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Local food economy overcomes obstacles

Joanna Richards/WRVO

Recently, local food has been turning up on more grocery store shelves and restaurants in upstate New York. But the local food economy still faces challenges to bringing agricultural products from farm to table.

A lot of work goes into growing animals and vegetables here, at Matt Volz's Greyrock Farm, near Cazenovia in Madison County.

"You can see the dairy cows off in the distance there. And then just on the other side of the lane way, we've got our lamb, and then our beef cattle and our pigs and our draft horses are all on the other side of the road," he said.

But Volz also works hard to take his agricultural products from his idyllic farm to busy restaurant tables in Syracuse.

Volz just started Greyrock Farm two years ago, and began supplying restaurants last year. Pastabilities, a popular Syracuse restaurant Greyrock supplies, rotates its menu depending on what’s in season – but 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," said Volz. "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 said, 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.

Volz said a commitment to working together requires lots of communication between producers and restaurateurs – and some planning ahead, so the farmer can grow more of what the restaurant really wants.

Stephen Winkler owns Lucki 7 Livestock Company in Rodman, in southern Jefferson County. He supplies Wegmans in Liverpool, outside of Syracuse, with his pasture-raised meats.

"Probably the biggest stumbling point initially 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," Winkler said.

Wegmans decided to offer Winkler's products frozen. Winkler said getting his products out to grocery stores in the region has exercised his skills as a salesperson, as well as a farmer. He's become comfortable talking to grocery executives, and routinely takes his PowerPoint presentation on the road to pitch his products.

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 unit would enable them to sell their products to large institutions, grocery stores and restaurants.

North Country Pastured, co-owned and managed by Renee Smith of DeKalb, in St. Lawrence County, received two grants totaling $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 said.

"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?'" she said.

And that was the dawning of the idea for the North Country Regional Food Hub.

"That is going to be both marketing and distribution, processing of vegetables, a commercial kitchen – helping farmers on all levels get their product out there," Smith said.

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.

This story is part three in a series by Joanna Richardson on local foods in upstate New York. The first two stories were about grocery and retails stores offering more local food for sale and about restaurants using more local foods in their menus.