A couple from East Aurora, both of whom served in the U.S Marines, were featured on a special program hosted by popular cooking show host Lidia Bastianich. Mark and Denise Beyers will be among those spotlighted on the PBS program "Lidia Celebrates America: Homegrown Heroes," which pays tribute to veterans who, in their next phase of life, are working the land to produce food.
WBFO paid a visit to the Beyers' home and farm, located a short drive outside the village of East Aurora. From there, they raise turkeys and chickens, sell eggs and honey and, when hunting is in season, Mark Beyers will seek deer to provide food for his household.
They have also, for the past several years, produced maple syrup to sell. Mark explained he was inspired a few years ago while out hunting.
"I saw that we had a whole bunch of maple trees. I was actually sitting up against a maple tree and a maple leaf fell in my lap, literally," he recalled. "I looked around and started counting trees. And I came back and told Denise we were going to start making maple syrup. She looked at me like I was nuts."
"I had no formal knowledge of how that was even done," Denise added. "I never saw the process or knew how it was done. I never even knew how it was made. It was a huge learning process."
They made their first syrup in 2010. It was, as both recalled, a learning experience. Mark said they didn't know the product had to be a certain density to be considered syrup. There was also some trial and error as they learned to boil and prepare the sap they extracted.
"We'd pull it off early and bring it into the house and boil it on the stove," Mark recalled. "One day the whole boiling pan fell over on to the floor, the dog's running around... it can't be done inside. Little amounts you can, but it's not easy to do inside."
The Beyers recalled receiving a call from Lidia Bastianich's program staff, arranged through a veteran group. Their farm-to-table way of life created the mutual interest and respect between both sides.
Bastianich, an accomplished chef, restaurant owner, author and host of the PBS program Lidia's Kitchen, emigrated to the United States with her family in 1958. She told WBFO she appreciates the sacrifices of those who serve her adopted homeland and celebrates with them through food.
"They say we're out there two, three, four deployments, you see a lot of destruction. We see death," Bastianich said.
When many veterans return to the US, she continued, they see life and rebirth by working the land.
Mark and Denise Beyers both enlisted in the Marines. While Denise's duties kept her stateside, Mark served in Iraq and lost his right arm and right leg in action. After hospitalization that included a stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Beyers married.
They now have two children, six-year-old Eva and two-year-old Gracie. Both are aware of their father's permanent losses but as Mark explained, children are very comfortable with asking and understanding what happened.
"The kids are the best," he said. "The kids will come right up and ask straightforward what happened. And I just answer, I got blown up overseas. It's the adults, they'll sit there and stare, you know, whatever happened to that guy."
He added that he's played pranks on a few adults who then asked what happened, creating stories including a loss as the result of an alligator or hippopotamus bite, or he'd tell them the arm froze and fell off.
The Beyers' Christmas tree was fully decorated and on display in their living room. Mark pointed out that they always acquire a Fraser Fir, because the name is very close to the surname of a comrade he lost overseas.
Maple syrup production will begin again for the Beyers in late February. When they began seven years ago, the Beyers utilized 30 taps. Now they use at least 300 of them.
They take great satisfaction in working the land. They've been featured on the cover of the magazine The New Pioneer. They realize they represent a throwback to America's past.
"Doing it with your family," Mark said when asked what he gains the most from his lifestyle. "Just having your family with you. You get to go out in the woods and it's springtime, so it's the beginning of the end of winter and you can see things starting to bud out. It's close to when it starts getting warm, but it's still terrible out. It's still muddy and snowy."
And the Beyers note that New York State is the leading producer of maple syrup in the U.S. And if you ask Mark Beyers, the Western New York product is superior to that of Vermont and even Canada.
They also pointed out that while there are many other producers living within a short range, they all sell out while meeting the demands of a global customer base.
"There's definitely more demand than supply," Denise said. "Every year we're trying to make more. This year we're actually installing a steam-away hood so it's going to increase our efficiency by 65 to 70 percent."
Mark chimed in, "I couldn't believe there are that many people interested in two veterans making maple syrup."
(Lidia Celebrates America: Homegrown Heroes aired locally on December 16.)