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From our table to yours: Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Market. Photo by: Teri Currie
Near-to-Homegrown Harvests
Buying local strengthens the local economy and teases your tastebuds

By Ashley Hahn

Beneath white tents, flowing out of tailgates in cornucopian shows, seasonal bounty is on display. Throngs of people mill through the parking lot cum open-air marketplace along Troy’s waterfront; some first inspect the morning’s offerings and then get farm-fresh eats while the getting is still good. Other regulars go straight for their favorite booths to make sure they get the objects of their culinary desires.

Many, like Lori Maiwald, say they were drawn to the market by the promise of “gorgeous-looking vegetables” and are especially interested in the organic and chemical-free foods. Or as her mother says, pulling a bright, plump tomato from one of her bags, “Are you going to get this at Price Chopper?” (She shakes her head no.) To them the difference is a matter of quality. They are both first-timers at the Troy’s market, and vow to come back. It’s easy to be taken by the market’s communitarian spirit and the joy of meeting the people behind the food on the table.

Sandy and Paul Frasier are the retired couple behind Friends’ Tomatoes. At their stand mid-market, he cuts samples and she weighs tomatoes, helping the steady line move, both chatting up their regulars and newcomers alike. Their beauties are greenhouse-grown in Johnstown using organic (non-certified) methods and they almost invariably sell out of their beautiful fruits in short order, which once prompted tears from one disappointed woman.

They had a dairy farm, but upon retirement Paul took to growing tomatoes as a hobby. Now that they’re back selling the fruits of their labor, they say Troy market has been a great outlet for them, as the lines will attest. As Sandy puts it, “It’s people telling people.” A couple of weeks ago, a man was standing in front of the Frasier’s booth at 8:30 AM while they were setting up to start selling at 9 when the market opens. Sandy got talking to him and learned he was from Chicago, taking his boat down the Hudson. He was first in line because “somebody in Chicago told him to get some of our tomatoes and to be here early,” Sandy says, still amazed. “How phenomenal.”

This time of year it’s especially easy to buy local produce and the reasons to do so are as diverse as the supply is abundant. For many, buying local is a matter of practicality: Food that’s not trucked across the continent (or even the hemisphere) is fresher and lasts longer.

Local concerns can also factor in when socially responsible consumers start thinking about wielding their purchasing power in the marketplace, and they give many of the same reasons that people give for opting for the mom and pop bookstore instead of the national chain: Buying locally takes money from your pocket and puts it into your neighbor’s, who is likely to spend it locally, so it helps strengthen local economy. Putting a dollar into the hands of the farmers by buying directly from them cuts out the middlemen, and lets the farmer keep more of that dollar. And, more specifically to farm products, farmers in many areas of New York are under increasing pressure to sell off their land for development, so buying local and regional products helps keep parts of the state pastoral by making farming more profitable.

On top of all this, many consumers relish being able to interact with their food and the farmers in such an immediate way. Buying local offers people a special opportunity to know where their food comes from and who grew it by meeting farmers at farmers’ markets or through being active in their community-supported agriculture farm; In either case, the buyers get to be face-to-face with the person who grew the tomato in their hands.

As with many socially responsible practices, buying local products might require a little extra work or thought, but maybe that’s a good thing, and the payoff is worth it, both to farmers and consumers. Paula Schafer, who heads Cornell Cooperative Extension’s agriculture and economic development program in Washington and Saratoga counties says “it all comes down to what you want to put in your mouth, knowing what you’re putting in your mouth, and knowing that you’re helping agriculture in your area, in your state, in your community.”

Buying local is usually a little different from traditional shopping. A 2002 survey conducted by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets found that direct marketing from farmers to consumers increased 18 percent since 1987. The Troy market, for instance, has simply boomed since it began five years ago. Last weekend there were 45 vendors and at the height of the season they estimate that number will get even higher. The simplest and most prevalent ways to track down local food are through farm stands, farmers’ markets, or community supported agriculture farms.

Through CSA farms [see sidebar] people buy a share of a farm in spring and pick up a bag of food weekly through the harvest season. “That’s always exciting and can be a nice, economical alternative for both the consumer and the farmer, because then they know up front if they’ve got their product sold, which is always great for them,” Schafer says. “I always hear people say they’re got way more food than they had ever expected or know what to do with, so they’re definitely getting their money’s worth.”

Farm stands and farmers’ markets are a little more familiar and require less commitment, but they are still different from supermarket shopping. Judy Pangman, who operates Sweet Tree Farm in Carlisle, sells her family’s grass-fed beef, pastured pork, and pastured eggs at the Troy and Great Barrington markets. She says she enjoys the gratification of being able to talk to the customers and she thinks that also helps them “know exactly how their meat is being produced.”

Hello, I Come From: Produce well-labeled in the Honest Weight Food Co-op. Photo by: John Whipple

“It’s immediate feedback all of the time,” said Chris Lincoln who runs New Minglewood Farm in Greenwich with his wife Tammara Van Ryn. They mostly grow greens and do much of their business at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. “It’s a community thing; it’s more than just food. They’re meeting all of their neighbors and interacting that way. How often do you do that at Hannaford?”

To Brian Booth, the market manager at the Troy’s farmers’ market, markets are a wonderful opportunity to put one’s ideals to work. “It’s nice to see [people’s beliefs] coming to fruition and it’s good to see money going back to the farmers and the families who are going to support renewable energy, sustainable practices—it’s tangible evidence that there is part of our culture moving in the right direction.”

But Lincoln is quick to point out that “not all farmers’ markets are created equal” and stresses that he prefers ones like Saratoga’s that are grower-only, where everything is either grown or made by the person selling it. “So when you are shopping at this market, it really is staying local,” he says.

‘One of the reasons that tomatoes in your local supermarket are always lousy is because we breed them to look beautiful after they’ve been transported for 4,000 miles after a period of two weeks,” says Paul Parker, chef and proprietor, with his wife, of Chez Sophie Bistro. “With local stuff you have the opposite end of things, which is that they’re growing breeds specifically designed to taste good. They, oddly enough, don’t always look as pretty. They’re always incredibly fresh and they taste wonderful.”

Parker says his reasons for sourcing local food are myriad and detailed enough to fill volumes, but it starts with the practical advantages of getting really fresh food directly from the farmers. “Local farmers are the only way you have of interacting with the food you eat in any meaningful way—it’s almost impossible to interact with your food through the supermarket.”

Those reasons give way to more political and ideological ones like seasonality, biodiversity and being able to delight in the varied tastes of different breeds. He readily waxes rhapsodic about things like the differences between varieties of pork and how the taste of wild-grazing pigs killed in November is out-of-this-world good because they’ve eaten acorns, which makes them taste sweeter.

Small local farms are the torchbearers of heirloom varieties of flora and fauna, many of which are more sensitive, perishable and have a smaller yield in a shorter period of time, which makes them doubly special to eat.

“There are some things that you ought to have in abundance when they show up and then not at all for the rest of the year,” he says. “We’ve become so distanced from the seasonality of life and that especially shows up in the way we consume food. Americans want fresh tomatoes in January and that virtually guarantees they’re coming from somewhere on the other side of the equator. The thing about that that sort of makes it strange though is you sort of lose the pleasure that there is in getting fresh tomatoes in July or August because you’ve been eating them and they’re not as special. It ought to be kind of special.”

Parker is in the good company of a number of likeminded chefs, and is joined in Saratoga as a local food buyer by several other restaurants, including the Springwater Bistro and Eartha’s. Parker orders from a few growers weekly, buys from others when he can get to the farmers’ market, and gets a wide variety of dairy products and meats from farms directly. This can be, however, a very labor-intensive process. The same is true for stores who try to stock local products on their shelves.

The Honest Weight Food Co-op buys both organic and local foods, and produce manager Gayle Anderson says she has a good system down with two organic farms she orders from consistently and that she picks up other people for specialty items on an ad-hoc basis. “I can’t buy stuff from 16 or 60 little places,” she says, adding that “it definitely becomes a much more complicated thing, ordering in the summer than the winter” because there’s so much more seasonally.

“For me local is almost more important than organic,” says Anderson, a point which she frequently argues with customers. But buying a lot locally from individual farms is time-consuming and difficult. For now, there is little in the way of a local distributor for local farms for wholesaling, with the exception of people like Columbia County-based Joe Angello who acts as a liaison between several biodiverse, organic farms and outlets like the HWFC, taking orders and doing delivery.

Buying locally could actually become more cost-effective in terms of reduced transportation costs. As Booth says, “One of the beauties of the farm markets and supporting local ag is less energy goes into these products when we don’t transport them across the country and [instead] sell them locally.”

While the logistics of wholesaling are still hard for area stores and restaurants, there are programs helping local farmers get upstate products into restaurants in New York City.

Schafer has started a new program called Farm-to-Chef Express, which will coordinate the ordering and delivery of food from farms in Saratoga, Washington and Northern Rensselaer to New York City chefs, and she says will make it “as easy as possible for chefs to get it so that they can feature New York state local products in their restaurants, catering businesses or small stores.” It also helps farmers get more of their products in more markets and thereby generate more in sales for them. Schafer says the details are still being ironed out, but she expects the first weekly delivery to happen next week.

“Some of them are looking for this extra market; it’s not their only source for their product. But then some people are new and beginning farmers and this may be a major piece of their marketing and business plan,” Schafer says.

Many small-scale farmers, however, still think the markets are the best way to get their products. Seth Jacobs, who operates Slack Hollow Farm in Argyle with his wife, wraps the benefit of selling directly up in one tidy word: “money.” He says two-thirds of his business comes from his farm’s booming stands at the Troy and Saratoga farmers’ markets, and the rest comes from wholesaling.

Worth their weight in gold: Friends’ Tomatoes at the Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Market. Photo by: Terri Currie

Jacobs’ feelings are echoed by many, including Lincoln, who says that as New Minglewood has grown since they began farming five years ago, the farmers’ market has seen real growth too. Initially they considered developing more wholesaling business, but Lincoln says “It’s been enough just to keep up with demand at the market.” New Minglewood does supply some restaurants that they’ve worked with the longest but have opted not to expand more in that direction. “I realized I was selling it to the restaurants for cheaper because they’re sort of a wholesale and if they needed it I was always short,” Lincoln says. “So it’s like I could have sold it at the market and made twice the price.” He also notes that for smaller independent farmers, selling directly is easier because you aren’t required to hold a dependable and extended weekly supply like restaurants or stores require. Because the demand is there, many farmers do wholesale their products, though that can be limited by their own capacities to grow, transport, and sell their products.

Going to the farmers’ markets is still a bit more work for the consumer, so what can the busy one-stop shopper do? Read the label.

Many chain stores label local produce when it’s in season. At Hannaford, individual store managers are given the power to negotiate purchasing from farms directly to sell local products and label the produce when it’s locally sourced. “People want local products, and frankly even if it is more expensive they’re willing to pay for it because they like the idea of the freshness and they like the idea of supporting the local economy,” says Caren Epstein, Hannaford corporate spokesperson. Price Chopper also labels local produce, including corn, apples, and pumpkins, says Price Chopper’s public relations director, Mona Golub.

Stores like Honest Weight and Putnam Marketplace in Saratoga do their best to buy local foods and label them as such, which offers them an opportunity to be ambassadors of information about local foods. “We try in our signage and being out on the floor to try and have contact with people,” HWFC’s Anderson says. “So that when people ask how the peaches are we can say how they are and give ’em a taste or say it came from this farm in the Hudson Valley and they’re white peaches. You can get more communication across and people’s awareness is raised.”

But beyond produce there are plenty of products on the shelf that bear an important sign of being local: a logo with Lady Liberty that reads “Pride of New York.” Many producers have joined the Pride of New York program, which started in 1996 and is administered by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. Currently there are over 1,000 members and the logo is on thousands of products ranging from fresh produce to dairy products to sauces (like the Anchor Bar Buffalo-Wing Sauce, the originators of the buffalo wing). The department also has programs that create relationships between farms and institutional purchasing groups like schools and prisons, helping farmers reach new markets.

“We’ve seen consumers looking more actively today than ever before for local products. . . . Consumers really caring about where their food is coming from and how it’s being produced,” says Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the department.

One chain store that always has something local is Stewart’s, which started as a local dairy business. All of the milk Stewart’s uses comes from about 50 farms within a 50-mile radius of their processing plant in Greenfield and is used not just for their bottled milk but their ice cream. Their eggs come from Thomas’ Poultry Farm outside of Schuylerville.

“We like to have top-quality milk and to have a stable milk supply with some of the best producers, you’ve got to pay for it,” says Gary Dake, president of Stewart’s. “Since we don’t have a bunch of middlemen to feed along the way we can take that extra couple of pennies that would be going out to feed other people in the process and instead get it into the hands of the farmer.” This helps keep the farms stable and allows Stewart’s to have long-term relationships with many of the same ones.

Among all of the efforts to help local and regional agriculture develop, Schafer thinks there’s a place for everything and that it’s just about balancing the various initiatives. She says “the good thing that you can feel about it is if you’re buying a product that’s a little more expensive and its from a local farmer, you know it’s going to your local farmer which, hopefully, should be a little encouraging.”

As of 2002, one quarter of New York State was being farmed; that’s 7.6 million acres. And as Chittenden is quick to point out, “agriculture is often seen as the economic backbone to upstate New York; providing a number of jobs, keeping land and space open so it’s visually attractive; keeping taxes down because farmland requires very little in public services.” So an important part of supporting the upstate economy is keeping farming economically viable and marketable.

“The biggest limiting factor among the newer farmers is burnout,” says Tracy Frisch, director of the Regional Farm and Food Project. “We’re trying to create a new generation of farmers out of thin air. The average age of the farming population in New York is in the mid- to late-50s.” Furthermore, Frisch says, many of these new farmers are still “learning and they’re pioneering new methods that are an amalgam of traditional and modern methods.”

Not only is there a newer generation of farmers willing to experiment with different crops and methods, but farmers are having to learn marketing as well. Parker says, “farmers really need to think about marketing. They need to think about it in a broader perspective than how do they move their own produce. They need to figure out how to make their product valuable.”

Different areas of the state are trying out regional branding with enticing names like “Hudson Valley Harvest” and “Adirondack Bounty” to try to capitalize on the idea that foods can be associated with regions, much like the Vidalia onion. Consumers have long responded to the idea that buying American is important when it comes to factory-made items such as cars. So geographically-tied branding certainly can work, helping more consumers connect their purchasing power with the vitality of local economy and their neighbors’ livelihoods.

Farmers are in fact trying a variety of things to get people onto their farms. There are attractions like corn mazes at apple farms and dairy tours, tasting events, craft fairs, and pick-your-own operations through the growing season to try and reconnect people to the farms in our region. “Farms are having to be a circus instead of just a farm,” says Anderson, because without events “people might not go to a farm and be aware of what it tastes like to have an apple off a tree.” This Sunday (June 20), Cornell Cooperative Exchange of Washington County is holding its annual “Sundae on the Farm” at Mill Creek Farm, a horse farm. The event features a market, tours and Stewart’s ice cream and flavored milk served to all who come.

It’s also incumbent on the part of consumers to think a little more seasonally. “We get strawberries in December. Strawberries grow in June in New York state. I’m guilty of it, I think many people are,” says Schafer. In the end, consumers have to want local foods and then actually buy them, Schafer says, starting to chuckle. “They have to put their money where their mouth is.”

ahahn@metroland.net


Got Milk Delivery?

You hear about people who crave a certain hard-to-get food or drink, obtainable only in some far-flung corner of the globe. They are the rabid gourmets who plan a vacation around getting to a certain mountaintop village; risk a search-and-seizure at Customs; and endure spills, smells and stains in their luggage, all for the sake of once again savoring an obscure, cave-ripened French cheese.

I’ve become one of those craven foodies, lusting after something that, once consumed, can never be forgotten. Fortunately, the object of my lust awaits me every Saturday morning when I flip open the foam-insulated, red-and-white metal box on our stoop and pull out the glass bottles of milk from the Meadowbrook Farms Dairy of Clarksville, in western Albany County. Having gotten hooked on the boutique milk production of a family-owned, three-generation farm, I can’t imagine going back to the store-bought stuff, as decent as that is.

Meadowbrook claims to be the only Capital Region dairy that still delivers its own milk, and it certainly has the market cornered on milk boxes in our Hudson-Park neighborhood. We started home delivery in February because it seemed an appealing, old-fashioned idea. We quickly discovered that even the skim milk has heft and flavor when the only quicker route from the farm to the fridge would be if you owned your own cows. Now we’re hooked.

Home milk delivery is a splurge. Meadowbrook sells its half-gallons for $2.50, when you can get a similar quantity in a chain grocery store for well under $2 (you can also get a half-gallon of Meadowbrook milk for $2.29 at Honest Weight Food Co-op; as with home delivery, there is a $1 deposit on each glass bottle). Meadowbrook’s chocolate milk is $3.60 a half-gallon; heavy and light cream $1.50 and $1 a pint, respectively. The dairy also sell buttermilk, juices, eggs and cottage cheese.

Meadowbrook is owned by the Van Wie family: brothers Robert and Charles, and Robert’s son Paul. They have 125 cows, with Holsteins for quantity and Swiss Browns for their butterfat and proteins that flavor the milk. The Van Wies sell 90 percent of their milk through home delivery, to hundreds of Capital Region families. Business is brisk, says Paul Van Wie, 32.

The dairy does not use hormones to boost milk production (a major selling point for many local consumers), but antibiotics can’t be avoided if a cow takes ill, Van Wie says.

The oldest of Paul Van Wie’s five children help with the chores, and Paul says he wants to see the dairy operation go to the next generation. He talks about life on the farm with a deep contentment. If dairy cows are attuned to their owner’s psyche, the Van Wie herd must be a happy bunch indeed.

“God bless the kids and the families that buy our milk, and that’s the bottom line,” Paul Van Wie says. “We’re going to continue on as long as we can, the good Lord willing.”

—Darryl McGrath


You Buy It, You Eat It

Most of us have a long list of things we know we “ought” to do in terms of eating better. One of mine is eating more fresh vegetables. I tend to head to the produce section at the end of shopping trip so the veggies don’t get crushed, but then I am a little worn out and easily overwhelmed by the selection, and get only those things that are needed ingredients for planned dishes.

But from June to November, things are different, thanks to community supported agriculture. With CSA, you become a member of a particular farm, buying a share of the season’s harvest. Then every week members pick up a bag or box full of goodies picked that morning.

When you’ve got a horn of plenty ready picked for you each week, the only decisions left are how to eat it—something I’m much better at. The continued presence of mesclun greens, radishes, and other salad makings through the spring has made a regular salad eater out of me (I make them meals by adding nuts, beans, and fruit). I’ve learned what to do with ultra-spicy mustard greens (curry them), and am perfecting the art of roasting winter root veggies. The variety and quantity of my vegetable eating is vastly increased.

But of course CSA was not invented to make it easier for me to eat healthily. It was primarily intended as a way to support family farmers and reconnect consumers with their food. The concept started in Japan in 1965, and was called “teikei,” or “putting the farmer’s face on the food.” It traveled to Europe, and then the United States, where the first CSA farm was started in 1985. Today there are more than 1,000.

The benefits of a CSA approach for farmers are many. “In the spring, historically, farmers have had to take out loans,” says Katie Smith of the Farm at Miller’s Crossing, because after a winter with no income they need start-up costs. With CSA, members pay up front, not only keeping farmers from having to borrow, but also accepting some of the risk—they may get fewer vegetables if the weather is bad. In return, members get fresh produce that is often cheaper overall than it would have been retail.

Smith sells a quarter of her harvest through CSA, with pick-up points at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, the Berry Farm in Chatham, and the farm, which she and her husband run. She says CSA is also beneficial to an organic farm because it requires growing so many different kinds of produce. “If we were just selling wholesale, we’d be growing maybe seven crops,” she says. “We grow 60 crops, and we rotate them, each time we plant, so things are in different places.” This, she says, prevents buildup of diseases and weeds.

The community involvement is also really important to Smith, who says it’s good to feel like there’s a network of support out there for the farm. She says they try to hold monthly events, like a weeding day or a garlic-harvesting day, where people can “come and experience the farm, see where their food comes from.” Some CSA farms have working shares, which are discounted in return for some farm labor, or you-pick shares, which are both cheaper and offer more food, but leave all the harvesting and processing work (once a week) up to the members.

Along with the usual farming challenges of weather, weeding, and finding employees (the farm participates in an international exchange program to find apprentices, having found that too many U.S. apprentices weren’t used to the hard work and dropped out partway through the season), Smith says the major challenge right now is competing with the increase in large-scale organic farming in California and Florida. They are trying to get people to “focus not only on organic but also on local,” she says. “It’s about keeping your region alive.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

To find a CSA farm that distributes near you, visit www.capital.net/~farmfood/csa.htm.


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