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February 3, 2022 - 6:42pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Torrey Farms, news, agriculture, farm labor, elba.

Porfirio Gabriel has worked for Torrey Farms in Elba for 13 years and helps the Torreys recruit workers from Mexico, specifically Comachuen, to obtain H2A temporary visas and work planting onions and harvesting squash, cabbage, and beans each year.

These workers, Gabriel told NPR for a recent story about money sent from workers back to Mexico to help support local economies, have helped Comachuen families receive as much as $5 million over three years, by far the town's largest source of income.

These funds sent to Mexico, called remittances, may have exceeded $50 billion for the first time last year, according to the story.

Travis Torrey sent the link to the NPR story to The Batavian noting that as regulators try to limit the number of hours farmer workers can labor each week they're really hurting the people they say they're trying to help.

"I think you can see that coming to WNY to work is their version of the ‘American dream,’" Torrey said. "Everyone that has come here has bettered themselves and families.  The inhumanity is denying them the opportunity.

"Without the farmworkers, there would be no farms," he added. "The same can be said if there are no farms there are no farmworkers."

A week ago, the state's Farm Labor Board, on a 2-1 vote, recommended the overtime threshold for farmworkers be lowered from 60 hours a week to 40 hours a week.

Both farmer-owners and farmworkers have repeatedly spoken out against the rule change over the past few years saying that workers will seek jobs in states that don't restrict potential earnings.

Torrey notes the rule change will hurt workers like Gabriel when they get their hours cut.

From the NPR story:

Gabriel is resigned to working in the United States as long as he can. He sends home about $7,500 each year from what he earns working the fields. That money is largely used to fund his children's education, paying private college fees so his eldest son can be a registered nurse.

His hope is that his children will get university degrees and not have to emigrate. "I am paying for their studies, so that they don't have to do what we had to do," Gabriel says.

June 16, 2021 - 10:32am

luna.jpgA representative of the company looking to build the largest solar project ever in New York State says that building relationships with Town of Elba and Oakfield officials and residents are the keys to finding a path to a finished product that benefits everyone.

Speaking by telephone from his Chicago office last week, Harrison Luna (photo at right), development manager for Hecate (pronounced Heck-A-Tee) Energy, said things are progressing smoothly more than a year after the solar company announced its intention to place a 500-megawatt solar farm on what is now 2,452 acres of farmland in the north portion of the adjoining towns.

On June 3, Hecate Energy filed an application with the New York State Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) to construct the solar system, which Luna said represents a $500 million-plus investment that will create more than 500 construction jobs – and about 12 permanent full-time jobs -- and will be capable of supplying 920,000 megawatt hours of renewable electricity per year.

Luna said he has been impressed with the feedback from governmental leaders in both towns, who have interacted with him through three open houses and numerous other meetings – virtually and in person. He said that he places a high priority on understanding the views and concerns of the local citizens.

“Just from my perspective, the only way these projects really work is when they come with a respect of the communities they deal with – by building relationships in the community,” he said. “You can’t do that without having a conversation, early and often. That’s how we’ve been doing it the whole time.”

COMMUNICATION LINES ARE OPEN

Luna said he has been in constant contact with town officials, landowners and neighbors, noting that there have been three virtual open houses with hundreds of people participating.

He also holds Zoom calls outside of his office hours for people to speak to him, and has set up a dedicated phone number and email address for people to call with questions or concerns. He said he returns those calls and emails as soon as possible.

A press release from Hecate Energy included comments from the Oakfield and Elba town supervisors, with both Matt Martin and Donna Hynes, respectively, giving the company high marks for keeping them informed “every step of the way” and offering a project that will result in significant financial benefits to both municipalities.

When contacted by The Batavian, Martin said that in his town, things are progressing without controversy.

“I had one resident ask about if the town wanted it or didn’t want it and I said, basically, that we have no choice,” he said. “The state dictates what they do with the solar panels; the state is running the show, not us.”

Martin acknowledged that the economic benefits will be significant – likely in the millions for both towns, the Oakfield and Elba school districts and other taxing entities – but said those, too, “are beyond our control.”

“We can publish what those benefits are but I don’t think they’ve got those numbers outlined yet,” he said. “As things progress, we’ll have some more information. Nothing like this moves really fast.”

A call to Hynes has not been returned.

NEW STATE AGENCY CONTROLS THE CLOCK

As far as the timetable is concerned, Luna said that ORES -- the state agency that has replaced the Article 10 permitting process for large-scale renewable projects -- has 60 days to determine whether Hecate Energy’s application is complete. The Cider Solar Farm is the first application submitted under ORES.

“They are set up sort of as a one-stop shop and a point of contact for everybody to work through the permitting items together,” Luna said. “I think the difference there is that in Article 10, interaction with agencies was hectic – you would talk to individual agencies – while here it’s more of a clearinghouse for all of those interactions with the state.”

Once ORES deems the application is complete, there’s a one-year clock it has to work through the various items in order to issue or deny a permit, Luna said. It could stretch beyond that (or move faster) depending upon the application checking all of the boxes.

Luna said once the permit is received, the company would be ready to start construction, hopefully by next summer. Construction is expected to take 18 months.

He said he projects that about 500 full-time equivalent jobs will be created during construction and around a dozen permanent jobs afterward.

“Once it is built, it is relatively low maintenance,” he said, adding that workers will be paid prevailing wage and “that you would expect a concentrated labor force of local residents.”

THIRTY-ONE LANDOWNING ENTITIES

What began as a 4,000-acre proposition has decreased to 2,452 acres, and that’s all by design, Luna said.

Currently, 31 landowning entities (controlling 67 parcels) have options to lease their land to Hecate Energy, with a few of them being different entities controlled by the same family.

The major landowners are Call Farms Inc., with more than 1,000 acres, along with Norton Farms (approximately 600 acres), Offhaus Farms Inc. (approximately 500 acres), and Eugene Bezon (approximately 300 acres).

Others with around 100 acres are Big O Realty LLC; CY Properties; Gene H. Sharp; David Shuknecht; and Lynn Shuknecht.

CLICK HERE for a complete list of landowners of record. Note that the acreage totals may have changed due to the “honing” process.

“The way that works is originally we went and sought options and lease agreements for 4,000 acres of land,” Luna said. “The reason we start that big is to give us enough room to move with the desires of the community and hone that project to the best possible version it could be. Over time, as we’ve listened to the community on certain things – how far it sets back from the road and various other concerns – we start pulling back and honing it to something much smaller.”

He called it a “useful exercise” -- one that considers protected wetlands and endangered species.

In the case of the Cider Solar Farm, less than 2/10ths of an acre of state-regulated wetlands has been permanently impacted, he said.

NAAS: PROPERTY OWNERS HAVE A CHOICE

genesee_bruce_nass_1.jpgBruce Naas (photo at right), president of the Genesee County Farm Bureau, has signed an option to lease 60 acres of land on Naas Farms LLC on Lockport Road in Oakfield for the solar project.

“My opinion has always been, if you own the property, it’s not like I am going to tell somebody else what do to with it,” Naas said. “If it is something that benefits you and your family in the long-term plan, then it’s something … it’s a decision that you have to make.”

Naas said the land that he is leasing is a small portion of the family farm, which grows vegetables, soybeans, corn and wheat.

“We here at our farm, elected to put the poorer ground into solar. It would not generate the income that we have been offered by the solar company – growing row crops. So, for us, it’s strictly a business decision.”

He said he hopes that solar works out in the long run.

“My biggest fear with solar is that it is something I would assume as time goes on would become more efficient … I hope as we move forward, that these things don’t become obsolete before their lifespan,” he said. “I guess from the sounds of it, it is an objective that the governor and political leaders want us to meet, and either you say ‘Yes’ or the train passes you by.”

Naas mentioned the economic advantages for the community, but added that his “biggest concern was that I have to look it at for the rest of my career.”

The farm bureau has no official position on solar, Naas said, reiterating his stance that it is the property owners’ choice “unless it directly affects someone else.”

A call to Call Farms for comment from one of the owners was not returned.

MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN THE PIPELINE

Just as the public has seen with the Excelsior Energy Project in the Town of Byron, where the taxing jurisdictions stand to gain millions over the 20-year term of the agreement, the towns of Elba and Oakfield, their school districts, special fire districts, Genesee County and the Haxton Memorial Library will reap financial rewards.

The landowners receive direct compensation through their lease agreements (which generally are believed to pay between $500 and $2,000 per acre per year).

“Our goal is to try to make sure everyone benefits; everyone in the community as well as the company as well as the State of New York as well as landowners,” Luna said. “We want it to be positive for everybody involved.”

Towns and other interested parties also have access to $500,000 in intervener funds – money made available to help towns and groups/individuals evaluate the impact of the project.

“Local people have a voice in this and they will coordinate with ORES as it makes funding available over the next two month to the towns and other interveners,” Luna said. “The towns can use that to get their heads around what exactly is going on. Towns request the amount they need or want, ORES takes a look at every intervener funding request and allocates that funding to the towns and other pertinent entities – with the towns having first place in line.”

Luna did not speak to whether Hecate Energy would be applying for tax incentives or payment in lieu of taxes through the Genesee County Economic Development Center, stating that the process has yet to reach that stage.

DISCOUNT ON CONSUMERS’ ELECTRIC BILLS

He did point out that every resident of Elba and Oakfield will receive a direct utility bill reduction in connection with the project.

“We will send money to the utility that they must take off people’s monthly utility bills … for the first 10 years,” he said. “We pay a fixed amount per year to be distributed to town residents. It will probably about $100 per year for each resident, but that will be determined.”

Luna, responding to a question about the flow of electricity from the system, said power generated on the grid flows to the nearest user of electricity.

“It will be used as close to as it is generated as there is demand for it,” he said, adding that the system would produce enough electricity to power all of Genesee County “and then a little bit more.”

Hecate Energy has entered into a Renewable Energy Credit (REC) contract with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Luna said.

“We sell environmental benefits of the project, which are tracked using these objects called RECs,” he said. “We’ll sell those under contract to the state, or NYSERDA, where they get to retire them and take credit for the ‘green’ goals that the state has – which are quite ambitious.”

He said his company seeks to demonstrate that it is meeting the state’s goals.

“It’s not a contract to sell the power. We’re not selling power; we’re capacity to the state,” he added. “We can sell the power under this contract to the open market so that any user of electricity that is eligible to buy electricity, we can sell it flexibly.”

TORREY MARSHALL: WE CHOOSE TO FARM

maureen-torrey_2.jpgLuna said he has encountered no organized opposition – “I’m knocking on wood as I’m saying that,” he noted – and attributes that to the level of interaction thus far.

“I think it’s a real difference when you’re generally putting these communities first in your mind when you doing anything. I think people can tell. I think it’s really important if people really care about communities when they do these things as it really makes everything a lot better,” he said.

While that may be true, not everyone is thrilled that solar has become such a hot commodity at the expense of farming.

Maureen Torrey Marshall (photo at right) of Torrey Farms, a major agricultural enterprise in Elba and surrounding towns, said she thinks “it’s sad that solar panels are the most viable crop that farmers can grow.”

“Well, you can’t fault anybody because they can’t get that type of return by growing any crops, but it all goes back to New York State,” she said. “I’m on the (Elba) town board and we’re going to try to get as much (money) as we can, but you can’t fault anybody. The town and the school need to benefit as much as they can from this.”

She said that solar is going to change the look of the community – and it’s not about to stop in Elba and Oakfield.

“That is what is going to happen down in the valley along (Interstate) 390, near Mount Morris – all that beautiful farmland in that area. That’s all going to be solar,” she said. “New York has placed a priority on green energy and it has just steamrolled.”

Torrey Marshall said her operation is not leasing land to the project.

“You get letters – these companies are just coming out of the woodwork. To be honest, all of Route 98 going to the Thruway could be solar panels,” she said. “It’s our choice and our choice is to farm.

“Elba has survived on agriculture ever since it was founded. Then you have people saying that this is so great. It’s sad that this is the best viable use for your land right now.”

ZUBER: TAKING FOOD OUT OF OUR MOUTHS

Eric Zuber, of Byron, part of the organized opposition to the Excelsior Energy Project, said he owns farmland on the fringes of the Cider Solar Farm but is not signed up to lease any land.

“The quality of ground they are taking in that one is not the quality of the ground here. It’s productive soil but it isn’t the soil that is being taken for the project in Byron,” he said. “Still, I think all of these projects on farmland are stupid. I think, if I had the right type of guys come in here, they could prove that it will create more carbon than it’s going to prevent.”

Hecate Energy contends that the Elba/Oakfield solar system is projected to offset more than 420,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of taking over 92,000 average cars off the road annually.

Zuber said he is on board with smaller solar farms on side yards or on roofs of homes, “but when they start doing these big projects, they’re taking the food out of people’s mouths.”

“Go to the grocery store and buy food. What has it done in the last six months? You need another $50 in your pocket to buy your groceries,” he said. “All they’re doing is making people hungrier and making the poor people poorer.”

THE BEST APPLE CIDER IS HERE

Luna acknowledged that not everyone is on board with solar panels along country roads.

“There are always some people who aren’t really excited, which is natural for a project of this scale,” he said. “What we do in that case, which again I think is really positive, is try to interact directly with those people and have one-on-one conversations – because sometimes we can help. If they’re concerned that they will be looking at panels all day, we can put visual screening there that mitigates that visual impact. That can make people feel more comfortable in many cases.”

He said Hecate Energy is committed to community involvement and will be looking at opportunities as the project progresses.

The solar company is hosting a fire training for first responders in Elba and Oakfield next Monday night (June 21) at the Elba Firemen’s Recreation Hall in the village. Luna said it will be a comprehensive training in the event of solar fires or emergency situations in various applications – not just large-scale, ground-mounted systems.

So, as indicated, the clock is ticking on the Cider Solar Farm, a unique name for the project that came into Luna’s mind as he drank a glass of local apple cider.

“Funny enough, the first time I came up to town – I’m not exactly sure where it was – I was on the road looking for land that was suitable and getting prepared for meetings with landowners when I bought some apple cider at some place … and I said that this is the best cider I ever had,” he said. “I’m from Tennessee. I don’t know if it’s something about the climate or something else, but maybe our apples aren’t quite as good. But I really enjoyed the cider.”

Hence the name, Cider Solar Farm.

May 1, 2020 - 1:10pm

Press release:

The Northeast Dairy Producers Association (NEDPA) today announced that farms and co-ops located across Upstate New York have donated more than 34,000 pounds of milk, beef, fruit and vegetables to fellow New Yorkers in need. 

In addition to the NY-sourced milk and food, packets of crayons and coloring books for kids have also been donated, and were made available to families today, May 1, at Senator Jessica Ramos’ district office in East Elmhurst, Queens.

The following donations were made possible by a partnership between Senator Ramos and a number of New York State farms:

  • 300 pounds of beef donated by La Casa De Leche Farm (Livingston County) and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association.
  • 1,700 gallons of milk donated by Dairy Farmers of America.
  • 20,000 apples equaling 5,700 pounds donated by Farm Fresh First Inc., which markets NY apples from more than 100 apple growers throughout the state.
  • 14,000 pounds of onions, 8,000 pounds of potatoes and 4,000 pounds of cabbage donated by Torrey Farms Inc. (Genesee County) and the New York State Vegetable Growers Association
  • 2,880 pounds of blueberry and vanilla parfait yogurt donated by Upstate Niagara Cooperative Inc., a dairy cooperative located in Western New York.
  • 575 packs of Prang Crayons made with soybean oil donated by the New York Corn & Soybean Growers Association, along with coloring books sponsored by New York dairy farmers and donated through American Dairy Association North East.

On Wednesday, a truck left Western New York packed with beef, vegetables, fruit, yogurt, crayons and coloring books. The truck stopped at Dean Foods in Rensselaer County to pick up 1,700 gallons of milk and arrived in Queens yesterday.

Many areas in Senate District 13, including Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Corona and parts of Woodside and Astoria — are considered food deserts, making it difficult to obtain fresh meals. Additionally, there are few local food pantries that remain open in the area as many residents have fallen ill with COVID-19. 

The donations of food, milk, crayons and coloring books were distributed to families in need today. A hot meal distribution will also take place on Saturday, May 2 at Senator Ramos’ office. 

“In addition to the unspeakable loss of life caused by the coronavirus pandemic, two additional devastating tragedies are unfolding during this crisis — a spike in hunger as the economic pain takes its toll, and the breakdown of our food supply chain,” Senator Ramos said.

“We cannot have hungry families in New York City, and farmers Upstate dumping their product because they cannot sell it. Together with our farmer partners, we created our own network, and we will convert our district office into a food distribution hub to provide our neighbors with fresh produce and meals.” 

Northeast Dairy Producers Association Vice Chair and Owner of La Casa De Leche Farm (Livingston County) Keith Kimball said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all -- our families, our businesses and the greater New York community.

"By pooling resources and working together to adapt to unprecedented market disruption, we’re able to get milk, beef and produce in the hands of those in need. I’m proud to partner with farmers, co-ops and processors across the state to make this donation a reality, and thankful to Senator Ramos for hosting the event for families in Queens.”

Maureen Torrey, co-owner of Torrey Farms Inc. in Genesee County, said, “Thanks to the passionate employees on our family farm and our dedicated truck drivers, we’re able to donate 26,000 pounds of vegetables to families in need, including onions that Senator Ramos helped us plant last year.

"This public health crisis has changed life as we know it, but what we’ve learned is that no matter where you live -- Buffalo, Plattsburgh, New York City and everywhere in between -- we’re all New Yorkers -- and together We are New York Tough.” 

(File photo of Maureen Torrey taken in 2013.)

Northeast Dairy Producers Association (NEDPA) is an organization of dairy producers and industry partners committed to an economically viable, consumer-conscious dairy industry dedicated to the care and well-being of our communities, environment, employees and cows.

April 25, 2017 - 9:06pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Torrey Farms, agriculture, elba, business, news.

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Maureen Torrey, co-owner of Torrey Farms in Elba, was at the White House today along with other representatives of the country's farmers, for the signing by President Donald J. Trump of an executive order aimed at boosting agriculture and rural communities (Full text of the order).

Torrey said the farmers also met with the president and his staff and there was a productive, positive discussion about labor, infrastructure, research, trade, NAFTA, Canada and Western NY dairy.

Torrey is pictured on the far left, back row.

UPDATE: Here's a related press release from the NYS Farm Bureau:

New York dairy and vegetable farmer, Maureen Torrey from Genesee County, joined 13 other farmers from across the country for a roundtable discussion yesterday with President Donald Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall was a part of the discussion as well on issues the White House believes are most pressing for American agriculture.

Following the roundtable, President Trump signed an executive order that acknowledges a reliable, safe, and affordable food, fiber and forestry supply is critical to America’s national security, stability and prosperity. The order also establishes an interagency task force, to be chaired by Secretary Perdue, charged with identifying legislative, regulatory and policy changes that would enhance American agriculture, rural economic development, job growth, infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, energy security and quality of life in rural America. The report from the task force is due within 180 days.

“It is an honor to have a representative of New York agriculture invited to play an integral role in the roundtable discussion at the White House,” said David Fisher, New York Farm Bureau President.  “Farm Bureau looks forward to working with the administration and Congress on issues like trade, farm labor and regulatory reform, with the goal of boosting American agriculture and increasing access to New York-grown food.”

The event is an historic occasion, as it is believed the last time a group of farmers met with a U.S. president this early in an administration was prior to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  

It followed the swearing-in of newly confirmed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. New York Farm Bureau is supportive of Secretary Perdue and is pleased to see him finally in place as the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Secretary Perdue is one of us. He grew up on a dairy farm, raised row crops, and was an agri-business owner. It is important to have someone in this position who understands trade, immigration and a whole host of other issues that are vital to a farmer’s success. Secretary Perdue spoke about having the opportunity to visit New York during his confirmation hearing, and New York Farm Bureau would like to personally invite him to our great state to showcase the opportunities and challenges that exist for our diverse membership,” said Fisher.

January 11, 2017 - 4:21pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in elba, agriculture, Torrey Farms, news.

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Members of the Elba Lancers Girls Basketball teams, varsity and JV, wore T-shirts at their games Tuesday night in Attica to honor Jordyn M. Augello.

Augello, 30, died of cancer Monday just months after giving birth while going through cancer treatment. She coached many of the girls as a youth coach as they came up through the Elba program in fifth and sixth grade.

She is the daughter of Mark Torrey and was a partner in Torrey Farms. She leaves behind a husband, Charles Augello, and children Carmine Frank and Frances Mary. She was a 2009 graduate of Cornell University.

For her full obituary, click here.

Team photos courtesy Tom Redband.

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November 25, 2016 - 3:24pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Torrey Farms, elba, fire, news, agriculture.

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In farming, there's little time to dwell on losses and already the Torreys are moving on after a fire caused more than $3 million in losses to their Big O Farms onion packing and storage facility in Elba yesterday.

They're still shipping onions from two other facilities they own and making plans to replace the equipment lost in yesterday's fire.

"That’s what we’ve got to do," said Mark Torrey, who stopped by the scene of the fire at 5520 N. Byron Road this afternoon to meet an insurance adjuster. "That’s what keeps you going today. We got up this morning and had to figure it out. We had loads we had to get out today. We had to figure out how to get them out. We actually started working on that yesterday afternoon."

There were three lines of onion-packing equipment in the building, Torrey said. Some of the equipment was installed within the past year. The property is assessed at more than $400,000 and each line costs more than a half-million-dollars each.

"It's not something you can just buy off the shelf," Torrey said.

Most of the equipment is manufactured in Europe, so even if suppliers have already assembled the parts, it will take some time to get everything to Elba and get it installed.

Meanwhile, the Torreys still have onions from this season's crop to get to market and some 70 employees to keep working.

A few employees posted on Facebook about how sad they were about the fire and praised the Torreys as good people to work for.

"A lot of these people have worked for us for a long time," Torrey said. "They’re working in the other places (today), but yeah, we’ve got a lot of good employees and you try to treat them right."

The fire may have started with a tractor that was stored on the southeast corner of the building and had its engine block plugged into an electric socket to keep it from freezing. Nearly every fire department in the county, along with companies from Monroe and Orleans counties, responded to the Thanksgiving Day fire. There is reportedly a community effort underway to organize an event to recognize the volunteers.

Local contractor Vito J. Gautieri also was at the facility today. He built the plant in 1958 for the Ognibene family. He came with a model of a truss used in the main arched barn. The county's online property database doesn't list the size of the facility. Gautieri said it was greatly expanded from what he originally built, but he estimated the entire space to be about 25,000 square feet.

"It's the first building I ever built that burned down," Gautieri said.

Torrey acknowledged it's a difficult loss, but that the business will continue as usual.

"This is a big set back, but we’ve still got people, we’ve got product we’ve got to pack," Torrey said. "You’ve just got to get doing it and that sort of keeps your mind off of this today."

Previously:

November 24, 2016 - 8:04pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in elba, fire, Torrey Farms, agriculture, news.

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It's been more than 12 hours since the first alarm sounded for a barn fire at  5520 N. Byron Road in Elba and volunteer firefighters are still on scene.

On Thanksgiving Day.

It was a massive fire. It consumed the entire onion packing and storage facility owned by the Torrey family. It's a facility that 15 years ago was owned by the Ognibene family, hence the name of the business location, "Big O Farms."

The facility is just a mile or so north on Transit Road from the Elba Mucklands, where the Torreys are one of the largest onion growers in the county.

Family members told firefighters that most of the recent season's crop was stored at other locations, so while about 1,000 crates of onions were lost, most of this season's harvest was not in the building.

What was in the building was all of the company's sorting and packing machines, all of which were destroyed in the fire.

"Obviously, these agriculture-design buildings have no built-in protection systems, so that’s a game changer for us," said Tim Yaeger, emergency management coordinator. "Then not having the adequate water supply for us initially, we were playing catch-up the entire time."

Clearly, the fire started in the southeast corner of the building. The cause, however, is unknown. Yaeger said investigators will look at electrical and equipment as the potential spark that lit the inferno. 

Elba crews were first on scene and started an exterior attack. Yaeger said that it's possible even by that time, given the wide-open spaces inside the building, the fire could have spread extensively.

It didn't take long for flames to reach the west end of the building, and a short time later, five- and six-foot high flames could be seen flitting through the roof.

Heavy equipment was brought in to knock down walls and open holes in the roof to help firefighters get water onto the fire.

But all morning, the water supply was a major obstacle to fighting the fire.

There was only one low-volume fire hydrant in the area, so as many as 20 tankers were called in from four counties to help shuttle water from fill sites (ponds, generally) and to porta-ponds set up on North Byron Road.

"Some of the primary fill sites weren’t adequate because of the drought we had this past summer so they had to establish and look for other fill sites, which unfortunately were further away," Yaeger said. "Some points were four, five, six miles away."

While nobody wants to be dragged away from friends, family, parades and football to fight a fire on Thanksgiving Day, the timing of the fire had one benefit: plenty of manpower. Many volunteers were home today instead of at work on a typical Thursday.

"I was fearful on the way here when the alarm came in, you know, people go away, go to visit family, a lot people go out of town, so I was concerned about what our manpower situation was going to be," Yaeger said. "Surprisingly, it may have worked in our favor. We had more than adequate manpower."

Every fire company in Genesee County was mobilized in some way for the fire. If the department wasn't on scene, and most of them were, they were acting as standby or fill-in for the departments who did respond.

Responding from the county included Elba, Byron, South Byron, Bergen, Oakfield, Stafford, Alabama, Alexander, Le Roy, East Pembroke, Bethany, Pembroke and Indian Falls, with Darien and Pavilion placed on standby or fill-in.

Departments from Orleans County, including Albion and Barre, responded, as well as Brockport from Monroe County and inmates from Wyoming Correctional Facility.

All volunteers, all giving up all or a portion of their Thanksgiving to fight a fire.

But Yaeger suggested we not concentrate on the sacrifice of the volunteers.

"It’s difficult, but our hearts and thoughts go out to the business owner," Yaeger said. "That’s the primary concern. We don’t ever want to see this kind of destruction. It’s a total loss. That’s our real thought. For the firefighters, to be away from their families is difficult, but that’s what we do. In times of need, the fire services have got to be there and we were. It’s unfortunate it was today."

Previously: 

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November 24, 2016 - 2:32pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in fire, elba, news, agriculture, Torrey Farms.

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Photos from the fire that broke out about 7:30 a.m., today, at Big O Farms, a property of Torrey Farms, where onions are processed.

We'll have more coverage later. Initial coverage, here.

Give thanks for our volunteer firefighters.

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December 10, 2013 - 10:00am
posted by Howard B. Owens in business, agriculture, elba, Torrey Farms, Genesee County Farms.

This is the fifth in our series on Genesee County's farms and farmers. For previous stories, click here. (Obviously, I started this story in late fall and am only now publishing it. I've got one other story that I started at the same time as this and hope to finish in the next week).

When you farm 11,000 acres -- growing cucumbers, green beans, zucchini, yellow squash, cabbage, pumpkins, winter squash, onions, potatoes, carrots and tending milk cows -- you always have something to sell.

Whether you always have a buyer is another matter.

Each work day -- spring, summer, fall and winter -- Maureen Torrey arrives at the main office of Torrey Farms in Elba at 8 a.m. to start marketing the products grown on the farmland owned by her and her brothers John and Mark.

She talks to potential buyers not just in the Northeast, but as far away as Texas and California, trying to get the best price, and sometimes just trying to set a reasonable price, to move perishables before they spoil.

Torrey is a graduate of Iowa State University with a degree in journalism. She was a Cornell Extension agent for awhile then worked in merchandising for Chiquita for four years. The merchandising job gave her a taste of how she could contribute to the family farm.

"I realized I really liked the wheeling and dealing," Torrey said. "The markets are different every day. It's all by your gut. You're looking at weather patterns and what's available and what your gut is telling you. You look at whether to raise the market or lower the market and look at who's short around the country."

The roots of Torrey Farms goes back to the founding of the nation. In 1626, the Torrey family left England and settled in Connecticut. But the rocky soil of The Nutmeg State wasn't great cropland, so as pioneers moved West, so did the Torreys, looking for better farmland.

John Torrey arrived in Bethany in 1803, and while there are still Torreys farming in the Bethany area, Torrey Farms as we know it today began in 1948 when Elbert Torrey, the grandfather of Maureen, John and Mark, purchased the 375-acre Higley Farm in Elba.

Don't let the size of today's Torrey Farms fool you -- it's as much a family farm as the one with 100 acres and 40 cows. Besides the three offspring of Charles Torrey running operations today, Mark's children also work in management roles on the farm.

Jed is charge of grain crops, Travis, daily labor, Lucus, harvest and planting, Shannon, marketing and sales, Molly, human resources and Jordon in accounting and marketing.

"We're very much a hands-on operation," said Maureen, whose three daughters are all in college. Jill is at Cornell, Julie is at Florida State and former Elba Onion Queen Jamie is a freshman at the University of Arkansas.

The farm employs 80 workers throughout the four seasons and brings in as many as 220 workers for the spring through the early fall.

Most employees, as is the case in agriculture throughout the United States, are migrants and immigrants.

After the weather -- if not before -- ensuring the farm has enough labor to plant and harvest is the biggest difficulty Torrey Farms faces. Both John and Maureen agree on that point.

"More than 70 percent of all the food in this country is planted and grown by immigrants," Maureen said. "That's pretty significant. Without them, we'd be pretty hungry."

Yet, there's an endless supply of politicians in Washington -- and it's been this way since the 1980s --  seemingly intent on trying to make it as difficult as possible for farms to get the labor they need to feed Americans.

"Our biggest challenge is the labor, the immigration issue," John said. "You're always going to have the variables of the weather, but the last several years, what we're most uneasy about is immigration."

Fighting against hard-headed politicians in Washington has put Maureen Torrey on a national stage. She's testified before Congress and worked with both labor and agricultural groups trying to bring about sensible immigration reform.

It hasn't been easy.

"We're trying to get some people in Congress to stand up and be fair and do what needs to be done for the country," Maureen said. "They need to make strong decisions and stop worrying about elections. They hear from some advocacy groups, from people who are well organized and use social media and send tons of letters, but they need to look at the meat of the issue and see what it means for the country and who is doing the work and how it's getting done.

"We've always got to educate a new batch of congressmen," Maureen added.

Like just about any farmer you talk to, the Torreys have tried hiring native-born workers, but it never works out. After six hours, maybe two days, the domestic workers leave or don't come back.

The work is hard and dirty, and there are too many handouts from the government to it make worthwhile for citizens stoop and bend in farm fields.

Misinformation spread about immigrants sucking money from that same social services system is what drives border crack downs and makes it harder for farmers to bring in crops, Maureen said. People come here from Mexico to work, Torrey said, not collect welfare.

And often their wages get poured back into the local economy.

"They talk about (immigrants in) the schools, but this farm land and our housing all generate school taxes," Maureen said. "They're also the best shoppers for our retailers. Three weeks ago, 42 brand-new TVs went back on the bus to Mexico. Talk to the store owners in Albion. They love these guys. It makes their business for them."

September 19, 2013 - 3:21pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in business, agriculture, elba, Torrey Farms.

Torrey Farms is being honored Oct. 1 with the 2013 Grower Achievement Award by United Fresh, a growers' association.

One of county's largest farms, the Torreys are being recognized for grower operations that strive to grow and market high-quality produce while contributing to the good of the industry.

Maureen Torrey has become a strong advocate in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere for public policies that protect farmers and promote agriculture.

She has testified before the House Committee on Agriculture regarding the farm bill and immigration policy.

Last year, for example, Torrey Farms lost 92 of 100 employees working in the packing shed following an I-9 audit. 

"The employees we lost averaged about 18 years of experience," Torrey told United Fresh. "Now we have to build it up from scratch."

The award will be given at the United Fresh annual Washington Public Policy Conference.

At the conference, produce industry leaders from across the supply chain meet with congressional lawmakers and their staff, as well as officials from the Food and Drug Administration to discuss policy issues that affect the agriculture industry.

(via OrleansHub)

July 16, 2011 - 10:26am
posted by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, Torrey Farms, kathy hochul.

Genesee County's farms are facing some of the same difficulties hitting farmers across the nation -- a combination of increased use of E-verify, bureaucratic difficulties with H-2A visas, a dwindling supply of immigrant labor and few U.S. citizens willing to do the work, making it difficult to bring crops in on time.

The confluence of events led to an unusual meeting in Washington, D.C., this past week, organized for Rep. Lois Slaughter (D-Fairport), with participation from Rep. Kathy Hochul and one of Genesee County's farmers, Maureen Torrey.

Torrey, owner of Torrey Farms, said the meeting was the first time high-level representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor, congressional representatives and famers have been able to sit down and discuss immigration issues.

The meeting lasted longer than planned, going two hours.

"Some of the old-timers there were surprised at some of the responses that we got," Torrey said. "We do think maybe there might be some improvement."

Hochul also said the meeting was productive and a unique opportunity to bring together two sides -- the DOL and farmers -- who are historically adversarial. 

"There is so much bureaucratic red tape it that it becomes a challenge for the farmers to get the workers they need," Hochul said. "These are people who are playing by the rules and they deserve all the help they can get from the government."

Torrey said the way the H-2A visa program is handled can really jeopardize the ability of farmers to harvest crops at the right time.

For example, she said, apples need to be picked on just the right day and pickers need to be experienced at recognizing the right color and firmness to pick apples at the right time, as well as be able to handle them properly to avoid damaging the fruit.

U.S. citizens, Torrey said, typically don't want the jobs and they lack the experience and training necessary to do the job properly.

Farmers want to be able bring back the same workers year after year to ensure they have the best labor force.

H-2A visas can be held up for a variety of reasons -- mistakes in the multiple pages of paperwork, a barely missed deadline, or a bureaucrat snafu can delay approval past harvest time.

Torrey said that a farmer might submit a batch of applications, have one disapproved and then face getting the entire batch rejected if she appeals just the one disapproval.

Hochul said the situation is just unacceptable.

"Some of the fields can’t be brought to market in time because they don't have enough popele to harvest the crops," Hochul said.

While the H-2A program requires that farmers first seek qualified labor among U.S. citizens, Torrey said few American ever respond to the required job listings.

In states such as Georgia, Florida and Alabama, where state legislatures have mandated use of a program called E-verify to check the legal status of workers, crops have been left to rot in the fields because there's been no workers available.

Torrey said even the DOL admits there are only about 50,000 qualified legal agricultural workers in the United States, but the annual demand is for 900,000 to one million workers.

Torrey said even Darien Lake Theme Park has trouble filling all of its season worker positions with citizen workers. The park hires about 300 foreign students  on J-1 visas.

"If Darien Lake needs 300 people on J-1 visas, it just shows you there are not enough people to take these jobs," Torrey said. "And that's fun work compared to working in a field."

Until there is a sustainable guest worker program, Torrey said, farmers are going to struggle to fill positions at harvest time.

A guest worker program has been under negotiation for 16 years, Torrey said, and while it wasn't the topic of the meeting organized by Slaughter, Torrey did attend a meeting on the subject while in D.C.

Meanwhile, according to a recent story in  The New York Times, the immigrant labor pool from Mexico is drying up. As economic and educational opportunities improve in Mexico, and the Baby Boom population that fueled the big illegal immigration moves in previous decades is getting older, there are fewer workers willing to take the risk of coming to America for work.

It's all of these forces pushing down the labor pool that made the meetings in Washington so important, Torrey said, and why she's glad they seemed so productive.

"It was really positive," Torrey said. "It is not only going to help Genesee County, but it's going to help farmers all across the country who are having the same issues, so our peers were really happy these meetings took place."

May 8, 2011 - 5:05pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in elba, Torrey Farms, tractors.

It's a family tradition, and has been for 12 years.

On the first weekend in May, the Esten family hosts antique tractor enthusiasts for two days of plowing on land owned by Torrey Farms off Oak Orchard Road in Elba.

The tradition started one year when Louis Esten and one of his sons took out one of their old tractors for some plowing and Louis, who had heard of similar activities in other states, thought why not host a "plow days" event.

So Esten approached John Torrey about the idea.

"It's nice to have the Torreys let us use this land," Esten said.

Those who enjoy antique tractors come from towns throughout the region.

This year, though, not much plowing got done. After all the rain we've had, the fields were too soggy. At one point today, Esten said, it took two tractors to pull out another one that got stuck in the mud.

"Normally, this whole field is plowed by now," Esten said, pointing to a northern plot that shows only a few passes of a plow.

Esten said his wife, Ginger, sons Mike, 29, Nick, 27 and Matt, 24, are a big part of getting the weekend organized, which includes manning booths in a barn for local community groups.

Pictured above are, Louis, Ginger, Mandy, Ayden, Nick, Mary, and on the back of the tractor, Chuck (Louis's brother), Josh, Memphis and Nathan.

I discovered the antique tractor plow days yesterday afternoon, arriving at the farm when nobody was around. I took several pictures of tractors and then headed back today and met Louis and his family and took a few more pictures.

More pictures after the jump:

May 26, 2009 - 11:51pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in elba, Torrey Farms.

I shot this video around 2:15 p.m. following the ammonia leak at Torrey Farms today.  It was a busy afternoon and evening, so it's only now ready for posting. The original breaking news post is here.

May 26, 2009 - 11:16am
posted by Howard B. Owens in elba, Torrey Farms.

UPDATE 12:45 p.m.: Tim Yaeger, emergency coordinator, just informed dispatch that the leak was closed 7 minutes ago.

Original report continues below ...

A "major" ammonia leak has been reported at Torrey Farms, 7170 Norton Road and hazmat has been dispatched.

A first-responder said, "Two valves on this tank that need to be shut off, but no way can we get near it."

He also reported it's a 15 ton cylinder "just going wild."

The wind is 16 m.p.h. out of the east. 

Norton Road has been closed.

UPDATE 11:55 a.m.  There's no new information at this time. Emergency teams are on scene. No report yet on the status of the leak. No indication of the situation getting worse.

UPDATE:  The media isn't being let into the scene, which isn't surprising. I'm not planning on going out there unless and until there is a press conference.

UPDATE: Here's what the State's health department site says about Ammonia:

How is ammonia used?
About 80% of the ammonia produced by industry is used in agriculture as fertilizer. Ammonia is also used as a refrigerant gas, for purification of water supplies, and in the manufacture of plastics, explosives, textiles, pesticides, dyes and other chemicals. It is found in many household and industrial-strength cleaning solutions. Household ammonia cleaning solutions are manufactured by adding ammonia gas to water and can be between 5 and 10% ammonia. Ammonia solutions for industrial use may be concentrations of 25% or higher and are corrosive.

How can people be exposed to ammonia?
Most people are exposed to ammonia from inhalation of the gas or vapors. Since ammonia exists naturally and is also present in cleaning products, exposure may occur from these sources. The widespread use of ammonia on farms and in industrial and commercial locations also means that exposure can occur from an accidental release or from a deliberate terrorist attack.

Anhydrous ammonia gas is lighter than air and will rise, so that generally it dissipates and does not settle in low-lying areas. However, in the presence of moisture (such as high relative humidity), the liquefied anhydrous ammonia gas forms vapors that are heavier than air. These vapors may spread along the ground or into low-lying areas with poor airflow where people may become exposed.


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