expecting 17 people for supper. The night before, a cat crept in through the broken door from the cellar into the kitchen and feasted on turkey breast.
The day after Thanksgiving, Carl built a new cellar door.
In the kitchen, paint was peeling from one wall. Bernice drove into Batavia and bought the largest Rand McNally map of the United States she could find. She bought a series of smaller state maps. She decorated the wall with the maps, she said, so visitors would discuss the state of the union rather than the state of the house.
"I said if she lives with me for a year, she will stay with me for good," Carl said.
Craig Yunker, the Yunker's second of five children, was born in 1951 in Sheldon. He was raised in the house on Transit Road.
Today, the house that was falling apart 61 years ago, is now the home of Craig and Kimberly Yunker.
It's fully restored, of course. Inside, the walls are white and the floor polished hardwood. Left exposed are structural beams that were hand hewn in the 1820s by strong men with axes and chisels.
Carl, who turns 90 next month, lives with Bernice in a farmhouse built in 1900. When the Yunkers first moved to Elba, the Merrimans, who farmed the land before the Yunkers, lived in the newer house while the Yunkers lived in the older house. After Carl and Bernice moved in, Bernice wanted a little storage room at the back of the house fixed up to use as an artist studio. Carl expanded the room and added a second level, giving Bernice all the space she needed to paint and draw and display her work.
When Carl and Bernice met, she was a preacher's kid in Sheldon. They saw each other for the first time in the foyer of a church.
"When I saw him, he was sort of looking me up and down one Sunday when I went into church and I thought, 'you young snip, you,' " Bernice said. "I thought he was 17 years old and he was 25."
Bernice knew nothing about farming when she met Carl, but she's proud to call herself a farmer's wife. That's the name of her studio -- Farmer's Wife Studio -- where she paints and teaches art classes.
Bernice has been a member of the Genesee County Art Society for more than 50 years.
Her favorite subject is trees. She paints and draws a lot of trees. Well, she paints and draws a lot. Carl said she's a workaholic when it comes to art. When she has five minutes, he said, she's in the studio working on something.
Bernice has completed thousands of pieces of art. Earlier this year, she threw out about 700 of her paintings.
Living on a farm, Bernice said, her children learned the value of work. The boys started working in the barns when they were 7, getting paid for their work. By the time they were 12, they were buying their own clothes.
"I don't see how the city people to it," Bernice said. "These boys were never under my feet because they were working."
After all that farm work, Craig wasn't sure he wanted to be a farmer. His mother dropped him off at Cornell University for his freshman year and that's when he told her, he wasn't sure he wanted to farm.
He read Jack Kerouac. As Dean Moriarty took to the road, so did Craig Yunker. After the first semester of his second year at Cornell, Craig left on a six-month ramble across America. He drove a 1963 Chevy. He packed a Mamiya/Sekor 1000 DLT camera. In Las Vegas, his car was done and he was out of money. He managed to make it to California and spent some time at a commune before returning to New York.
He came home and went back to Cornell. Craig has a degree in agricultural economics and a master's in resource economics.
Carl had gone from tenant farmer to farm owner in 1963. When Craig came home, father and son became partners.
All of Craig's siblings found pursuits other than farming. Gail, the oldest, lives on a boat north of Seattle. Chris, three years younger than Craig, is a military man and lives in Virginia. Joy lives in Troy and Heidi lives in Medina.
CY Farms is owned today by Carl, Craig, Craig's son, Christian, and P.J. Riner, who is now retired but for years handled the day-to-day operations of the farm while Craig managed the business and CY's growth.
What started as a 200-acre tenant dairy farm is now 6,000 acres of turf, corn, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, onions and green peas.
How CY transformed from a small dairy farm to one of the largest crop farms in WNY is as much a story of persistence and hard work as good fortune, Craig said.
"I'd like to be able to tell you that I had everything planned out, but some things just happen," Craig said. "Our success is sort of a hybrid of luck and timing with some hard work thrown in, but a lot of it is just luck."
The big turning point came in 1986, when CY Farms was a 400-acre operation with 300 cows.
The federal government decided the country was awash in dairy products. The USDA wanted fewer cows and fewer dairy farms. The government set up a reverse auction -- farmers would set a price for their herd and the government would start with the lowest bid and buy up more and more herds at higher and higher prices until the target number of cows were purchased.
If farmers put in a bid, they obligated themselves to destroying their cows or exporting them to a foreign country.
"We submitted a fairly high bid and I was fairly confident that we wouldn't get taken," Craig said. "We only bid it because it's just one of those things where everything has it's price, so we said let's put in a number high enough that if we get taken we'll be happy. We didn't expect to get taken and we did. We were surprised that our bid got accepted, but we had already signed it so we had no choice at that point."
The Yunkers had a year to dispose of their herd. By contract, they couldn't produce milk for five years.
The story continues after the jump. Click on the headline to read more.