HARTLAND – Some say the slogan for modern farming is “Get big or get out.”
Oscar and Melinda Vizcarra of Becker Farms have certainly answered the call.
The couple took a family farm that was down to a few tart cherry trees in 1979 and transformed it into a powerhouse business that draws tens of thousands of visitors a year while selling everything from berries to beer – almost all of it produced on the 340-acre Quaker Road spread.
Earlier this month, Becker Farms was honored as Business of the Year by the New York State Agricultural Society.
“We pioneered agricultural retail. At the time, I don’t think I knew any [farmers] who did the retail like we did,” Oscar said.
Whether it’s allowing visitors to pick apples or bringing crowds to their winery, their brewery and their two on-site wedding venues, it seems like everything the couple has tried has succeeded.
Well, almost everything. The pear and peach trees didn’t work out, being susceptible to frost and simply not as profitable as apples.
The reasons for not growing pears are an example of the couple’s hardheaded Ivy League business sense.
“They cost as much to grow as apples, but the yield is 40 percent less than apples,” Oscar said last week. “And when was the last time you bought pears?”
Oscar, 61, said the secret to successful business growth is listening to customers. He walks around the grounds on crowded days, talking or just listening to their reactions without identifying himself.
“Nobody knows who the owner is. I wear my jeans,” Oscar said. “I do my homework. I’m sensitive to what people want.”
For example, many men who came to Becker Farms said wine-tasting was fine for their wives, but they’d rather have a beer.
A meeting at a New York Farm Bureau conference in Albany with Tim Herzog, owner of the Buffalo microbrewery Flying Bison Brewing Co., led to the answer: fruit-flavored beers, made by Flying Bison but sold only on tap at Becker Farms.
The beers were a hit. On a weekend in September or October, the farm’s busiest months, it’s not unusual to kill 40 kegs.
“Tim told me the only business that sells more beer than us [in the fall] is the Buffalo Bills,” Oscar said. “He said, ‘We’re making your beer, and we can’t keep up.’ ”
Eventually, the Becker Brewing Co. will make its own beer. But for now, hard cider from the farm’s own apples is the only homemade item in the brewery.
Steps away from the kegs is the wine outlet for Vizcarra Vineyards, which since 2004 has been turning out wine from grapes grown on the premises – ranging from Merlot to Pinot Grigio – and a wide variety of fruit wines, too. They now produce 4,000 to 5,000 gallons a year, but the wines aren’t sold outside Western New York.
Oscar said, “We don’t market them as well as we could, because we have the philosophy that retail directly to the consumer has been our approach since Day One, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Niagara County’s white wines are generally rated higher than the reds, but the Vizcarras have been seeking an answer to that problem, too,
They are planting Frontenac, a variety of red wine grape developed in Minnesota that is supposed to withstand cold winters better than typical reds.
They’re not afraid to try out new varieties of the fruit they already grow in other fields, either. Although the farm already grows 20 acres of apples, including almost every variety you can think of, the Vizcarras are adding to their apple crops two new creations of the Cornell fruit labs, dubbed “New York 1” and “New York 2.”
It fits into the homegrown ethos that has inspired the Vizcarras ever since they met at the State University of New York at Delhi in the late 1970s and transferred to Cornell University together.
“I was going to school for international agriculture. I wanted to aid Third World countries,” Melinda said. “It was the ’70s, you know? I traveled around after high school and I realized that I really did like agriculture.”
“Farming was idealistic. It was the hippie times, ‘go back to nature’ kind of thing,” Oscar recalled. “She encouraged me to study farming. One of the things I wanted to do was go back to Westchester County and do landscape architecture. She encouraged me, ‘Why don’t you do something that not only rich people can use, something more useful for humanity?’ ”
And Melinda knew just the place: the farm founded by her great-great-grandfather in 1894. Melinda Perry, whose mother’s maiden name was Becker, grew up at Becker Farms, but her father worked at General Motors and kept the farm going, a little bit.
“When I came around, I took this more seriously and began to develop it into something more interesting,” said Oscar, who was born in Lima, Peru.
His mother sent him to the U.S. at age 16 with the hopes that he might be able to get a better education.
They had no relatives in New York, but Oscar was able to live with a friend of a friend of his mother’s and graduate from high school in Westchester.
They started by planting U-pick strawberries in a field which is now the parking lot. “We had a small-fruit professor [at Cornell] who said, ‘You can make a living on a small farm is you sell directly to the public,’ ” Melinda recalled. “My senior thesis was [on] a pick-your-own farm.”
Besides the fruit farming, the farm features goats, chickens, pigs, alpacas and horses. They used to have sheep, but shearing them was too much of a chore. “Alpacas are a much easier maintenance animal than sheep,” Oscar said.
Their chickens produce eggs that are used as ingredients in Becker Farms’ homemade pies.
“We’re trying to be self-sustaining,” Oscar said. “People have the confidence [what we sell] is going to be mostly homemade.”
Employment at the farm is seasonal, ranging from 10 to 80. Melinda said, “We’re the biggest employer in the Town of Hartland.”
In response to requests from people who wanted to get married overlooking the vineyards, the Vizcarras opened a wedding pavilion, and now a second is under construction, targeted to open June 1.
“My daughter [Amanda] has the summer project with weddings. We have booked over 100 weddings this summer alone,” Oscar said.
“We had my daughter’s wedding here, and people just started asking us [about five years ago]. We were lucky that she was real interested in it and she went back to culinary school and she just took that over,” Melinda said. “We had this [first] pavilion and she filled that up. She said, ‘I’m turning people away.’ And [Oscar] with no fear said, “We’ll just build her another one.’ She had it full before we even built it.”
“It’s going to be a hugely busy summer with thousands of people,” Oscar said. No one really takes attendance, but 30,000 to 40,000 come during September and October.
The couple’s sons Oscar Jr. and Andres also are involved in the business.
“I do think the growth of our business can be attributed to our kids’ generation. One of the things I notice is, they have embraced local purchase, know your farmer, know your food. Real is more important than the shopping mall.”
“In the ’70s, it was cool. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was not really cool to be on a farm,” Melinda said. “Since 9/11, maybe, people have started to re-evaluate what their values are. With the downturn in the economy, people valued what we have locally more than they did in the past.”