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One summer afternoon when he was 13, Gary Balone’s uncle told him Eden Valley Growers needed someone to load trucks.

“So I hopped on my bike and headed down here, and that’s where I’ve been ever since,” he said.

That was in 1963, and Balone’s entire working career has been at the co-op. He moved up from loading trucks to driving them, then into selling, and eventually into managing one of the oldest vegetable farm cooperatives in the state for the last 30 years.

Farmers will be out planting in the fields later this month, but members of Eden Valley Growers took some time out from planning last week to recognize their longtime general manager for his 50 years of service.

Members of the co-op took the unprecedented step of giving him a share in the co-op. To belong to the cooperative, one must buy a share of stock, and only producers had been allowed to buy shares since it was founded in 1956.

“It was an unprecedented thing to do that,” said co-op member Bill Zittel, but he added, “What do you do for someone who has dedicated his life to it?”

When Eden Valley Growers was founded in 1956, the membership consisted of 23 farms. Through attrition, the co-op now includes 10 member families farming the same amount of acreage, about 1,000 acres, in intensive hand-harvested fresh market vegetables.

Fewer than 100,000 cases of produce were sold in 1956, compared with more than a half million last year. Eden Valley is the oldest food hub in New York State, servicing local retailers and wholesalers in the Western New York area. Vegetables are shipped as far as Florida and Texas during the peak of the season. Using the latest cooling technologies, Eden Valley Growers also provides locally grown produce from May until November each year.

The cooperative also is being certified in global Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, qualifying it to sell produce throughout the world. It’s a certification that some of its customers have asked for, and will hopefully open more markets to the growers.

Locally, Balone helped the growers in the transition from every farm selling at daily markets to the co-op marketing to supermarkets such as Tops and Wegmans, and to James Desiderio Wholesale Produce.

“He’s built up some awesome rapport. When Gary speaks, they listen because they know he’s going to tell the truth,” Zittel said. “In New York State and local area, if it has Eden Valley Growers on the box, you know you’re getting good product.”

Farmers run their own businesses and determine independently what crops they will grow. But there is constant communication among members, who in addition to regular meetings can be in constant radio communication with each other out in the fields. It wasn’t always that way.

Farmers used to compete with each other selling produce at the Clinton Bailey market. Balone helped provide the leadership and structure to show that the farmers were much stronger working together. Today, they are very loyal to the growers and help out one another.

“They’re always right there to help each other,” Balone said. “Instead of being competitors, they’re actually partners.”

email: bobrien@buffnews.com