In the third piece in our local food series we look at some of the challenges and obstacles to the local food economy and how farmers, retailers, restaurateurs and others are working to overcome them.
Matt Volz owns Greyrock Farm, near Cazenovia in Madison County. He raises dairy cows, lamb, beef cattle and pigs. A lot of work goes into raising animals and growing vegetables here, but Volz also works hard to take his agricultural products from his idyllic farm to busy restaurant tables in Syracuse.
Empire Brewing Company decided to start buying most of its ingredients locally after owner David Katleski did a study in 2007 on the business’ carbon footprint and realized most of its food was traveling thousands of miles. To reduce carbon emissions, Katleski looked to local farmers like Volz. “We really started small”, Katleski says. “Went to local farmers markets, talked to farmers. Initially, we started with, you know, maybe just lettuces. And then we found someone that did well with tomatoes, and another one with corn, and we analyzed what the strengths and weaknesses were with all the farmers.”
Starting small worked well for Volz, too. He just started Greyrock Farm two years ago, and began supplying restaurants last year. He supplies both Empire Brewing and the popular Syracuse restaurant Pastabilities. Pastabilities rotates its menu depending on what’s in season – but Volz says it’s still not always in tune with the region’s farmers. “They like to come up with a menu and stick to that menu for about six weeks, I think it is. So, for us, a lot of times, that six weeks window doesn't correspond to the weather. And so we might have something available in the spring for only three weeks or four weeks.”
Big food distributors can easily offer vegetables for longer periods by trucking them long distances. So if a restaurant is truly committed to buying local produce, Volz says, it takes some flexibility on both sides. The farmer can put in crops earlier by using hoop houses, and extend the growing season at the end by using heat-resistant plant varieties. But the restaurant might also need to adjust its expectations about what farmers can do.
The other challenge for farmers supplying restaurants is volume, Volz says. Restaurants go through a lot of food, and he says it’s hard for farmers to produce enough to really cover it. “And for them, if they've got to deal with 15 different farms to get the volume they need, it's a lot more challenging than dealing with one, big food supplier.”
Volz says a commitment to working together requires lots of communication between producers and restaurateurs – and some planning ahead. “We're going to target the things that they really want. You know, so, we're very diversified right now, and if they really want arugula, let's say, then we'll try and do a little more arugula than we would in a normal year to meet that volume.”
Stephen Winkler owns Lucki 7 Livestock Company in Rodman, in southern Jefferson County. He supplies Wegman’s in Liverpool, outside of Syracuse, with his pasture-raised meats. He says the biggest obstacle he had to overcome early on was “educating the consumer or the store or the end user that they had to buy the whole animal, because I'm not a processor or distributor, I'm a farmer.”
That created a challenge on Wegman’s end, too, said store buyer Jim Locicero, at the company’s headquarters in Rochester. The company decided to offer Winkler’s meats frozen, so consumers can buy just what they want, when they want it—not a whole animal.
Winkler says getting his products out to grocery stores in the region has exercised his skills as a salesperson, as well as a farmer. He says he has a “whole layout”, including a PowerPoint presentation: “I can show them that, yeah, of course there's risk in anything you do, but here's my references, here's what we've been doing, and this is why it's successful; you can be secure that I think you're gonna be successful as well.”
But not all farmers are as versatile as Winkler, who draws on his previous experience as a salesman. Some farmers simply want to farm. And that’s where a new initiative called the North Country Regional Food Hub comes in.
The project started with a simple idea: to create a mobile meat processing unit – basically, a slaughterhouse housed in a truck – that could reduce stress on animals and transportation costs for farmers and help them gain USDA approval for their meats. This would enable them to sell their products to large institutions, grocery stores and restaurants – take their business beyond the neighborhood farmers market.
North Country Pastured, co-owned and managed by Renee Smith of DeKalb, in St. Lawrence County, received two grants totalling $200,000 for the project. The mobile unit, which will process poultry and rabbits, is nearing reality. But during talks with farmers as the project was being developed, it became clear they need more than a slaughter facility, Smith says: “The farmers were saying, 'I will grow as many birds as needed out there, but I'm not a salesperson. I don't have the time to go to the markets. I just want to grow really good birds, but can you find somebody to sell 'em for us?'”
And that was the dawning of the idea for the North Country Regional Food Hub. The idea is to be “both marketing and distribution, processing of vegetables, a commercial kitchen – helping farmers on all levels get their product out there.”
Smith hopes the food hub initiative will eventually flood the North Country with regional agricultural products. And then, she wants to pursue downstate markets as well.