Observations on NY agriculture

While visiting western NY this July, I was able to check out two farmers markets and chat with many vendors there, while also making some observations about NY agriculture in general. Take with plenty of salt, but this is what I saw and heard:

Brighton Farmers Market

Held in the school parking lot of this Rochester, NY suburb, this market boasts around 35 members sourced from within a 50-mile radius. According to its website, “The market aims to support farmers who use sustainable growing methods and to encourage farmers to move toward greater sustainability”. This was confirmed in my conversation with the market manager, who felt very strongly about this point. There were probably 20-25 stalls the day I visited, and nearly every one boasted various levels of sustainable practices, including at least four certified farms. Browsing the market’s website, I find it interesting that all their vendor listings include descriptions of the farm’s sustainable/organic growing methods, even for the conventional operations.

I especially enjoyed chatting with the folks at (certified organic) Fraser’s Garlic Farm, whose 30,000 heads a year put into perspective our pride in our 800 or so. Probably the most enlightening talk I had was with an organic pork producer whose card I unfortunately forgot to grab. He noted that there wasn’t a single organic-certified slaughterhouse in all of NY, so he and every other organic farmer he knows has to drive their animals 3 hours (in his case) one-way to an operation in northern PA. This is as bad as Missouri, which only has a single one down in southeast Missouri (where local folks like JJR Farm drive hours each way). Just shows how bizarre and unsupportive many aspects of our food system are right now.

Ithaca Farmers Market

Frankly, my impression was that this market is one of the holy grails for those who believe local foods and sustainable agriculture are the way of the future. As “a cooperative with 150 vendors who live within 30 miles of Ithaca, New York”, it supports an excellent network of direct-market farmers, despite being based in a college town of around 30,000 people hours away from larger cities (by comparison, Columbia is closer to 100,000, both numbers excluding college populations). There is little or no practical or agricultural reason that makes Ithaca unique as compared to other parts of the country; mid-Missouri and the rest of the Midwest could easily do this if the culture and economic choices were present.

I didn’t make it to one of their huge weekend markets in their beautiful lakeside pavilion, but even the smaller weekday morning market in a downtown park was excellent. About twenty vendors were set up, about 1/3 prepared food vendors and 2/3 farmers. I especially enjoyed talking with Mary McGarry-Newman of Buried Treasures Organic Farm (no website), who used to live in Columbia and Jefferson City years ago before settling with her husband on their current farm near Ithaca. They were a classic example of folks leaving other occupations to farm, and seem to be building up an excellent business in a very supportive environment.

The Ithaca market really pushes sustainability as well, including a Zero Waste Initiative that includes partnering with a local company to compost all waste from the market for use by local farmers. Good stuff.

Other observations

In driving across various parts of western NY, I was struck by just how diverse and vibrant (relatively) the agriculture was. Like much of the upper Midwest, NY has preserved far more of its small farms, and their crops are far more diverse. There were far more well-kept houses and barns than in much of Missouri, and it seemed that every other farm had a vegetable stand in a density only seen in Amish country here. With no massive 4-lane highways like most of Missouri’s major routes, it was still practical to stop at local farms and shop or visit. Approaching Ithaca, it became clear what the local government’s priorities were, as most of the standard tourist-type signs pointed to local farms and dairies rather than fast-food restaurants or other chains. Imagine driving into Columbia and seeing highway signs for Sparky’s, Main Squeeze, Sycamore, Shakespeare’s, Goatsbeard, etc.

Western NY is also home to Wegmans, a fantastic regional grocery chain that has been quite successful balancing a full-service grocery business with ethical and sustainable business practices. Often voted one of the top companies to work for in America, they are seriously dedicated to local farms and produce. Their produce sections are laced with a variety of NY-grown produce that most Missourians could only dream of right now, displayed under huge signs showcasing the farms they buy from and their practices. According to a large sign in one store, they are even running a certified organic research farm to help develop and explore agricultural methods suited to regional growing conditions, in order to help support and develop their supplying farmers’ skills and move them towards more sustainable practices. Ball’s in your court, Hy-Vee.

Now, many aspects of NY agriculture are still struggling, as a series of articles in the Rochester paper made clear. Their dairy farmers are feeling the same extraordinary pinch as others, and a very wet year has destroyed many crops, including the very common potatoes. The same issues that bedevil farmers everywhere hurt there too. But I couldn’t help but feel that here was a vision of a better way to balance all kinds of farming, and I got the sense that the NY government, though incredibly dysfunctional in many ways, has done a good job of working to support and promote its farms. I’d love to see Missouri re-diversify in the way that NY has, balancing its vast duocultures of corn and soybeans with all the other food crops that are perfectly growable here if the economic, cultural, and governmental factors favored such a shift.

In the interest of honesty, it’s worth noting that I grew up in western NY farm country, so am perhaps not quite entirely impartial. And these are pretty broad conclusions to draw from a couple days of visiting after many years away. But this is what I was thinking on the way home, so there it is. Make of it what you will.

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