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Chamber's ag tour highlights mucklands, onion production in Genesee County

By Howard B. Owens


This year's Decision Makers Agriculture Tour hosted by Chamber of Commerce focused on one of the wonders of Genesee County, the mucklands and  the onions those fields produce.

"We got to see the Big O onion facility and it was beautiful, a really high-tech way of processing onions," said Tom Turnbull, interim president of the Chamber. "It's just amazing. Every time I come on one of these tours, the technology that goes into producing our food in this county is amazing."

As Turnbull and tour participants stood on the black soil of the mucklands on a cloudless afternoon near rows of onions waiting to be harvested, he marveled at unique enterprise.

"Seeing what the muckland is and the history, which I really didn't know the full story, about what is strange swamp land that's high in nutrients, and there's only a finite amount of in the country," Turnbull said. "It's just fascinating."

For The Batavian's previous coverage of the mucklands and onion production, click here.

Photos by Howard Owens









Group of muckland onion growers receive state award for pest management

By Howard B. Owens


Press release: 

Elba onion growers Matt Mortellaro, Guy Smith, Chuck Barie, Emmaline Long, and Mark and Max Torrey received an Excellence in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Award from the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSIPM). The six are muck onion farmers in Elba, who meet weekly during the growing season for what is known as Muck Donut Hour, to discuss crop protection tactics.

Onions grown in muck soil — organically rich former swampland where production practices are unique and intense — are one of the most valuable crops in New York, with an average value of $34.6 million. In the Elba muck and surrounding pockets in Orleans, Genesee, and Livingston counties, eight farms produce 40 percent of the New York onion acreage on 3,000 acres. Mortellaro, Triple G, CY, and Big O farms account for almost 75 percent of that production.

In 2005, onion thrips infestations were nearly uncontrollable in New York. Populations of the vegetable-loving insect were resistant to multiple insecticides, and the hot and dry conditions created a worst-case scenario, causing crop losses exceeding 30 percent. The Elba muck growers helped Cornell researchers conduct dozens of research trials and host large-scale demonstrations on their land, in an attempt to understand the biology, ecology, and management of thrips.

“The result culminated in a practical thrips management program, which includes regular scouting of onion fields followed by sparing use of insecticides designed to minimize resistance,” said Brian Nault, professor of Entomology at Cornell AgriTech.

The Elba growers are now able to successfully manage their thrips infestations. They average between one and four fewer insecticide applications and have saved an average of $113/acre, which is approximately $6,000-$226,000 per farm per year.

In addition to regular scouting, the other key tool in the IPM arsenal is information exchange and discussions at the Muck Donut Hour, which Christy Hoepting, senior extension associate with the Cornell Vegetable Program, describes as a way she keeps her "finger on the pulse" of the pest complex each year.

A CCE tradition for more than years, the Muck Donut Hour is held weekly during the growing season. There growers and researchers discuss the latest research findings, scouting and spray reports. Hoepting notes the willingness of the muck onion farmers to entrust their crops to Cornell’s research, and their transparency in sharing spray records.

She continues: “the Elba growers are undeniably brave; to so wholeheartedly adopt IPM practices demonstrates the extent of their faith in Cornell’s research on their farms. The risk of a pest spiraling out of control in a high-value onion crop is frightening. Clearly, these growers believe in solid science and go above and beyond to support it.”

Steven Beer, professor emeritus of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology at Cornell University, says, “without the cooperation of the Elba onion growers, it is not likely that so many IPM-themed tactics would have been adequately tested under real grower conditions. They set the standard for other growers.”

The Elba muck onion farmers are Matt Mortellaro, a third-generation muck farmer and co-owner of G. Mortellaro & Sons, with his brother Paul.

“Matt is a fearless leader in adopting IPM strategies," adds Hoepting. "He is committed to sustainable onion production and environmental stewardship, and is a strong advocate of onion IPM."

Guy Smith, a fourth-generation muck farmer, owns Triple G Farms with his brother Greg and nephew Gary. Guy Smith represents the Elba growing region on the Board of Directors for the New York Onion Research and Development Program.

Chuck Barie and Emmaline Long are Crop Production Managers for CY Farms LLC, which grows 120 acres in Batavia and Elba. Barie has been responsible for planting, spraying, irrigating and harvesting the onions for more than years. Long joined the farm in 2014, after graduating from Cornell; she scouts CY’s entire onion acreage weekly, including counting thrips, to implement IPM.

Together, she and Barie make pest management decisions. CY has the ability to micromanage every 5-20 acre onion field based on each area’s precise pest management needs.

Mark and Max Torrey are a father and son onion growing duo, and 11th and 12th generation farmers with Torrey Farms Inc. Max serves as the General Manager for Torrey’s onion operation, Big O Farms.

As the largest grower in Elba, the Torrey’s pest management practices affect everyone.

“Their commitment to implementing resistance management strategies and following IPM spray thresholds has been instrumental in preserving the longevity of insecticides remaining effective against thrips,” Hoepting says.

The award was presented to the pioneering growers during their Muck Donut Hour on Tuesday, July 30.

Mucklands saturated, more rain coming, onion farmers worried about this year's crop

By Howard B. Owens


Story and photos courtesy Tom Rivers, Orleans Hub.

Joe Bezon, a third-generation muck farmer, had just headed home after a hard day’s work on Monday afternoon when it started raining. A sprinkle soon turned into a deluge.

Bezon’s home in Byron was pounded by the rain. He drove to the muck and saw water, everywhere. Bezon was about 75 percent done planting onions for the season. Now there was standing water in the fields.

Bezon said about an inch of rain fell at his house, and 2 inches in the muck.

Bezon and the muck farmers were able to pump lots of the water off the muck on Tuesday, leaving them optimistic the plants and seeds would survive. But he is nervous about the forecast for Thursday, which says another inch to 2 inches is headed our way.

“The water has gone down a lot,” he said Tuesday evening on the muck. “It all depends on Thursday and the through the weekend. It’s wait and see what happens next. It looks like another 10 days of poor weather.”

Another big rain and farmers will struggle to get rid of the water. Bezon said the ground is saturated and the drainage ditches at near capacity.

For the full story, visit Orleans Hub.


Onion industry leaders tour Elba Mucklands

By Howard B. Owens


Representatives from onion companies from all over the world were in Genesee County today to see the world famous Elba Mucklands.

The tour is part of a convention of onion industry leaders hosted by the National Onion Association in Niagara County this week. The attendees had breakfast in Batavia and then toured the mucklands.

The visit included a presentation by Christy Hoepting, a researcher with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, who is studying the impact of weeds on onion growth and how best to control them in the field.

There was also a presentation on experimental onion varieties being grown in the muck.

There were people in the tour group from not only the United States, but also Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico.

"This is a beautiful and productive place," said Kim Reddin, director of public and industry relations for NOA. "Absolutely, it's unique and one of the main growing areas in the eastern part of the United States."




Mucklands heavy with water after recent storms

By Howard B. Owens


The weather is once again playing havoc with the potential onion crop in the mucklands.

Early in the season, it was too dry and too hot. Now, saturated ground is stressing some tender plants.

Perhaps as much as 20 percent of the crop won't make it to harvest.

Paul Mortellaro said the situation is hardly a disaster at this point.

"It would be nice to get some normal weather," Mortellaro said, "rather than ' it's too hot, it's too cold, it's too dry, it's too wet.' "

Photo: Onion planting starting in the mucklands

By Howard B. Owens


Activity is picking up on the muck this week as onion growers finally have suitable conditions for planting. One onion grower told us yesterday that ideally, growers like to have all of April to plant and they're getting a late start this year, but they should still get all of the fields filled with seeds and seedlings by May, if the weather holds.

Photos: Crates of onions on fields of muck

By Howard B. Owens


My father just left after a two-day visit to Batavia. Wednesday, we visited the Holland Land Office Museum, Oliver's and the Batavia Cemetery and then drove down to Letchworth State Park. Yesterday, I gave him a Genesee County ag tour that started at Post Farms, then the mucklands, then Mortellaro Brothers in Elba then Baskin Livestock in Bethany.  

The only pictures I took yesterday were of crates of onions on the mucklands at Torrey Farms property. These, I thought worth sharing.


Onion crop looking good for 2014

By Howard B. Owens


There's some big onions growing in the muck of Genesee and Orleans counties.

A photographer lining up his focus on a particularly bulbous specimen observes, "I don't remember seeing any onions this big last year."

"I haven't seen onions this big in 15 years," responds Paul Mortellaro, co-owner of Mortellaro Brothers in Elba.

On the one hand, the heavy rains of spring created near optimal growing conditions, especially for the onions that were started as transplants. On the other, heavy rain caused some flooding and damaged portions of some fields.

"You're not going to get 100 percent of your crop on 100 percent of your land, but I haven't seen a crop like this in 10 years," Mortellaro said.

Over the next few weeks, local onion farmers will be reaping that harvest. Already, several hundred acres of onions have been crated and bagged.

Much of the success so far of the onion crop is really the near ideal growing conditions of the middle of summer, where enough rain fell to feed the onions, but cool weather and enough dry days allowed perfect growing conditions.

The muckland farmers still have potential weather problems to worry about before the growing and harvest season is over. Mortellaro recalled one year when a severe hail storm came through and heavily damaged the crops of a couple of farms unlucky enough to have their fields right in the line of the main part of the storm.

But if conditions remain good, 2014 will go down as an excellent year for local onions.


A Mortellaro field. Once onions are ready for harvest, a machine pulls them from the ground and sets them back on the soil so the onions can dry before being harvested.


A big onion in a Torrey Farms field.


Mortellaro onions ready for harvest. As part of processing, the dry outer skins are removed, so they'll have a nice shine on store shelves.


Dried onions in a Torrey field being harvested.


Workers at Torrey Farms crate harvested onions. At the Torrey plant, workers arrange three rows of 20 crates each, with enough space between to drive a truck through. Trucks come in only minutes apart, giving workers very little time between loads to get the trucks empty. Mortellaro said it's a difficult job, hot and dusty and constant motion.



Crates full of onions at Mortellaro's processing facility.


Torrey Onions


Not onions. Beets. MY-T Acres land at Transit and Chapell roads, Byron.

Farmers say this year's onion crop coming in below average

By Howard B. Owens

There are some years that are better than others for onion growers.

This year is one of the others.

Paul Mortellaro, co-owner of G Mortellaro And Sons in Elba, said this year's harvest will be about 60 to 75 percent of an average year and about 50 percent of a good year.

That sounds about right, said John Torrey, of Big-O Farms, Elba.

Wind, cold and rain either blew away or drowned a good portion of the onion crop this summer.

"The onions were thinned so much by the wind that you're not seeing a lot of small bulbs, but you're not seeing a lot of tonnage because there's not a high enough plant population," Mortellaro said.

Big-O runs a huge onion operation and Torrey agreed that wind and water were a problem this year.

"We've had our challenges during the growing season," Torrey said. "While we're in the midst of a full harvest, we're probably going to have a little below average yield."

The price for onions right now -- a market largely determined by Western growers -- is from $9 to $11 per 50-pound bag, Mortellero said. That's decent, but of course local onion growers would like to see it go higher.

Onions are a slow crop to bring to maturity and harvesting them is a slow process, too. The harvest started in July and will continue through October.

Out on the muck today, I met Elizabeth Buck and Courtney Hill, researchers from Cornell. They are assisting in a project to test four different kinds of possible treatments to combat rhizoctonia. Rhizoctonia is a fungus that goes after the roots of onions. (Pictured above, Hill; Buck is pictured in the slide show below).

Muckers bracing for disappointing onion harvest

By Howard B. Owens

We've been tracking this year's onion crop and we checked in on the mucklands today, and from the road, the fields looked pretty good, but looks can be deceiving, said Paul Mortellaro, of G Mortellaro And Sons in Elba.

From the air, Mortellaro said, you can see a lot of open patches and thin spots.

"You'll probably see averages of 500 to 600 bags (50-pound bags) per acre," Mortellaro said. "Some less, some maybe 1,000. That's pretty disappointing."

Right now onions are trading at $13 per bag, but with transportation costs for Elba onions, that brings the crop yield down to about $6 per bag.

"At $6 per bag, you cannot make a living like that, not in Elba," Mortellaro said. "You can do that out west, but you can't do it here."

He said he and his brother are in no hurry to harvest their onions -- but will do so at the end of the month -- unlike last year when onions were going for $20 per bag.

The onions that were transplants -- such as the one pictured above from a Torrey field -- are developing bulbs and some have already been harvested, Mortellaro said. Those fields are generally in better shape than those planted with seeds, which have not yet started to bulb.

The problem this year: too much rain and not enough warm, dry days between storms.

Next few weeks of weather critical to onion yield after spring rain and wind do some damage

By Howard B. Owens

Wind and rain over the past few weeks are making muck farmers a little edgy about their onion crop for this season.

They know now they won't have a bumper crop, especially from fields planted with seed rather than transplants, but what happens with the weather over the next four weeks will be critical.

Following two-and-a-half inches of rain last week, they need some dry whether, but another inch of rain is forecast for tomorrow (Thursday).

"It would be nice if it were 80 degrees, sunny and a little bit of breeze," said Paul Mortellaro of G. Mortellaro & Sons.

On a tour of the muck today, Mortellaro pointed out the fields planted with transplants look pretty healthy. They're less susceptible to rain and the bigger plants are better equipped to respirate (pump off the water from the ground).

Fields planted with seedlings have been thinned out by wind -- wind can shear off an onion top -- or have been too saturated by water and there's been some die-off.

The right time for some rain would be when the onions start to bulb, which is three our four weeks from now.

"What determines the size of the onion is its size when it starts to bulb," Mortellaro said. "We need some good rain during that time."

Even with the slow start, the muckers could get perfect whether the rest of the season and enjoy a good harvest.

"Three or for weeks from now, this all could be forgotten," Mortellaro said.

"He's right," said Maureen Torrey of Torrey Farms. "We have a long way to go before our crops are made."

Beyond that, Torrey was hesitant to comment because she didn't want to jinx anything.

Christian Yunker at CY Farms said early indications are yields will be down this year, but how much depends on what happens with the weather the rest of the growing season.

Right now, he said, a lot of onions have "wet feet," and that inhibits their growth. Like other farmers of the muck, he's hoping tomorrow's storm doesn't do too much damage and then we get some dry weather.

"It's pretty early to tell, but we've taken a little bit of a hit," Yunker said. "They're not off to a great start, but it's too early to say your yield will be down to X."

Photo: A seeded muck field. The dead-looking plants in between the green rows of onions is barley, planted along side the onion seeds to act as a wind break. Once the onions reach a certain stage of grow, the barley is killed off.

Joe Bezon has spent a lifetime mucking and he wouldn't have it any other way

By Howard B. Owens

This is the second in a series of profiles of Genesee County's farms and farmers.

Working the muck has never been easy.

When third-generation muck farmer Joe Bezon was a boy, he would work alongside his mother, each on their hands and knees, pulling weeds.

Seeds were planted by hand and it took manual labor to bring in the crop. When muck is wet, it's deep and muddy ground. When it's dry, the fine dust gets in your eyes and nose and the sun's rays radiate heat off the black soil.

Today, machinery and chemicals make sowing, harvesting and weeding easier, but no machine can control Mother Nature, or the government.

Winds damage crops and workers are harder to find as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) rounds up all the farm labor.

Still, Bezon, in his 75th year, toils on, and is quite happy doing it.

"I enjoy it and I got this (highland in Byron, where we were standing talking) and that (muckland in Orleans County) down there and I've got a son who helps me all the time," Bezon said. "If I had to do it all myself, it would be a different story."

Today, Bezon & Sons Farm is 383 acres, with 110 acres of muckland, and is run by Joe, his wife Edith, son Joey and son-in-law Jim.

The Bezons, along with the Mortellaros and the Halats, are the last of the original muckland farmers in Genesee County.

Before the 1950s, there were as many as 160 families working the muck, each with plots of three to 10 acres of land.

As machinery was invented to make farming muck easier, and more and more farmers figured there has got to be an easier way to make a living, the families of the muck thinned out.

The Bezons were among the first to start consolidating their holdings.

Joey Bezon, who like his father has been working the muck his whole life, is perhaps the last Bezon who will farm the muck, unless his son, who now works for CY Farms, decides to work the Bezon land some day.

"I have a little bit of pride in it because we're one of the only ones who stuck with it," Joey said. "There was something like 160 some 40 or 50 years ago and everybody just kind of threw in the towel except for only a handful who are left and could stay with it. We used to be big or medium size and now we're one of the smallest ones. How long we can stay in the game with everybody else getting bigger, that's the challenge."

Muckland is reclaimed swampland. Over hundreds of years, trees and vegetation rotted in standing water to create a rich black soil that is full of tiny wood chips, making it both porous and a good medium for retaining moisture. It's about 80 percent organic matter.

Early muckers grew carrots, lettuce, spinach, potatoes and onions. Today, onions are the big muck crop locally, with some potatoes, and some of the more played-out muck west of Route 98 is used to grow turf.

Onions need deep, loose well-drained soil that retains moisture. There's big onion production in the desert soil of California, but the black muck of Genesee and Orleans counties has more organic matter and retains moisture better.

"Muck is special because unlike sandy soils or clay soils, the roots grow aggressively in it and they get enough moisture to form the onion," said Paul Mortellaro who has also been working mucklands his entire life with his family.

We call it the Elba Muck, but a majority of the 6,000 acres of muck still being farmed is in Orleans County. There's a lot in Byron, and just a corner of the southwest part of the fields are in Elba. 

Elba may host the Onion Festival, but there hasn't been an onion grown in Elba for years, as far as anybody knows.

There was once more farmable muck in Elba, but to be useful, the mucklands need to be several feet deep. Much of the muck farms in Elba have been lost to oxidation and wind. What little of it left is used to grown corn and turf.

The local muckland was once part of the Alabama Swamp, which once covered 25,000 acres. 

After the turn of the 20th Century, local residents were increasingly concerned about odor, mosquitoes and disease associated with the swamplands in Elba and Byron. (source for historical background)

Perhaps the entire Alabama Swamp would have been drained at the time, but much of the area has rocks and stone much closer to the surface than the Elba Muck. To be tillable, muck must be several feet deep.

And even to this day, farmers still pull out rotting tree stumps that work their way to the surface of the muck every spring.

It took the invention of the steam shovel to make draining the swamps possible.

Western New York Farms Company, based in New York City, owned 9,000 acres of muckland, and at the urging of state officials, drainage work started in 1913. By 1914, there were eight miles of canals 20 feet deep in place and lumberjacks started removing trees.

Farming started in 1915.

While muck farming was immediately successful, Farms Co. always intended to lease the land to tenant farmers, and the first leases were signed in 1916. The first year, Farms Co. leased land for $50 an acre and made machinery and assistance available to farmers. The next year, prices dropped to $35 an acre, but no more help came from Farms Co.

In 1927, Farms Co. decided to sell off its land, offering plots on favorable terms to farmers.

Edith Bezon isn't sure when Joe's father and mother first bought into the mucklands. It was before 1936.

The elder Bezon was the son of a muck farmer 17 miles to the west. Joe Bezon said when his grandfather died he had a chance to take over that farm, but he couldn't see farming Elba Muck and muck 17 miles away.

The Bezon's started out with a couple of 10-acre plots that they worked by hand.

When Joe's mother was weeding, she used onion crates as cribs for her boys.

"I can picture that," Joe said. "I can take you down where the shade was. There was a lean-to. They'd put us in a crate and put another one on top of it. There was a ditch right along the muck. I filled it all in and put tile in it. She would put us in the lean-to and she'd take straps and tie two crates together and set us there."

It was the only way to keep the rambunctious boys safe while she worked.

"We would say we wouldn't, don't worry we won't, we won't go out there," Joe said. "But as soon as they got down to the second plot and they'd have their backs to us, we'd run down the road with a wheelbarrow that they carried the weeds with. We would run up and down the road with it. Of course, in those days, there was traffic going, but heck, today, there's no traffic down there."

As time went on, Joe's father diversified his holdings. He bought other land, including ranch land on Oak Orchard Road in Elba where he started raising Angus. Today, that land is a dairy farm owned by Joe's younger brother, Eugene.

Joe's older brother left the muck for good when he went off to fight in World War II.

When he returned, he helped his father run his two motels -- the Sunset Motel on West Main Street Road, Batavia, and the Park Oak Motel, once just off Route 98 and the Thruway exit in Batavia.

Joe and Edith grew up together. Both went to Elba Central School.

When they were first married, they had a place on Pekin Road, but in 1966 bought a farm and farmhouse on Searls Road, Byron.

There they raised their two sons -- Joey and Rick -- and two daughters -- Laurie and Amanda.

Laurie now lives just down the road. She married Jim, who works with Bezon & Sons and Amanda went to work in pharmaceuticals and lives in Philadelphia.

"She enjoys the city life," Edith said. "She always said, 'I only showed 4-H because my dad made me.' "

Rick works at Genesee Community College.

Joe and Edith have five grandchildren.

"The family is growing, but I don't know about being farmers," Edith said.

"We don't have any of the grandchildren working here because it's such a hard life and most years there isn't a lot of money in it," Edith said. "The past few years, we've been doing good, but in 2010, we had no crop at all on the muck. We got flooded out and it was so late, we couldn't put seed in. We had to go to crop insurance, but that's the first time we ever had to do it."

Besides onions on the muck -- the only crop the Bezons have ever grown on the muck -- the family grows on its upland farm cabbage, corn and soy beans.

For years, the Bezons would put in 20 acres of cabbage, which can be a pretty lucrative crop in good years, but the short supply of farm labor has them cutting back to 12 acres this year.

"It's all gone back to the family doing all of the work," Edith said. "I wish they would come up with a program for us where we could hire workers and not worry about the INS coming in and getting them all."

She said when there are immigration raids, officials round up all the workers -- here legally or not -- and take all of them back to Batavia to sort out, which is a major disruption the farm work.

On the farm, Joe also raises beef cattle. Edith calls it his hobby. Joe says it's the favorite part of farming.

All of the Bezon cattle is slaughtered and butchered right on the farm by Joey. The meat is sold to local residents -- the ones who pay their bills, Joe said.

By this time of year, the Bezons have finished planting their onion seeds.

While the Torreys and some other muck farms plant seedlings, the Bezons prefer seeds. 

Onion seeds are very, very tiny. They are rolled in clay, which helps make it easier to plant the seeds using machines.

Rows of barley are planted between the rows of onions to help prevent wind erosion of the muck and protect the tender baby onion leaves from wind damage.

There are little wood chips in the muck that can tear an onion leaf to shreds.

"The wind moves those little chips around like buzz saws and they will cut the tops right off," Edith said.

In the early part of the growing season, onions are in a precarious state. Paul Mortellaro said it isn't unusual to lose one in four acres of new plants to wind.

The Mortellaros typically plant seedlings, but whether seedlings or seeds, when you account for the plants, the fertilizer, the labor, the land costs, taxes and the water, expenses for an acre of onions is from $2,500 to $5,000.

The good years -- which don't happen often, Mortellaro said -- can generate about $12,000 per acre in revenue.

Some years, there's no profit, and perhaps even a loss on the onion fields of the mucklands.

The muck is like its own little microclimate, Mortellaro said. The black soil radiates the heat and makes the flatlands much like a desert in the midst of lush Western New York.

"I've seen it," Mortellaro said, "since the time I was 10 out there weeding -- clouds coming in from Buffalo and they totally disappear by the time they get to the Elba Muck. My brother and I used to speculate that there was a column of warm air rising up from the muck. It is a mini desert during the summertime. It can be really really dry."

If you have good eyes, on a dry, windy day, you can see spirals of dust rising 500 feet into the air, looking like a tornado, Mortellaro said.

The Torreys have added their own above-ground, automated irrigation system to their muck property, but the Bezons largely irrigate by hand.

There were years, Edith said, when she and Joe would sleep in their truck all night, waking at regular intervals to move the irrigation lines.

The Bezons put down about a ton of nitrogen fertilizer per acre of muck, Edith said.

You might think muck, being such an organically rich soil, wouldn't need fertilizer, but new plants in the spring need a lot of nitrogen to get started. After that, the wonders of the muck do the job, but the nitrogen once trapped by the swamp was long ago depleted.

"When they first broke up the muck, all this compost was giving up its nitrogen and it got to the point where it was all leached out," Mortellaro said. "After about five years, you couldn't grow a decent crop without putting those inputs into the muck, so going back as far as anybody can remember, you've had to put in quite a bit of fertilizer."

The onion harvest for the Bezons will be in late August or early September. Edith helps drive the harvest truck when the time comes.

The onions are first pulled out of the ground and left to sit in the sun for three days. The tops need to dry so they will fall off and not get caught up in the machinery.  Without that proper topping off, the onions are more susceptible to disease.

If there isn't three days of warm sun, it jeopardizes the harvest.

The onions are scooped up by a self-propelled onion harvester that was invented and built in Elba by Lee Shuknecht and Sons.

Throughout the growing season, the Bezons battle two of nature's persistent elements: Wind and weeds.

To Joe, some of his neighbors aren't very good muckers. They let weeds grow around their plots and don't do a very good job of maintaining their hedgerows.

Hedges, only about four-feet tall, separate plots in the mucklands. They act as wind breaks and catch some of the muck that might otherwise blow away.

Edith estimates that wind carries away about an inch of muck a year. She figures by the time her grandson is ready to retire -- if he becomes a mucker -- there won't be any muck left to farm.

It's not just wind, but also oxidation that depletes the muck, Mortellaro said.

The little particles of wood that make up muck dry out in the summer heat or during a winter drought just like old barn wood, Mortellaro said.

Even with wind and oxidation, Mortellaro isn't sure the muck is declining at the rate of an inch a year -- the process probably isn't that linear, but certainly, a lot of muck has disappeared over the past 90 years.

He's excavated enough around the the gravel roadways -- built on top of muck -- to see what the original level of the muck used to be, he said. He estimates that areas that were once 12-feet deep in muck are now nine-feet deep.

"It is discouraging," Mortelloro said. "You see the gravel road out there. The road doesn't go away and the fields keep getting lower."

The Bezons own 110 acres of muckland, but only 98 acres are tillable. There are swaths of former muckland that are now just rocks.

As for weeds, Joe is obsessive about weeds, Edith said.

You don't get good onions when weeds are growing in the fields, Joe said. Onions don't do well when competing for nutrients. At harvest, the weeds get all tangled up in the machinery and have to be picked out during grading.

"Joe has always really taken care of the land, because that's what he lives for, being down there mucking," Edith said. "He's been down there since he was born."

It used to be that weeds had to be removed by hand and carried off in bags or buckets. Now Joe uses mostly chemicals, he said.

"Weeding is not like it used to be," Joe said. "You were out there on your hands and knees. I've got pictures of my mother out on her hands and knees weeding in the muck. We didn't have chemicals in those days. Now, heck, you can put it out there and keep it clean."

Sure there are some hardships with farming muck, Joe said, but it's nothing like the old days.  The worst part of machine farming is maintaining the equipment. When it breaks, it is a lot more expensive to fix. 

So long as he's got help, though, Joe said he can handle the work.

All the machinery in the world can't change the weather or the wind or the nature of muck, Edith said.

"You've always got to be one step ahead of Mother Nature," Edith said. "Out here, some days, she can be very cruel."

Joe and Edith on one of their upland plots. Joe was plowing that day, preparing the field for planting.

Joey Bezon in a field that will soon be growing corn. The tractor is a loaner because one of the Bezon's tractors was in the shop being repaired. As farm machinery has gotten more complex, it's more expensive to fix and harder for the farmer to do it himself.

Muck -- sifted a bit by the wind so that the wood chips are a little more visible.

Onions and barley growing in a muck field. If you look at the picture in the slide show below at full-screen resolution, the little onion sprouts will be easier to see. In the distance, rocks that were once buried by muck. Wind and oxidation are reducing the amount of muck in the mucklands every year.

Photo: Barn in the mucklands

By Howard B. Owens

Yesterday, for the first time -- believe it or not -- I visited the mucklands. I was back out there today (yes, there's a related story coming). The mucklands are an impressive sight, to say the least, and entirely fascinating, as I have learned over the past 48 hours or so. There are several of these type of old, low-slung barns out there.

Video: Growing up in the Muck

By Philip Anselmo

Ann Gavenda didn't only talk about the Elba History Barn when we met a few weeks back. She had some great stories to tell me about working in the muck on the Elba onion fields back in the 1940s, when her and the other girls ran into snakes, cigars, highly articulate Jamaicans and more dimes than you can shake a stick at—and she had the blisters to prove it. Without further ado:

Video: Elba History Barn

By Philip Anselmo

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the new History Barn in Elba, built to store all the ancient farm equipment and other relics that were locked up in who knew how many barns all over the town and its environs. Ann Gavenda was kind enough to come down and tell me a bit about the town's new treasure and the treasures inside it. Here's what she told me:

Were you able to make out the price of a gallon of gas on the old Esso pump?

Ann didn't only tell me about the history barn. She told me a lot more about growing up in Elba and working in the muck fields. Please be sure to check out that video which should go up later this afternoon.

Elba Mucklands: Number 21 in "What Made Genesee County Famous"

By Philip Anselmo

Who knew muck could be a claim to fame... It's dirty. It sounds gross. It doesn't contribute anything to society. What has muck done for you and me?

But before we get to that bizarre question, let's start simple: What is muck? Holland Land Office Museum Director Pat Weissend takes up the question in his latest post in the countdown of "The 25 Things that Made Genesee County Famous."

As Pat says:

Muck? What is muck? That is a question often asked by visitors to our county. What is this land with such an unusual name? Muck is a black soil that is left behind after swamplands are drained. The soil is made up mostly of humus. The mucklands in northern Genesee County and southern Orleans are thought to be the largest continuous section of this type of soil in the world. To create muck, wetlands must be drained, and because of environmental concerns, it is unlikely that any more mucklands will be created in the United States.

Pat gets into much more detail than that on the museum's Web site, so be sure to check it out. Also, we here at The Batavian — inexcusably in my own estimation — forgot to post a reminder when Number 22 in the countdown was released a couple weeks ago: Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. So go check that out, too.

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