A COUNTY SERVICE STATION
WHERE NEW YORK FARMERS GET HELP IN THEIR FRUIT GROWING AND MARKETING
BY D. H. WILLIAMS
You've got to look into the family closet of a county and study its
skeletons before you can decide whether that county's farming business
is mostly on paper or on concrete. You've got to know whether it
standardizes production and marketing, or just markets by as many
methods as ther
As a living example of the possibility of tightening up and retiming the
gears of a county's economic machinery to the end of cutting out power
losses, Niagara County, New York, stands in a distinct class by itself.
Here is an area of 558 square miles, with Lake Ontario spraying its
northern line. A network of electric and steam railways and hundreds of
miles of splendid state highways make up a system of economic arteries
through which the industrial life-blood of the county circulates.
Forty-eight hours to Chicago's markets, the same distance to New York's;
three wealthy industrial and agricultural cities within the county
itself--Lockport, Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda--operating with a
wealth of cheap electric power generated at Niagara Falls--these are
some of the advantages within and without the county, the value of which
Beginning with the southern plain section, Niagara's agriculture changes
in type from general hay and grain farming to a more intense
fruit-growing industry as the northern plain section is approached,
until within the zone of Lake Ontario's tempering influence the fruit
industry almost excludes all other types of farming.
There is hardly a more favored fruit section in the country than the
northern half of Niagara County. Apples, pears, peaches, plums, grapes,
cherries, quinces make up the county's horticultural catalogue. The
latest available figures rank Niagara County first among the counties of
New York in the number of fruit trees; second in the total number of
bushels of fruit produced; first in the quantity of peaches, pears,
plums and prunes, quinces and cherries; third in the number of bushels
Yet there are things about the county which no statistics will ever
show, such things, for instance, as the condition of the orchards, the
market value of the fruit, the earning capacity of the land as a
whole--in other words, the bedrock rating of the county. You have to get
at these things by a different avenue of approach.
A rather close auditing during 1914 of the accounts of some eighty-seven
typical good farms in perhaps the best section of Niagara County brought
out the fact that labor incomes from these farms, on the whole, could
not be classed as strictly giltedge. One diagnosis made by a Niagara
County investigator is recorded in these words:
"Though Niagara County has many of the best fruit farms in New York
State, there are numbers of orchards that have been abandoned to the
ravages of insects and disease. There is also a tendency toward
extensive rather than intensive fruit growing, which has resulted in
many large plantings being made.
"Niagara County does not need more orchards, but rather cultivation and
spraying of the present orchards; it does not need to produce more
fruit, but rather to insure better grading and marketing of the present
This observation is dated 1914, one year after leading farmers and
business men of the county, convinced that all was not so well with them
as the lifeless census figures would have one believe, made the move to
set up and operate for the county a farm bureau. New York is the
national hotbed of farm-bureau enthusiasm and propaganda.
Almost six years to the day after the inauguration of this bureau, I
went into Niagara County. And before I left I was able to sketch a
rather vivid mental picture of what a farm bureau really can do for a
county, be the raw material with which it must work good, bad or
Up in the office of the Niagara County Farm Bureau at Lockport I waited
some two hours for an interview with its manager, Nelson R. Peet. That
wait was an eye-opener.
Three women clerks and stenographers and the assistant manager occupied
this room. The clerks were trying to typewrite, answer the continuous
ringing of the phone, respond to buzzer summons from Manager Peet's
private office and talk with a stream of visitors, all at the same time.
I spent two whole days and half a night in these offices and not once
save at night was there a let-up in this sort of thing. It was business
all the time; the business of service! Niagara County farmers are using
Nelson Peet, manager, is a spectacled human magneto. His speech and his
movements fairly crackle with energy; his enthusiasm is as communicable
as a jump spark. A young man in years, yet mature in the knowledge of
men and the psychology of service, he never wastes a minute dilating
upon the philosophy of farm management; but he has worked twenty hours a
day to see that Niagara County farmers got all the labor they needed
during rush seasons.
This man has been with the bureau three years. When he came to it the
bureau had a paid-up membership of 325. In March this year, when I was
in Niagara County, the membership stood at 2185, and was increasing
daily. It led by a good margin, I was told, the fifty-five New York
county farm bureaus. These, in 1918, had a total membership of 60,000.
More than half the farmers in Niagara County are members of the Niagara
When Peet first took charge there were two broad courses open to him. He
might have planned a program of paternalistic propaganda in behalf of
the farmers of the county. Such a program calls for a tremendous amount
of talking and writing about coöperation and community interests, better
economics and better social conditions, but too often results in the
propagandist doing the "coing," while the "operating" is left to
The other course was to find out what the farms and farmers in the
county needed most and then set to work with little ado to get those
things. Peet chose the latter course. And in so doing he has staged one
of the best demonstrations in rural America. He has shown that a farm
bureau can be made into a county service station and actually become the
hub of the county's agricultural activities.
With the aid of state-college men, one of Peet's foremost lines of
bureau work has been that of taking inventories of the farming business
of Niagara County. For four years these records have been taken on some
100 typical farms. Group meetings are regularly held at the homes of the
bureau's community committeemen. Here, with the records they have been
keeping, the farmers assemble. Here they work out their own labor
incomes and compare notes with their neighbors. The farm bureau helps
the men make these business analyses--it does not do the work for them.
Now the farmers ask for the blank forms and are themselves as
enthusiastic over farm-management records as the men who specialize in
These figures serve the bureau as an index to the county's progress.
More than once Peet has referred to them and discovered where leaks
could be plugged. For example, these records showed an average labor
income of $182 a farm for the four years ending 1916.
"This fact," Mr. Peet explained, "we put to work as the reason for doing
something to benefit the fruit industry. What could be done? The answer
in other highly specialized fruit sections seems to have been central
packing houses. We held a meeting, inviting one very influential fruit
grower from each loading station in the county. We showed charts of the
farm-management records. It didn't take long for the meeting to go on
record as favoring the central-packing-house plan.
"Later meetings were held in each community, the farm-management charts
were again shown, and at every loading station the meetings went on
record as favoring central packing houses. To make a long story short,
sites and methods of financing these houses were worked out. There were
already two old central packing houses in operation. They took on new
life. Five new ones have been formed. All were incorporated and
federated into a central parent association, which owns the brand
adopted and makes the rules and regulations under which the fruit is
"From the very beginning the proposition has been pushed not as a means
of beating the selling game by selling coöperatively, but as a means of
securing the confidence of the consuming public, which must ultimately
result in a wider distribution and better prices. In fact, the matter of
selling has not been fostered from the farm-bureau office. We have
concerned ourselves solely with uniform grading and central packing. We
believed from the start that the selling of properly graded and packed
fruit will take care of itself, and this stand has been justified.
"Each association makes its own arrangements for selling, and in every
case has secured better prices than the growers who sold under the old
system. The most satisfactory feature of this work centers round the
fact that the best and most influential growers are heart and soul
behind the proposition. The personnel of coöperative movements, I
believe, is the main feature."
When I visited Niagara County the seven central packing associations
were doing a splendid business, handling about $1,000,000 worth of
apples between them. Only two of the associations were more than one
year old. Many of the associations were dickering for additional space
for packing and for extensions for their refrigerator service. Other
communities in Niagara and in other counties were writing in for details
of the plan, to the end of getting the same thing started in their
sections. And inquiries were coming in from states outside of New York.
Even with the best of selling methods, no commodity will bring a profit
to the producer unless the greater portion of it is eligible to the A-1
class. Too many seconds or culls will throw any orchard venture on the
rocks of bankruptcy. It came to Manager Peet's attention early in 1917
that the farm bureau had a golden opportunity to put on another service,
which alone, if it worked out in practice as well as it did on paper,
would justify the existence of the bureau.
He noticed that though orchardists were following spraying
schedules--the best they could find--some had splendid results in
controlling apple scab and other pests, but others got results ranging
between indifferent and poor. This seemed paradoxical, in view of the
fact that one man who followed the same spraying schedule as his
neighbor would have more scabby apples than the other.
At that time L.F. Strickland, orchard inspector for the state department
of agriculture, had paid particular attention to a limited number of
apple orchards in Niagara County with a view to controlling scab by
spraying. He discovered that, though the average spraying calendar is
all right, climatic conditions in different parts of the same county
often upset these standard calculations, so that a difference of one day
or even a few hours in time of spraying often meant the difference
between success and failure. In other words, it was necessary to study
all contributing factors, watch the orchards unremittingly and then
decide on the exact day or even hour when conditions were right for a
successful spray treatment. He found that one must strike the _times
between times_ to get the optimum of results.
So Mr. Strickland, in conjunction with his regular work, kept an eagle
eye on a few orchards and would notify the owners when it seemed the
moment for spraying had come. It worked out that those favored
orchardists had magnificent yields of A-1 fruit; others in the same
sections, following the rather flexible spraying calendars, didn't do
nearly so well.
All this set Manager Peet to thinking. "Strickland hasn't got an
automobile and has lots of other work to do," he reasoned; "but why, if
he had a car and could give all the time necessary to such work,
couldn't the same results be had in orchards all over the county? Why
can't this farm bureau put on a spraying service?"
He put the idea up to the executive committee of the bureau. The idea
was good, they agreed, but it would cost at least $500 to try it out the
first year. The bureau didn't have the available funds.
"Tell you what," they finally said: "If you want to get out and rustle
up 500 new members at one dollar each to pay for this thing, we'll
Peet was telling me about it. "Here the bureau had been working for four
years with a paid-up membership of about 375," he said, "and if I
believed in my idea I had to get 500 more by spring. It was February
eighth when the committee gave me this decision. Well, I did it in time
to start the ball that spring!"
He got the new members because he had a service to sell them.
Arrangements were made whereby the county was divided into six zones,
varying in soil and topographic conditions. Criterion orchards were
selected in each zone. The inspector, with the aid of daily telegraphic
weather reports and through constant inspection of the criterion
orchards, decided when the hour struck for the most effective spraying
of these orchards.
In the meantime Manager Peet and the inspector had worked out a code
system for spraying instructions and put this into the hands of the
growers in the six zones. When it came time to spray, the telephones
from headquarters in Lockport were put to work and the code message sent
to certain orchardists; these in turn repeated the instructions to a
number of other orchardists agreed upon, until every member had received
The scheme has worked. The first year there were 800 members who took
this service; the second year--1918--there were 900; this year there are
1500. It is paying for itself many times over. One central packing
house with nine grower members reports that eight of the members used
the spraying service and that none of these had more than five per cent
of their fruit to cull out. The ninth member sprayed, but not through
the service. He culled forty-five per cent of his crop. There are scores
of similar instances.
Seeing how quickly he could get the support of the Niagara farmers for
any move which had practice and not theory to recommend it, Manager Peet
next began to agitate for an improvement in city-marketing conditions in
Lockport. Up to August, 1915, the system--if system it might be
called--of distributing farm produce for Lockport's consumption
consisted of sporadic visits by producers to the city with produce to be
sold at prices largely controlled by the local grocerymen. Likewise
retail prices to consumers were chiefly regulated by the same standard.
A grower might drive into Lockport with 100 quarts of strawberries. He
would stop at a grocery and offer them.
"No," the grocer would say, "I don't want any. Say, how much do you want
for them anyhow?"
"Ten cents a quart."
"Too high; I'll give you six."
Whereupon the man would drive on to see the next grocer. But the man who
offered six cents might go straight to his phone, call up the rest of
the trade and inform it that there were 100 quarts of strawberries on
the streets for which he had offered six cents against ten asked. The
result would be that the farmer would get no better offer than six
So Manager Peet joined hands with the Lockport Board of Commerce and
went at the job of righting this condition. He proposed a city market
for farmers. The nearest approach to a market was a shelter for teams
which the local food dealers had rented.
To 700 farmers in the vicinity of Lockport Manager Peet wrote letters,
calling their attention to these conditions and offering the city-market
idea as a remedy. And he used publicity among Lockport's population of
consumers, showing them the economy of such a move. The farmers held a
get-together meeting, decided on a location for a market in Lockport,
decided on market days and market hours. After this the farm bureau got
the city's common council to pass an ordinance prohibiting the
huckstering of farm produce on the streets during market hours; also an
ordinance setting the market hours, marking off a street section which
should be used as a market stand, and putting the superintendent of
streets in charge.
That was all. Not a cent of appropriation asked for. The market opened
August 10, 1917, with fifty farm wagons in place. Before the summer was
over it was common to find more than 100 at their stands. The local
war-garden supervisor acted as inspector. He looked over the produce,
advised the farmers how to pack and display it, and used every energy in
the direction of popularizing the market among producers and consumers
Between Manager Peet and the inspector a scheme was worked out whereby
every Thursday was bargain day in market. They would get a certain
number of farmers to agree to pack and offer for sale on those days a
limited number of baskets of their finest tomatoes, say. Or it might be
corn. In the case of tomatoes the bargain price would be ten cents for
baskets which that day were selling regularly for eighteen to
twenty-five cents. To each of these baskets--no farmer was asked to
sacrifice more than ten--was attached a green tag noting that it was a
Each bargain day was advertised in advance among Lockport consumers.
Thursday mornings would see an early rush to the market. The bargains
would be cleaned out and then business at normal prices would continue
at a brisker rate than usual.
The first year of its operation this market was held on fifty-one days.
During this period 1300 rigs sold out their produce for a total of
$13,000. This simple move has resulted in stabilizing prices in Lockport
and has encouraged the bringing in of farm produce. Prices automatically
regulate themselves. If they begin to get too low in Lockport, the
supply in sight is immediately reduced through action by the producers
in shipping the stuff to Niagara Falls or Buffalo by motor trucks.
The distribution of Lockport's milk supply, as happens in hundreds of
cities, has been attended by considerable waste and expense as a result
of duplication of delivery routes, breakage of bottles and uneconomic
The first night I was in Lockport, Manager Peet was holding a meeting of
the milk producers supplying the city for the purpose of settling this
inequity once and for all. A little agitation had been carried on ahead
of this meeting, but only a little. Peet had a plan.
"It's all wrong to plan for a municipally owned central distributing
system," he was explaining to me the next morning; "these are too likely
to get mixed up in politics. So last night we just about clinched our
arrangement for having our city distributing system owned by the
producers themselves. In the past we have had eight distributors with
fifteen wagons handling the milk supplied from fifty dairy farms. There
has been a big loss in time and money as a result of this competition.
"The farm bureau got the producers together on the plan of securing
options on these distributors' interests, and last night we just about
wound up all the preliminaries. We already have our limited liability
corporation papers. We're incorporating under the Membership Corporation
Law. Our organization comes under the amendment to the Sherman Antitrust
Law, you know, following closely the California law under which the
California fruit growers' associations operate.
"We figure that we will need between $20,000 and $30,000 for the
purchase of buildings, wagons, equipment and good-will now in the hands
of the distributors. At first we thought it would be a good plan to have
every member of the association subscribe to the amount proportioned by
the number of cows he keeps or the amount of milk he has for sale. But
for several reasons this wouldn't work. So we hit on the scheme of
having each man subscribe to the amount he personally is able to
"We already have $24,000 subscribed in sums between set limits of $100
and $1000. We're issuing five-year certificates of indebtedness bearing
six per cent interest. Our producers will have about $9000 worth of milk
a month to distribute. We plan to deduct five per cent every month from
these milk checks to pay off the certificates. Then later we'll create a
new set of certificates and redistribute these in proportion to the
amounts of milk produced on the members' farms."
Manager Peet and the producers are making it perfectly plain to Lockport
consumers that this is no move contemplating price control. In fact,
they expect to sell milk for a cent a quart under the old price.
The farm-labor shortage which antedated our entrance into the war became
a national menace about the time our selective draft began to operate.
New York farmers were as hard hit as any other farmers, particularly in
the fruit sections, where a tremendous labor supply falls suddenly due
at harvest time. Niagara County came in for its full share of this
trouble and the Niagara County Farm Bureau went its length to meet the
In 1917 Western New York produced the biggest crop of peaches in its
history, and in the face of the greatest labor famine. There were nearly
8000 cars of the fruit in danger of spoiling on the trees and on the
ground. Peet anticipated the crisis by converting the farm bureau into a
veritable county labor department. He was promised a good number of
high-school boys who were to help in the peach harvest and who were to
be cleared through a central office in Buffalo.
Manager Peet worked out arrangements for the care of these boys in
forty-two camps strategically located. The camps were to accommodate
thirty boys each. The farmers had asked Peet for 4500 hands. He applied
for 1500 boys and had every reason to expect these. But at the critical
moment something went wrong in Buffalo headquarters and of the 1500
asked for he got only 200!
"I was in Buffalo at the time the news was broken," Manager Peet was
saying to me, "and my first impulse was to jump off one of the docks!"
Here was a nice kettle of fish! The fruit was ripening on the trees, and
the phones in the bureau offices were ringing their plating off with
calls from frantic farmers. Peet didn't jump off a Buffalo dock; he
jumped out of his coat and into the fray. He got a Federal Department of
Labor man to help him. They plastered appeals for help all over Western
New York--on the walls of post offices, railroad stations, on boarding
houses. They worked on long-distance phones, the telegraph, the mails.
They hired trucks and brought city men and boys and women and girls from
cities to work in the orchards over week-ends. Labor, attracted by the
flaring posters, drifted into the bureau's offices in Lockport and
immediately was assigned to farms; and hundreds of laborers whom Peet
never saw also came.
By working seven days a week and often without meals and with cat naps
for sleep the bureau cleared 1200 laborers through its office, to say
nothing of the loads brought overland by motor truck and which never
came near the office. Business houses in the towns closed down and sent
their help to the orchards. Lockport's organization of "live
wires"--lawyers, doctors, bankers--went out and worked in the orchards.
"Well," was Peet's comment, "we saved the crop, that's all!"
Last year the bureau placed 1095 men and four women on farms in Niagara
County. In addition, 1527 soldiers were secured on two-day furloughs
from Fort Niagara to help harvest the fruit crops. "We did this," said
Manager Peet, "mainly by starting early and keeping persistently at it
with the War Department, in order to cut the red tape."
This fall there will go into effect in New York State an amendment to
its drainage law which is going to do more properly to drain the state
than all the steam diggers that could have been crowded on its acres
under former conditions. This action came out of Niagara County, through
the farm bureau.
To realize the importance of drainage in this county one must remember
that it lies in two levels broken by the ridge which forms the locks at
Lockport, the falls at Niagara Falls, and which extends across the
county from east to west. In each plateau the land is very level, there
being but few places in the county having a difference in elevation of
twenty feet within a radius of a mile. Good drainage is very necessary
and in the past has been very hard to secure.
"Practically no man can secure adequate drainage without being concerned
in the drainage of his neighbor's land," said Mr. Peet. "If the neighbor
objects the situation is complicated. And our drainage laws have been
woefully inadequate to handle these problems."
But recently the farm bureau put it up to a conference of county agents
of New York to get the "state leader" to appoint a state committee to
work this thing out and persuade the state legislature to make the
necessary amendments to the drainage law. The plan went through, and one
of the laws passed compels an objecting property owner to open drains
which are necessary for the relief of his neighbors. This law goes into
effect next fall.
Farmers are looking to the farm bureau for help in the cleaning and
repairing of some sixty drainage ditches constructed in the past under
the county-commissioner plan. But the records on file in the county
clerk's office are in bad shape. The farm bureau has taken it upon
itself to arrange all this material so that it is available on a
minute's notice, and as a result has drawn up petitions to the
supervisors for the cleaning out of three of these ditches.
Cooperating with the New York State Food Commission, the farm bureau had
a power-tractor ditcher placed in the county last summer. Peet placed
his assistant in full charge, and the machine never lost a single day as
a result of lack of supervision. It has dug over 4000 rods of ditch for
tile on twenty-eight farms.
For four years Niagara County farmers had not made expenses in growing
tomatoes for the canneries. The farm bureau called a meeting of some
fourteen growers and together they figured the cost of production. The
average cost for 1917 was found to be $85 an acre; the estimated cost
for 1918 was $108 an acre. The average crop was set at six tons to the
acre. A joint committee went out of the conference and laid these facts
before the canners. The result was that the growers got $20 a ton for
their crops in 1918.
These are some outstanding features of the service rendered its farmers
by the Niagara bureau. Here are some of its "lesser" activities:
Taking an agricultural census by school districts of each farm in the
county and completing the job in one week.
Effecting an interchange of livestock and seed.
Distributing 1000 bushels of seed corn among 383 farmers, twenty-two
tons of nitrate of soda at cost among sixty-two farmers, and securing
and distributing six tons of sugar to fifty beekeepers for wintering
Indorsing 200 applications for military furloughs.
Assisting in organizing Liberty Loan campaigns, especially the third.
Assisting in the delivery of twenty carloads of feed, fertilizer, farm
machinery and barrels, which had been delayed.
Holding twelve demonstration meetings, attended by 602 farmers.
Conducting two tractor schools, attended by 125 farmers.
Arranging eight farmers' institutes, attended by 900 farmers.
Organizing a Federal Farm Loan Association which has loaned $125,000 to
The bureau keeps its members posted on what is going on in the county
and what the bureau is doing through the medium of a well-edited monthly
"News" of eight pages. The best feature of the handling of this
publication is that it costs neither bureau nor members a cent. The
advertisements from local supply dealers pay for it, and two pages of
ads in each issue settles the bill.
The bureau's books show that last year it spent five dollars in serving
each member. The membership fee is only one dollar. The difference comes
from Federal, state and county appropriations.
The success of this bureau comes from having at the head of it the right
man with the right view of what a farm bureau should do. Manager Peet
sees to it that the organization works with the local chamber of
commerce--the one in Lockport has 700 members--which antedates the farm
bureau and which always has supported the bureau. Peet's policy has been
to keep the bureau not only before the farmers but before the city
people as well.
The "live-wire" committee of the Lockport chamber, composed of lawyers,
doctors, bankers, merchants, and the like, has made Manager Peet an
_ex-officio_ member. The Niagara Falls and Tonawanda Chambers of
Commerce get together with the Lockport chamber and the farm bureau and
talk over problems of inter-county importance. These conferences have
worked out a unified plan for road development, for instance. The
Niagara Farm Bureau helped the Niagara Falls city administration to
secure the services of a Federal market inspector. In this way all
rivalry between different sections and towns in Niagara County is freed
About the only criticism I heard against the farm bureau of Niagara
County was that Peet was the wrong man. The farmers want a man who will
_stay_ manager. But some of the best members hinted that Peet will not
stay because he's just a bit too efficient. They seem to fear that some
business corporation is going to get him away. And when you look over
the record of his work as organizer and executive, you must admit
there's something in this.
* * * * *
Four half-tone illustrations:
1. The Settling Basin at the Water Works.
2. Interior of the Tunnel Through which the Water is Pumped.
3. Where Detroit's Water Comes From.
4. Water Rushing into the Settling Basin.