By SKEETER TOWER
Special to the OBSERVER
Let's celebrate roots, Dunkirk Polish roots, dating back to Helen Uszacki. She arrived in this city in 1926 with no English, raised her children on her own by cleaning houses and college dormitories, earned a driver's license at age 50 and launched her two children into successful careers.
Front row: Abram and Adam Rak. Second row: Dennis and Susan Rak. Top row: Alex and Jackleen Uszacki.
Helen was the mother of Alex Uszacki who graduated from Dunkirk High School, worked as an expediter at Alco Products and represented the John Hancock Insurance Co. in sales. He pitched baseball for 42 years, served two terms on the Dunkirk Common Council, married his petite and spunky sweetheart, Jackleen, who is still known for her 40 years of service at the Dunkirk Free Library. Their four children, Lynn, Susan, Allen and Daniel, grew up on Nevins Street and all have found success and value in their parents' work ethic, commitment to family, community and love of growing things.
"Roots" have multiple significance in this family. Celebration of roots becomes the wings part of the story as Susan and her husband Dennis Rak take off and professionally soar in a geographically local, yet internationally impressive agribusiness. They own and operate Double A Vineyards, Inc., the largest grapevine nursery east of California. They market to wineries all across the United States. They also are the largest provider of grape root stock to big box outlets such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's. The Raks have also developed Double A Willow, a willow biomass operation, growing renewable, carbon-neutral energy. It's an amazing story. Just follow their growth!
Susan was always a go-getter. She had a paper route as a kid, worked as a basket attendant at the municipal pool, served as assistant manager at Burger King and rode her bike to the high school to take sewing lessons. The lessons developed her passion for making her own and others' clothes, then wedding dresses and even shirts for the entire Hose 4 Band. These activities helped pay for a degree at Fredonia State University and business acumen which led to 17 years in the finance department at Chautauqua Opportunities, Inc.
She married Dennis Rak, who grew up on an apple farm in Sheridan. Dennis knew her from the time his family delivered apples and eggs in her neighborhood. Dennis had always been intent on a career in agriculture and attended Cornell University with a focus in pomology and viticulture. His first job out of college was at Merit Winery; later at Crolle's Farm Supply, then to Foster Nursery.
In 1990, the couple had an opportunity to acquire 165 acres based on a competitive agribusiness plan, respecting a commitment to keep desirable Christy Road farmland in agriculture. (Susan describes how gravel from the ancient lake bed in northern Chautauqua County creates the ideal soil for growing grapes. The effect of Lake Erie means cooler springs to prevent early bud break and warmer autumns to extend the growing season).
The Rak plan included a grapevine nursery and they were off and running. They developed a unique, state-of-the-art production system. Their literature describes "vines grown on raised beds covered with black biodegradable plastic. Each row is supplied with water and nutrients by trickle irrigation. Soil moisture is monitored with the use of tensiometers to ensure the vines are never stressed ... these conditions are ideal for plant growth and root development." The 12- to 18-inch tall vines are sold at one year with a heavy root system.
Today the operation has expanded to over 1000 acres; 300 in grapes for processing, 250 devoted to grape vine nurseries, 150 acres for willow nurseries and the rest in open land or rotating crops such as land leased for corn (for Purina, among others) . . Double A Vineyards(named for the two sons, Abram and Adam, both employed within the company)boasts a worldwide customer base of over 15,000. During my first visit for this article Dennis was on the phone with a grower in Australia who was ordering thousands of willow cuttings. The next time Dennis was hosting a Brazilian farmer planning a large grape planting in Brazil.
Dennis travels to provide proper consultation for these new enterprises. The Raks publish their own catalog, marketing over 125 varieties of grapes, berries, and rhubarb. They operate a 10,000 ft storage facility, , a green house heated by a wood burning boiler and their own gas well . They own and operate specialized equipment such as the $250,000 grape sprayer/ harvester which covers four rows at a time and a machine which shakes the dirt off the roots before wrapping and cold storage.
Always seeking state-of-the-art technology, cognizant of ecology and the need to lower carbon emissions, reduce dependency on foreign oil, and a desire to improve our local economy, Dennis has established another new business named Double A Willow. Dennis and Susan Rak carry the exclusive license to propagate and sell Ecowillow, developed at the NYS Syracuse School of Forestry. It is a shrub willow plant designed for heating, producing ethanol as a direct substitute for gasoline, and for a process known as phytoremediation which uses green plants to remove soil contaminants including heavy metals. Harvesting Ecowillow in a three year cycle provides woodchips which are burned at power plants to create green energy; energy, which Dennis is proud to say, is "renewable, sustainable and virtually carbon neutral." Willow can be grown even on less than prime farmland, requires little maintenance, fertilizer or pesticide application.
Another creation to be found at Double A Vineyards is the family home on Christy Road, Fredonia, which with Susan's direction was built by Chadwick Bay Builders. It sits high on a kame, a small conical hill of sand and gravel deposited during the melting of glacial ice. The structure serves as testimony to the clarity and radiance of Raks' vision right here in our own Chautauqua County. Walls of spectacular windows overlook acres of vineyards, highlighting the bounty of nature and an openness to the world of new ideas. Abe and Adam, the new generation, and all our surrounding communities benefit from these inspirational roots and wings. How lucky to have them rooted here.
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