August 11, 2008

Seeing the Face of the Farmer

By George Pyle

A greater number of the farms that operate in a low-intensity manner -- whether that means they go easy on the pesticides or have gone all the way to be certified as a fully organic operation -- are having both financial and emotional success dealing directly with devoted customers, and not just by packing up and driving to area farmers markets.

It's called community supported agriculture, with individual farms known as CSAs. The operations sell shares in their crops, often collecting their literal seed money up front, then provide weekly harvests of whatever's ready to be harvested. What customers may have to sometimes sacrifice in choice -- too bad if you don't feel like asparagus this week -- they gain in freshness and in the good feeling that they've done something good for their family and for the farmer who works so hard to feed them.

The Japanese call it "seeing the face of the farmer in the food."

Examples of some of the many such faces in Western New York include Mike Porter and Stew and Deb Ritchie.

Porter represents the middle of what is, so far, a three- generation Porter Farms operation in Elba. It's a farm that benefits from being in the middle of two cities -- Buffalo and Rochester -- large enough to provide a lot of customers interested in the farm's certified organic vegetables.

Some 500 households are shareholders in Porter Farms' vegetable harvest. Weekly allotments are delivered to pick-up points in Rochester and Buffalo. A share picked up at the farm or delivered to Buffalo costs $310 for 22 weekly distributions. The Porters decide what you get, based on the season. In early to mid-summmer, there's generally beets (three kinds), lettuce (five kinds), cucumbers and peas. Eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon and tomatoes come later. So do onions, pumpkins, broccoli, squash (summer and winter) and turnips.

Even with all those customers, Porter Farms still sells the majority of its vegetables to the Whole Foods chain and other grocers around the Northeast that feature organic foods. And the majority of their 500 acres grows organic feed for livestock, popular among organic beef producers in the Finger Lakes area. Which means there is potential for a lot more CSA customers.

"As it grows, we're growing with it," Mike Porter said. "We just don't want to grow so fast that it gives us heartburn."

The Ritchies, with their three young children, run the CSA called Native Offerings Farms in Cattaraugus County, between Little Valley and East Otto. In addition to vegetables, the Ritchies also offer fruits, such as apples, peaches and pears, and naturally raised beef and pork.

Native Offerings hasn't gone through the extensive, and expensive, process of being government certified as organic. But Stew Ritchie calls his operation an ecological farm, which not only eschews nonorganic chemicals but controls pests through the more natural methods of rotating or intermixing different crops to make their fields less attractive to pests.

The Ritchies offer different sizes and seasons of shares, ranging from $180 to $1,000. They deliver once a week during the harvest season to pick-up points in Buffalo, Amherst and Orchard Park. But many customers come to the farm, about an hour south of Buffalo, to pick up their harvest, maybe arrange for some substitutions from the farm-selected packages, get a first-hand look at the operation and, sometimes, visit the cows and pigs they will later take home as beef and pork.

"There's not very much transparency when you go to the supermarket and it's all shrink-wrapped," Ritchie explains.

CSAs, as Ritchie is the first to point out, require not only more work from the farmer, but more planning and more money up-front from the consumer. For those consumers who are interested, but perhaps not dedicated enough to take full advantage of CSAs, there are the growing number of farmers markets.

In Buffalo, two of the more popular farmers markets are the Saturday Bidwell-Elmwood Farmers Market, in Bidwell Parkway at Elmwood Avenue, and the Downtown Buffalo Country Market, open Tuesdays and Thursdays along Main Street.

Both open-air markets were founded to draw traffic and add to the street life of their business-oriented neighborhoods. The Bidwell- Elmwood market was founded in 1999 and the downtown market is celebrating its 26th anniversary. Both set standards for their vendors, opening space only for farmers or other vendors that actually produce what they are selling, checking out the farms periodically and banning "huckstering," or the reselling of goods bought elsewhere.

Karl Frizlen, an architect who is among the founders of the Bidwell-Elmwood market, explains that that market is more than a place to shop.

"It is important that city people have contact with the farms that feed them," Frizlen said. "The neighborhood is very educated and very alert. Expectations are high."

Steven L. Joseph is marketing manager for Buffalo Place, sponsor of the downtown farmers market. He said the neighborhood on Main between Church and Court streets is near multimillion-dollar banks but has no grocery store. The popularity of the farmers market moved it to expand from one day a week to two during the season, from late May to the end of October.

Buffalo Place also sponsors the Thursday at the Square Concerts, leading Joseph to observe, "I've learned a lot about farmers and rock stars. They have more in common than you might think. The problems all happen at 4 o'clock in the morning."

There is no reason, though, why all the food eaten in Buffalo has to come from any farther than the city limits. At least two working farms are in operation, if on a small scale, in urban Buffalo. And at least one more is being dreamed of, awaiting some assistance from City Hall.

The Massachusetts Avenue Project operates its Growing Green project, designed to provide work experience for urban youth and fresh food for city tables, near Massachusetts and Braden streets on Buffalo's West Side. Its produce, and products such as its "Amazing Chili Starter" and "Super Duper Salsa," are available at local stores.

The project also runs Food Ventures and counts more than 40 new businesses launched and some 100 jobs created through its shared commercial-grade kitchen at St. John's Grace Church on Colonial Circle. On its drawing boards are a Community Food Resource Center - - to be built in the Grant/Ferry neighborhood, with another kitchen, storage facilities and the Rise Up Cafe, teaching food-related skills to local youth -- and an outreach project referred to as "a green, mean vegetable market machine."

Also attuned to helping the poor -- through the teach-a-man-to- fish-and-you-feed-him-forever approach to assistance -- is the Food Bank of Western New York's Garden Project. It maintains 22 large garden beds for growing vegetables at its Holt Street headquarters.

Coordinator Kelly Ann Kowalski says the plots are worked by volunteers, food stamp recipients and, on their own time, Erie County welfare caseworkers. Not only do those in need get free vegetables, they also learn how to preserve them and receive training in nutrition.

Still in the dream stage is Queen City Farm, a vision for an urban farm at and around an abandoned mansion at 194 E. Utica St. The idea is to view the block not as urban blight but as urban prairie, to be cleared and turned to productive use as a farm. The location makes sense not only because there are 19 city-owned lots, with four houses set for demolition, that could become a 2.5-acre urban farm, but also because it could be headquartered in an 1889 mansion built by Louis Engel, who made his fortune as, wait for it, a produce merchant.

Another education-oriented urban farm proposal, centered around a now-demolished historic barn on Clinton Street, withered without political support but remains the dream of property owner Marquerite Nelson.

Food also rises from the various plots of the Grassroots Gardens program. That is a collective of 37 gardens scattered around the city, on public and private land, growing flowers and vegetables, mostly for the personal use of the volunteers who do the work. Coordinator Zoe Lavatelli says the program has space for newcomers to grow their own, and is hoping to get Common Council approval to add to the cooperative another 11 gardens on city-owned vacant lots.

Like just about every other economic activity, local food is about the law of supply and demand. And, when it comes to local food, there are growing amounts of both. Between community supported agriculture, farmers markets and local food offered in even the most conventional of supermarkets, consumers have a greater choice of local foods.

And farmers who live within an easy drive of population centers of any size find that, while it may take extra care in growing and the added effort of direct marketing, they will keep money that isn't being siphoned off by marketers, shippers and packers.

Nationwide, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics count $788.9 billion spent by American consumers for food in grocery stores and restaurants in 2004. Of that, $633.4 billion -- a full 80 percent of the money changing hands -- went for "marketing expenses" including transportation, packaging, labor, advertising and corporate profits.

But by marketing locally and directly, farmers get the lion's share of the money consumers pay. Those funds recirculate throughout the local economy, rather than being quickly siphoned off to corporate headquarters in Chicago, Omaha, Neb., or Greeley, Colo. It also allows farmers to resist the industrialization of their operations, to grow a variety of crops according to season, soil type and resistance to local bugs, making their products that much more marketable and their direct customers that much more loyal.

Because eating is not merely an economic activity. It is aesthetic and it is ethical.

The aesthetic part is subjective, but most people do find that food that hasn't been shrink-wrapped, frozen, flown or driven thousands of miles, even genetically rearranged so that it can withstand such treatment, just tastes better. Turns out there might be reasons for that that go beyond mere yumminess.

Research indicates that fruits and vegetables grown organically - - or simply with more hands-on care by farmers who stress quality over quantity -- are higher in nutritional value, including vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. Those antioxidants apparently serve not only to make the plants more nutritious to the people who eat them, but also to make them better able to stand up to insects, disease and unfriendly weather while growing.

Industrial food is based on a model of highly intensive agriculture, with more plants of identical genetic makeup crowded onto each acre. The gross amount of grains, fruits and vegetables that an acre of land can yield has, depending on the plant, doubled or tripled over the past 50 years.

But nature detests uniformity at least as much as she abhors a vacuum. And industrialized food, much like an overly inbred royal family, requires ever more outside support -- pesticides and fertilizers that pollute air, water and soil, as well as quick processing into unrecognizable canned or processed foodstuffs that will stand up to long shipments and weeks spent in warehouses or on convenience store shelves.

New York's lower-intensity form of farming, especially the practices favored by organic and ecologically minded operators, is much more in tune with nature, shedding less chemical waste, more likely to capture animal manure for use as composting and fertilizer than to let it flow downstream, providing more space for wildlife habitat and more area that filters water rather than polluting it.

New York food, especially when processed and sold through locally owned dairies, farmers markets, stores and from farmers themselves, is simply safer to eat. For some, this may fly in the face of the popular conception of stainless steel, pressure-washed food factories as being germ free. But the fact is that all food processing is susceptible to being tainted by deadly E. coli or salmonella, and food produced just down the road, if it does ever harbor such toxins, is much more easily traced to its origin than meats and produce that come through the great maw of industrial agriculture.

That's true not only of the kind of contamination that is likely to occur by accident, but also of the possibility, which food experts have been sweating about since before 9/11, that it might be the next modern delivery system adapted to the purposes of terrorists.

And even when it isn't horribly bad for you, industrial food is not all that good for you.

The goal of industrial farming is quantity. It's not just more food per acre, as small-scale farms can often match the big boys on that score, especially when the little guy mixes crops, rotates crops and diverts animal waste to compost and fertilizer. Industrial farming, in seeking vast amounts of cheap grain that easily flows through its processing machinery, does aim to be more efficient in terms of man-hours.

But such food, even when it produces more nutrients overall, leaves consumers with ears of corn, kernels of wheat and giant tomatoes that are individually less nutritious, with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants crowded out by starches, sugars and water. That means people have to eat more food to get the same amount of nutrition. Or they eat the same amount of food and wind up with less valuable nutrients and more empty calories.

Or, if they are poor, they eat less food than other people and, instead of emulating the wizened frame of the malnourished of centuries past, become obese, suffering in greater numbers from diabetes, heart disease and other expensive and debilitating woes now associated with living in what experts are increasingly calling "food deserts" -- neighborhoods that not only lack trendy farmers markets or organic food stores, but also don't offer easy access to even the mainstream supermarkets with their plentiful produce sections.

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