Farmers Partner as 'Buy Local' Movement Grows

12/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

ALBANY, N.Y. — From farm-to-college to the ever-growing market for local food into New York City, farmers are getting more opportunities to market their products and share resources with other farmers.

It was one of several topics discussed at the Nov. 20 “Harvesting Opportunities In New York: Growing Local Food Economies and Protecting Farmland,” presented by the American Farmland Trust.

This was the second year of the event, drawing more than 200 farmers, food professionals and people from organizations with an interest in food production and farmland preservation.

Workshops were held on four topics, including “Buy Local,” “Save Farms in Your Community,” “Spread the Word” and “Farmland for the Next Generation of Farmers.” Each track had three sessions with people discussing examples of projects underway in each area.

The panels and presenters provided models of community, government and grassroots efforts that are working to help farmers and preserve farmland.

The afternoon workshops in the “Buy Local” track showcased successful ventures in farm-to-college purchasing and farmers who expanded their local markets.

“With one-tenth of the nation’s colleges in New York state, farm-to-college is ripe opportunity for New York state,” said moderator Christina Grace, as she introduced the session titled, “Taking Farm-to-College to the Next Level.”

Grace is co-coordinator — along with Glenda Neff — of Farm to Institution New York State, an initiative that’s entering its second year. The project is funded by the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation and the New World Foundation’s Local Economies Project, and brings together partners from public health, economic development and the agricultural arenas.

“Many of us come to this from the farm-to-school world,” Grace said. “Farm-to-college has many more financial resources than the public school environment, and this is an amazing opportunity to build the infrastructure that would support farm-to-school, farm-to-emergency food.”

Three panelists described their roles in developing a strong local food system at Bard College, and the fourth, Dylan Card, chairman of the University at Albany Student Sustainability Council, described the steps being undertaken at that large institution.

Jim Hyland runs Farm to Table Co-Packers, a 30,000-square-foot facility in Kingston, N.Y., which provides co-packing services to an array of farmers in and around New York’s Hudson Valley.

Hyland told stories to illustrate how his 6-year-old business functions. For instance, in the spring, R.O. Davenport Farms called and said they had spinach with tiny hail hits that couldn’t be retailed.

“As a processor, I know the demand is there but is anyone really going to buy it?” Hyland said. His next call was to Bard College, which has the ability to purchase locally and has had a strong push from the student population to do so. “I asked them if I buy the field would they buy it? Yes.’”

The field of otherwise unsalable spinach was sent through the facility’s revamped dishwasher system and freezers, and then packed into 15-pound boxes workers in the college’s kitchens could use.

Though this is an example of salvaging food, many of the company’s products are made in a more intentional fashion. SUNY campuses are buying pizza sauce from the co-packer. So far, 40,000 pounds of local tomatoes have been made into shelf-stable pails of sauce and delivered to the colleges.

Chas Cerulli, director of dining services with Chartwells, the company that provides dining services at Bard College, described how the college developed a strong initiative for local food.

“Students said, how come we don’t have any local apples?’” Cerulli said of the first questions that began the conversation of getting local food on campus. The biggest problem was how to pay local farmers for their product. “No farmer wants to put out their product for four months and not get paid for it.”

Cerulli was able to develop a system of paying vendors by credit cards, and a farmer figured out how to receive that payment. That farmer also served as an aggregator of sorts, dispersing payment from that credit card to other farmers who could sell to the school.

“The corporations are listening,” said Cerulli of the national trend of students questioning food sourcing. “Trying to figure out ways to look at markets more regionally so we can tap into our backyard.”

The student push inspired a cascade of changes in the college’s administration and at Chartwells, and ended in a well-developed web of local vendors including dairy products from Hudson Valley Fresh cooperative and meat products from a number of producers.

The Bard College Farm is right in sight of the dining hall. Farmer John-Paul Sliva was at the conference and told the story of the one-and-a-half-acre farm, which grew 15,000 pounds of produce in this, its second season. Sliva directed student interest and built the farm with a Kickstarter campaign and other fundraising, including a hearty investment from the college itself. Chartwells is the main buyer of the farm’s produce, and students work the crops.

Another asset at Bard is Corinna Borden, food sustainability advocate on campus and at the New School.

The second afternoon session in the “Buy Local” track focused on expanding local markets and featured two farmers from the Catskills region who have done just that. Richard Giles and Ken Jaffee described how they’ve developed their farm businesses. Moderator Jim Ochterski from Ontario County Cornell Cooperative Extension guided the conversation, which also included retired dairy farmer Sheldon Brown.

“I started out in 1970 with 100 cows. When I left, we had 1,100,” Brown said. He’s served on Farm Credit boards at the local and national levels. This experience, he said, allowed him to comment on the system of dairying and the help available to dairy farms.

Lucky Dog Farm is a 50-acre organic vegetable farm on land that is both rented and owned in Delaware County. The farm’s owners have sold through a CSA in the past and now serve local and New York City farmers markets, offer food through a farm store and sell wholesale through Angello’s Distributing.

“The New York state market is good but New York City is a gigantic market and it continues to surprise me,” said Richard Giles, citing the food awareness of the city’s population. Getting food to those consumers is the trick, and it is what’s motivated him to develop good transportation including a couple of refrigerated trucks.

“We would occasionally take other farmers’ produce to wholesale customers,” Giles said. This year with CADE, the Center for Agricultural Development & Entrepreneurship, “we looked into formalizing that as a food hub.”

CADE helped the farm establish standards for taking other local products on their truck. Lucky Dog delivers two extra palettes of presold food a week to the restaurants and warehouse where they already deliver. Customers can also pick up other farmers’ merchandise at the farm’s stand at the Union Square Market. The enterprise offsets costs for Lucky Dog’s trips to the city and serves another purpose, at least in Giles’ mind.

“We’re not moving enough volume yet to make a difference in any single farm’s business, but what seems like the biggest value to me is allowing other people to do the same thing we are: to think about how to improve production,” he said, adding that finding some efficiencies in sharing with neighbors is important. “My hope is we’re partnering with farmers to allow some growth.”

Ken Jaffee of Slope Farms has been operating on that principle. Slope Farms produces and markets grass-fed beef and also functions as an aggregator helping other grass-fed producers market their product.

“We’re on Turnpike Road, built in 1803,” Jaffee said. “This opened up the Susquehanna River Valley to land transport and the Catskill region to New York City. Before railroads, before canals, there was an endless stream of agricultural products.”

In other words, the idea of upstate farms serving the downstate market is not very new.

“States like New York are on the progressive front of a national movement to embrace local farms, expand local food economies and stop the destructive loss of farmland to development,” said Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust in his keynote address. “We hope that Gov. Cuomo and state legislators seize this opportunity to do their part to grow this movement.”

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