From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, we in the Buffalo area spend a lot of time planning menus, baking, cooking, dining with family and nibbling at parties.
So while we’re thinking of food, let’s shift our focus slightly and look at some important questions:
How do we sustain our supply of locally grown food?
How do we make sure our children and grandchildren enjoy the abundance and variety of locally produced food that we now take for granted in Western New York?
A farmer’s view on local food
When we think of local foods, we often think of farmers markets. But there are other ways for farmers to distribute their produce locally.
Rich Woodbridge is a Lockport farmer whose business strategy is to sell his food locally. After his grandmother died, he and his wife Bree moved from California to tend the 100-acre farm that was started in the 1820s, when the Erie Canal was built, and has been in his family for six generations.
When his grandmother ran the farm, she sold all her apples and pears to one customer: Gerber, the national baby food company.
Many farmers find that it takes more work to sell produce locally, Woodbridge said. They have to spend time in the car driving to the processing plant or to co-ops, and that’s time that could be spent in the fields. The trick is to figure out how farmers can offer food locally and still make a profit.
Though the McCollum Orchards have been around for almost 200 years, the land hasn’t been farmed in awhile, so the enterprise is in many ways a new start up. It isn’t producing as large a supply of fruit as it did when it was previously farmed.
That’s one reason why the Woodbridges are looking to sell their produce locally. They’re specializing in hops for beer, which they hope will differentiate them from other local farmers. Most hops in this country are grown in Washington and Oregon, but hops can be grown very well in Western New York’s amazing soil, he said, and there’s a demand for hops from local breweries.
Food editor works to connect consumers, chefs, farmers
Lisa Tucker spent 13 years in the financial industry, but left to follow her passion.
“I like to eat, and I like food,” she said.
Tucker publishes Edible Buffalo, Western New York’s new quarterly print magazine dedicated to showcasing and promoting local food. She is also co-founder and president of Field & Fork Network, an organization that promotes connections between consumers, food producers and food buyers in the eight-county region of Western New York. It strives to create a practical economic engine for local, sustainable agriculture and to provide our region with access to fresh, healthy food.
“We have a lot of choice here in terms of local food,” Tucker said. That’s because there is so much diversity in our farming. Western New York has dairy farms, commodity farms (which sell produce), specialty farms and livestock farms.
One idea to help farmers stay profitable while supplying food locally is a food hub. In Western New York, a food hub might connect farmers with local hospitals and convention centers. Farmers would get customers who could buy in high volume, and the farmers would reap the economies of scale.
Farmland isn’t vacant land
Local farms are in danger because so many of us think that “farm land is vacant land waiting to be something else,” said Diane B. Held, senior New York field manager for the American Farmland Trust.
She told of a public hearing that was being held on whether 90 acres of farmland should be converted to use by a large chain store. One of the speakers innocently said that there was nothing on the land currently.
The farmer, who was seated next to Held in the audience, leaned over and said, “Actually, we’re growing alfalfa there.”
But to an outsider, that field that is producing alfalfa looked idle.
Only 8 percent of the soil in the world is prime soil, Held said, and a large percentage of that land is in the United States.
“Nobody is making more land,” Held said. “We have excellent soils here. It seems a bit of a sin to be taking some of the best soils in the world and converting them to other uses.”
Consumers play a role in sustaining local food supply
Forty years ago, Wonder Bread was the best-selling bread in America, but some people in Buffalo wanted whole grains. That was when the Lexington Co-operative Market in Buffalo was started, said Tim Bartlett, general manager.
The co-op partners with local farmers and gives people access to local, wholesome foods.
However, making those foods available can be expensive. The staff at the co-op have to call farmers repeatedly and ask questions like, “Hey, do you have peaches today?”, then call the next farmer.
Consumers play an important role in making sure we have fresh local foods available to us, he asserted.
“If we keep shopping at low-price leaders, we won’t have local farmers left,” Bartlett said. “Consumers have to choose.”
How can you get local food cheap?
A Buffalo State College student asked the panelists how people who have a low income could get good local food.
“Plant a garden,” said Woodbridge, the Lockport farmer. He and his wife planted a test garden this summer that supplied almost all of their produce needs.
“I think we spent $20 total the entire summer (on produce),” he said. “It’s amazing how much you can save if you garden.”
“Learn to cook,” said Tucker, the food editor. Cooking your own food is much less expensive than using prepackaged foods.
Get recipes from the generation that went through the Great Depression and World War II, suggested Held, the farmland advocate. The folks in that generation knew how to do everything cheap. She also suggested using whole foods.
The whole foods concept was echoed by Bartlett of Lexington Co-op. You can feed a family of four a delicious meal featuring beans and rice for about $6, he said, but it would cost $24 to feed them at McDonald’s.