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Tom Thompson of Thompson Farms, 2487 Long Road, displays jams and honey available at the farm store. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
Tom Thompson of Thompson Farms, 2487 Long Road, displays jams and honey available at the farm store. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)

Grand Island farming: Eating good in our neighborhood

Sat, Feb 3rd 2024 07:00 am

By Karen Carr Keefe

Senior Contributing Writer

Forget, for a moment, that we’re in the dead of winter, maybe even suffering a touch of the seasonal blues.

Here’s a story about farming on Grand Island to warm your hearts and stomachs and send the winter doldrums packing.

The bottom line: Farming is alive and well and living quite nicely on Grand Island. And even in winter, during the slower times, there is fresh food to be had from the Island farms.

Agriculture has – shall we say – deep roots on Grand Island, going back even a few years before the municipality’s incorporation as a town in 1852 and continuing well over 100 years.

Today’s Grand Island practitioners are a cohesive and hardy group, and one of the leaders is Thompson Farms, 2487 Long Road. There, Tom and Wendy Thompson have run a farm and store since 1998 that has become a gathering place not only for shoppers, but also for the contributing Island farmers who also bring their products there for sale. There’s no charge to the farmers, the makers or the producers who bring things to sell.

A Community Meeting Place for Farmers & Customers

The sharing of shelf space for farm products from other local farmers is a win-win, Tom Thompson said.

“There’s a lot of people who come here. But the issue we have is we can’t conceivably supply everybody that wants to buy stuff here. And the connections I have are all local because I’m the Erie County president of the Farm Bureau. There’s over 450 farmers in the Erie County Farm Bureau,” he said.

About his own farm, he explained, “We grow garlic, potatoes. We have eggs, we’ve had turkeys, chickens.” At times, they have as many as 500 chickens. For the summer, they will also have abundant vegetables – tomatoes, lettuce, garlic, peppers and beans from their greenhouse. And they make their own jams and jellies and supply homemade pies for the holidays.

“People thank us because they don’t have to leave Grand Island to go pick up their stuff,” Thompson said.

“We’re the crux of the situation,” Thompson said about other local farmers bringing their goods to Thompson Farms to sell. Their Facebook page updates visitors with events and special occasions they offer. It is found at https://www.facebook.com/ThompsonFarmsGI/.

Back in 2015-17, local farmers used to hold “Market Mondays,” where as many as 20 farmers would sell their goods at Thompson Farms. Now, Saturday mornings are the busiest days at their venue. They open early on Saturdays during Christmastime and set up a free pot of coffee, Thompson said. “We’ll have baked goods here that are made here or they’re made by an Amish lady that we know down in the Southern Tier.”

The farm store is open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but Thompson said most of the customers arrive between noon and 6 p.m.

Some of the hundreds of chickens raised on Thompson Farms on Long Road. (Submitted photo)


Farming is definitely a family business to the Thompsons. Son Colin lives next door, has three kids and works full-time for the town, but he also helps out with the farm. Son Justin has 5 acres on Stony Point.

“He has horses and he helps out repairing stuff. He’s a good mechanic,” Thompson said.

The Thompsons also have a small tree farm in Belfast in the Southern Tier that they visit every week. They started it in 1982 when they got married, planting 1,000 pine trees each year.

“We’ve still got some pine trees down there, growing,” Thompson said.

He itemized some of the regular contributors to the wide variety of items for sale, especially during the height of the season and for the holidays:

•Mel Miller’s maple syrup from the Southern Tier;

•Islander Norm Cerillo’s handcrafted birdhouses;

•Islanders Rich and Diane Nassar, beekeepers with 18 hives who supply the store with their honey;

•Islander John Pedlow brings in garlic and “Easter egger” chickens;

•Islander and Agricultural Advisory Board member Chris Buyer offers garlic, eggplant, tomatoes and green pepper from his farm;

•Hoover’s Dairy in Sanborn supplies milk;

•Mike Janiga of MaeLen Farms in Marilla brings beef and duck eggs; and

•Local artisans display their creations for sale throughout the year and especially during holiday markets.

Thompsons Praised for Work on Rules, Right to Farm

“Tom and Wendy Thompson are both assets to both our Grand Island community and the larger farming community,” said Sheila Olmstead Daminski, chair of the town’s Agricultural Advisory Board. “In addition to working tirelessly with myself and others since 2016 for improved agricultural regulations and right to farm on Grand Island, he works just as hard for Erie County Farm Bureau as their president.

“Without Tom pushing forward in 2016, there would be no improvement in agriculture laws on Grand Island. He and Wendy work a lot of hours and spend their time and money providing a farm store, so everyone on Grand Island can find local grown and local made products. This allows farmers and producers to do what they do best while ensuring their product goes to market. The benefits to the community are fresh, local grown products.”

Advocating for agriculture comes naturally to Thompson, and he said he and others coaxed the town to establish the advisory board.

“The Town Board, up to that point, and still is, somewhat, aggressive to local farmers. They don’t have a very good understanding of what this was 50 years ago,” he said.

Thompson gave examples in which a farm’s needs to survive could clash with neighbors’ reluctance to have a farm near their property. He said farmers started a group called Grand Island Farms back in 2015.

“This local attorney helped us through getting all the people in the ag district back on,” Thompson said. “What an ag district does, it protects you from unreasonable prosecution and local legislation at the state level. So, they’ll come in and they’ll prosecute the town if they’re too aggressive. And it’s happened to more than one person on Grand Island.”

Daminski said area farmers are working in a more supportive climate now with measures to protect their rights.

“I am optimistic that, with the new supervisor and Town Board members, we will see faster movement than we have in the past,” she said. “The Grand Island Farmland Protection plan was reviewed and voted to approval by not only the Town of Grand Island, but also Erie County farmland planning and New York State Agriculture and Markets in 2020. The town is now required to work with us in amending laws to ensure the implementation that everyone agreed to.”

Daminski added, “We would certainly appreciate the residents of the community to support our upcoming work by letting their elected representatives know how they feel about Grand Island remaining available for agriculture to thrive. If you want more farm stands and fresh eggs and honey, you need to be part of the agricultural movement we are trying to keep going on Grand Island.”

There was an abundance of local tomatoes available for shoppers at Thompson Farms during the Christmas market. (Submitted photo)


Agricultural Districts

Thompson said that, on Grand Island, if you want to be in an agricultural district, you have to apply for one. If you’re accepted, “then you’re in the business of agriculture, and you’re growing for, in some cases commercial; in other cases, maybe just to keep your family happy – but you’re in an ag district. So, the state then protects you from the town.”

The town’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan notes that, “Keeping a large percentage of the properties zoned appropriately for farming has proven to be beneficial for the local farmers market over the years. Due to the continuous expansion of commercial and residential properties, poor drainage has led to wet soils or flooded areas.”

Farming Not in Thompson’s Original Plan

Thompson grew up on Grand Island and graduated from the high school in 1971. Becoming a farmer wasn’t in his plans.

“I was going to go to school at Paul Smith College up in the Adirondacks, and I just never got there,” he said.

Thompson got a degree in chemical technology at Niagara County Community College.

“So, I ended up working in every chemical plant in Western New York,” he said.

Thompson was a research technician for industrial companies. He called the chemicals he worked with “dangerous stuff.”

“Ten years ago I got sick, basically, most likely from years of working with different chemicals, and I had cancer, but I got rid of that.”

He said his wife worked for 15 or 20 years at a pharmaceutical company on Staley Road that was then called App Pharmaceuticals and later became Fresenius Kabi. Both husband and wife are retired from their other professions and can concentrate on the farm and store.

Agriculture Long a Part of Island History

“I remember playing in wheat fields when I was a kid, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a wheat field right now. Buckwheat, you might find some,” Thompson said.

“The history of Grand Island is loaded with farming.”

And it is apparent in his examples that the Island’s farmers can come from all walks of life.

Thompson asked, “Do you remember Mesmer’s Dairy? … They had their milk that they processed there. And there were dairy farms on Grand Island at that time – and a lot of wheat was grown here, corn, there was soybeans grown here. There still is buckwheat grown here – I know George DeGlopper, he grows buckwheat, and he’s West Island Trucking right there on Whitehaven Road.”

Thompson said DeGlopper sells straw and bales of hay.

Beekeeper Rich Nassar formerly was a plant manager at Fresenius Kabi and now is a farmer whose honey is sold at Thompson Farms. He stopped to drop off his product while the Dispatch was talking to Thompson, and had good things to say about their mutual aid as farmers. He said their families got to know each other when both he and Wendy Thompson worked at Fresenius Kabi.

“He helps us on our farm, we help him on his farm. We’re trying to keep farming going on the Island, right? So, it’s a good share of information and help,” Nassar said.

“And a lot of hard work,” Thompson added. “There’s even more people who help out down the street. It’s a community thing.”

He noted there are special markets with lots of contributors at his farm store during the Christmas season.

Thompson Farms collected food for the Neighbors Foundation for the holidays. Also, the group Grand Island Farms donated $1,000 to the foundation. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)


Diversity, Dedication of Island Farmers

Thompson estimated there are about 25 small farms on Grand Island right now, down from about 50 to 60 in 2017, when the local farm community was able to get about that number of smaller farms into Grand Island's agricultural district.

“See, what I call a farm isn’t always what you would call a farm,” he said. “If you’re a farm, you’re growing eggs, you’re growing chickens for meat, maybe you grow five turkeys … maybe you’ve got goats.”

He cited as another unique example Islander Dennis Baumann who has a business with sheep grazing under solar panels.

Future of Island Farming

From the diversity and dedication he sees in Island farmers, Thompson has a firm goal for the future of farming here.

“The thing I want to see on Grand Island is that the town better understand what farming’s all about,” he said. “We’re here to feed the people on Grand Island. We’re here to feed the people wherever.”

Thompson pointed out that some issues that affect farmers are also going to affect the general population.

“I’d like the people of Grand Island to understand that, because we’re driving down the road on our tractors, we’re not doing that to block their way,” Thompson said. “And they’re all in a big hurry every day to go everywhere because we’re a bedroom community. And the ground on Grand Island is getting smaller and smaller, and the amount of people on Grand Island is growing. And there’s a lot of issues.

“So, the misunderstanding of what’s going on on Grand Island, with agriculture, I’d just like to see people more receptive to a farmer. Don’t (complain) because your next-door neighbor’s got a rooster.

“And we’re sort of getting this education to the town. And Pete Marston is very receptive.

“If you look at the average age of farmers in Erie County, it’s over 65. There’s not a lot of young farmers, and I’m grateful for the youngsters that want to continue to farm.”

Here are some of the baked goods available at Thompson Farms during the holiday season. (Submitted photo)

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