GASPORT – Five generations, tracing their lineage back to Julius and Augusta Becker, who founded Becker Farms in 1894, have tilled the land here, planted and harvested crops, and provided customers near and far with a wide variety of fruit and vegetables.
And now, Becker Farms, which includes Vizcarra Vineyards founded in 2004, is preparing to celebrate its 120th anniversary with a special event from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday at 3724 Quaker Road. There will be old-fashioned hay and pony rides; a pie-eating contest; a bake-off; demonstrations of line dancing and woodcarving; live music from Jonsie; and fireworks at dusk.
And there will be the opportunity to sample the farm’s bounty – from fresh fruits to baked goods to handcrafted wine. Tickets are $10 pre-sale.
The farm has evolved over the last century to accommodate the needs of the customers, and it continues to grow, according to Melinda “Mindy” Vizcarra, whose mother was Joyce Becker Perry, and who now co-owns the farm with her husband, Oscar Vizcarra Sr. The Vizcarras have three children – Oscar Jr., Amanda and Andres – who carry the farm into the future as the fifth generation.
“Young people are very passionate about their food,” Melinda Vizcarra said. “They want fresh, good, local, wholesome food. That was always the norm for us, but it’s good that people have learned to appreciate it and that Western New York has so much to offer compared with other parts of the country. We have a great variety of fruit and vegetables here, and when people move away, they come back to us and tell us they miss this.”
When Vizcarra’s great-grandparents started the farm after emigrating from Germany, they raised cows, chickens and grain, and also, fruit, as a cash crop to be carried down the Erie Canal and sold in New York City. Frank Becker took over the farm from his father and had no sons, so the farm went to his daughter, Joyce Becker Perry, who operated the farm part time with her husband, Donald, growing tart cherries.
Vizcarra said she met her husband, a native of Peru, when they were both students at Delhi State College. They then completed degrees in pomology – the study of cultivating fruit – at Cornell University, married in 1979 and took over the farm the same year. She said they were eager to put their studies to use and spurred on by a growing enthusiasm for small farms featuring U-pick services.
They eventually eased out tart cherries, planting a wide variety of other fruit through the early years. “From strawberries, raspberries and blueberries to apples and pumpkins, we planted everything,” Vizcarra said.
“Then we took agritourism one step further: We listened to what our customers wanted. They’d say, ‘Can’t you pick this for us?’ or ‘I’m thirsty.’ ”
The couple took the original little farmhouse and turned it into the “Farmhouse Market,” and began offering tours and artisanal products such as fresh-pressed sweet cider, homemade fruit pies, hand-rolled doughnuts, jams and preserves.
“We had been building up the agritourism for 25 years, from school tours to family U-pick, and then we took our next step in 2004, opening the winery,” Vizcarra said. “We had always made homemade wine, but we found out we could just start out small, with the idea of using our own fruit, left over from the U-pick. And then we started to plant more, because we needed more for the wine.”
Vizcarra was the original winemaker, handing off the job to her younger son, Andres, who has been creating the wine for five years now and also runs the wine operations.
“So few people get the chance to be a part of something that spans the generations,” Andres said. “So many don’t know anything about their ancestors, so this is kind of humbling. I’m just a little piece in a multigenerational puzzle.”
Andres, like his older sister, Amanda, and older brother, Oscar, did not set out to join the family business. He graduated with a fine arts degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and still designs the wine labels. But after assisting his mother, he was drawn to this new career and enrolled in the winery operations program at the Niagara County Community College’s Culinary Institute. He is also the state coordinator for VESTA, an online viticulture and oenology school reaching students throughout the country.
Vizcarra Winery offers fruit wines such as Berry Patch Pink (strawberry), Emperor Cherry and Red Creek Raspberry, as well as blush, red and white wines made from grapes. They grow all of the small fruit and the majority of the grapes used in their wines. If they don’t grow that particular grape, they use only New York State juice to create the wine, Melinda Vizcarra said.
Andres said that by being a part of the farm that produces every aspect of the wine product, “you get a holistic view of how this world works in microcosm.”
The farm also offers beer in conjunction with Flying Bison Brewery in Buffalo, which supplies the product. Melinda said the family’s hope is to one day grow the ingredients, like hops and barley, and create its own beer on site.
Andres and his wife, Esther, are expecting their first child in November – a sixth generation to work the farm someday, perhaps.
“Being a farmer is a difficult choice,” Melinda Vizcarra said. “It’s a lifestyle, not a job. It’s so time-consuming and difficult that we didn’t want to push our children to do anything they didn’t want to do. They went to school for things other than agriculture. But in the last 10 years, we’ve been able to grow enough in our business to accommodate them and to have jobs for them here.”
Amanda was the first to return, in 2004, to help establish the winery after graduating from Alfred University with degrees in business and Spanish. She is now in charge of the private events division, which hosts weddings and parties of up to 300 people.
Her mother said they hope to move in the direction of accommodations next, perhaps offering cottages or cabins for guests on their 340-acre site.
Amanda said, “It is truly an honor to be able to stay on the farm. When we were growing up, we didn’t think we’d have this opportunity. We had agritourism here, but we didn’t see these avenues to grow. But the creation of the winery really opened the door, and everything has evolved from there. We’ve been listening to what our customers wanted so that we could learn where to expand and make a go of this, so that we could make a living here on the farm, too.”
Son Oscar, who graduated from Michigan State University with an anthropology degree, was the last to return to the farm and is in charge of its Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, with his fiancée, Heather Nedroscik. They also grow the vegetables that are sold at market and are used for private events.
CSA members pay $20 per week for 20 weeks for a “small share,” for example, beginning in mid-June for a delivery of whatever is in season on the farm that week. Oscar said, “This is our fourth year with the CSA, and it has grown by leaps and bounds. We started with just under 60 members, and we now have 260 members in Niagara and Erie counties.”
A CSA offers stability to a farm, Oscar noted. When a farm knows that there is a dedicated customer base for its produce, it can afford to grow a wider variety of crops and experiment with newer offerings.
Becker Farms also supplements its stock with some vegetables more easily grown on neighboring farms, such as beets and potatoes, he said. He added that the farm is also moving toward eliminating chemical fertilizer and pesticides for its vegetables “for a more sustainable form of growing.”
Oscar said he took 12 years to attend college, see the world and live in various U.S. cities such as Detroit and San Francisco before realizing he yearned for the farm. He returned five years ago and will celebrate his 34th birthday here next Sunday.
“It was an opportunity too great not to take advantage of,” he said.
For more information on Becker Farms, visit www.beckerfarms.com.