August 11, 2008

The Neighborhood Diner

By George Pyle

So what do we feel like for dinner tonight? Italian? Chinese? Mexican? Maybe French?

How about eating Buffalo?

No, not buffalo, as in the North American bison, once a symbol of the American West, free-range relative to the cow. But Buffalo, as in the second-largest city in New York.

Buffalo grew into the ranks of the nation's major cities as an eastbound transit point for the bumper grain crops of the Midwest. It now sits on the western end of a state with a growing promise for growing healthy food in ways that consume less petroleum and produce less waste, making it to your dinner plate with more taste and more nutritional value than the foodstuffs churned out by the industrialized farms of today's Midwest and Great Plains.

Food tends to be categorized by its geographic origin. Look in the Yellow Pages or on an Internet directory and you likely will be searching for your meal by its national (German, Thai, Indian) or cultural (Cajun, Continental) character. Food, after all, rises from the soil, binds families and friendships and expresses culture. It's about, as an old mentor of mine says, becoming native to a place.

Buffalo cuisine is not unique for reasons of what grows here; many of its recipes, like its people, were imported from Italy, Poland and elsewhere. Our region's contributions to the national palate -- Buffalo wings, beef on weck, maybe even the hamburger -- were individual inspirations that might have been invented in any of a number of places.

Despite its more densely populated image, New York generally, and Western New York particularly, produces many agricultural products - - fruit and vegetables, milk and cheese, meat and wine -- that allow its residents to feed their families in ways that are healthier for their bodies and for the planet.

Good habits, hard work, fortunate geography and not a little wise public policy leave New York in general, and the counties of Western New York in particular, in a perfect position to foster the development of a healthy (in both the human and economic senses of the word) collection of relatively small, self-sustaining farms.

The preservation of farmland is a goal written into the state's Constitution, in a passage that views environmental protection and the conservation of farmland as compatible, not as contradictory values.

State policy thus accepts, at least in theory, a vision of farmland as not only a producer of food, but also as a land use that preserves habitat for wildlife, filters and purifies water, weighs more lightly on the earth than factories and places less of a burden on the taxpayer than a like number of acres of housing subdivisions.

State and local governments have passed policies and devoted funds, supplemented by private foundations, to purchase development rights from farmers, providing them with needed cash so that they can continue to operate farms rather than, as the saying goes, put in a farmer's last crop -- houses.

The Western New York Land Conservancy, working on its own and with other nonprofits and local governments, has placed nearly 4,000 acres of farmland in five Western New York counties off-limits for non-farm development through the purchase of agricultural and conservation easements. Some 620 acres of those reserves are in the town of Amherst and another 680 are in Marilla, a town on the eastern edge of Erie County.

Still, the amount of land in New York actually devoted to food production continues to decline. The American Farmland Trust figures the state loses 26,000 acres of farmland every year, while it has added only 17,500 acres to the official Farmland Protection Program over its 15-year history.

It is still a question, then, whether New York public policy and economic trends will continue to encourage the kind of low- intensity agriculture that today provides all the makings of a healthy and satisfying diet (especially if you really, really like apples), or whether the slow but troubling decline in the number of acres devoted to farming statewide will accelerate.

New York's image may be of a state that stretches from the Empire State Building on one end to Love Canal on the other, a picture of urbane dynamism or urban decay. But in between (and beyond, counting the farms on Long Island), New York is and long has been a big food- producing state.

It is home to some 37,000 farms that cover about 7.6 million acres, or about a quarter of the privately owned land in the state. The total value of New York's food output was calculated at some $3.1 billion in the last Federal Census of Agriculture in 2002.

That puts New York right in the middle of the 50 states in terms of value of crops and livestock produced, well behind the breadbaskets and corncribs of Kansas and Iowa. But New York ranks second in the nation in the production of apples, cabbage and wine, third in milk and grapes and in the top 10 in production of such savories as pears, cheese, fresh sweet corn, cherries, strawberries and fresh market vegetables.

Erie County is home to Buffalo's tall buildings as well as its inner-city decline, to university campuses and suburban subdivisions. But it is also a jurisdiction where some 235,000 acres, about a third of the whole county, is officially zoned as agricultural districts, to be protected in a way that does not view working farms with the dismissive term that even farmers are sometimes heard to hang on their own ancestral lands, that of "undeveloped" property.

Some nearby counties have even more of a rural focus, with nearly three-quarters of Wyoming and Genesee counties designated as agricultural districts.

These agricultural districts are a zoning designation, not a purchase of development rights. It is a legal provision that recognizes the sometimes smelly things that happen on a farm as normal, not something that causes the county to shut them down or allows neighbors to sue. That can ease the economic or legal pressure on farmers to stop farming, but it doesn't prevent them from selling out to home builders or strip malls if they want to.

If towns and counties want to be more proactive about keeping farms functioning as farms, there are two other things they can do. One is to work with farmers to apply for state money -- $30 million has been appropriated by the New York Legislature this year -- to add to the amount of land set aside in conservation easements.

The other is to have a comprehensive land use plan that envisions specific lands as best suited for agricultural use. Peter Lombardi, policy analyst at the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute, says that it is necessary for municipalities to think ahead, before they are blind-sided by a proposal from a farmer who wants to cash out and a developer who wants to turn that land into a housing subdivision.

"You need a master plan," Lombardi said, "or you get stuck in case-by-case zoning fights and you find you can't deny what developers want to do."

One fact that can be used to back up a farm-friendly master plan is the realization that, as tax base, agriculture is something to be desired, certainly more so than outbreaks of cul-de-sacs.

Studies from all around the country published by the American Farmland Trust work out to a conclusion that for every dollar of tax revenue raised by residential property, local government has to spend $1.19 in services, ranging from police and fire to roads and utilities to schools and recreation. Farmland, on the other hand, costs only 37 cents in government services for every dollar collected. And that even allows for the fact that, in New York and some other states, farmland can get reductions on its assessed value.

It's an approach that is already integrated into the Erie and Niagara County Framework for Regional Growth and that has the support of elected officials.

"We really treat agriculture and farming as real economic development," said Tom Dearing, community planning coordinator for the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning.

In better economic times it was the focus of two members of the Environment and Planning staff. Those are two billets that were eliminated in the budget crisis of 2005. The department, though, has the County Legislature's backing to refill those positions this summer.

Dearing notes that small rural towns are as susceptible to depression and decay as are urban neighborhoods. But rural towns have a better chance of economic and cultural survival -- and of building a self-sustaining tax base -- if the surrounding land includes profitable owner-occupied farms. Shops in the hamlets and the surrounding farmers support one another and, standing together, they can add up to an attraction for customers from the larger cities.

Because New York's farms tend to run on a smaller scale than the Amber Waves of Grain found in the Great Plains, much regional food is grown in ways that, if not strictly organic, are at least more dependent on the care of the farmer than on heavy use of fossil fuels and the routine carpet bombing with chemicals that may not even serve any purpose. There is even a fair amount of beef and pork produced nearby in ways that are healthier for the earth, for the consumer and even, up to that inevitable point, for the animals.

As popular as organic food has become, environmental concern will generally tip the balance toward local fare. Even if the carrots were grown without pesticides, or the pork was raised in a bucolic field without hormones or antibiotics, flying it in from Chile or trucking it from Colorado can do more hydrocarbon damage to the earth than food from the small-scale operations, which generally weigh lightly on the earth, in Wyoming or Cattaraugus counties.

Tim Bartlett, general manager of the Lexington Cooperative Market on Elmwood Avenue, says his customers like organic foods and the store features quite a bit of it -- more in the winter, when fresh food has to be imported in any event, than in the summer and fall, when local harvests are plentiful. But, at least in this part of the world, the preference for local is not only increasing, so is the feeling that health- and environment-conscious consumers don't have to give up much buying local food that isn't necessarily certified organic.

That's because the area's small operations, small enough that growers can keep a sharp lookout for insects or disease, are likely to avoid the use of expensive pesticides as a routine precaution, and are less likely to find infestations in fields that avoid the so- called monoculture of industrial-scale operations.

Bugs that like corn, or apples, or tomatoes, are less of a problem when their favorite foods are grown among other plants, or moved around every other year. Small farms can do that. Giant ones generally don't and, as a result, have to carpet-bomb their fields with poisons and stoke them up with fertilizers.

The marketplace for locally produced food is growing, from the point of view of the seller, the buyer and, when he hasn't been cut out altogether, the middleman.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets counts more than 400 farmers markets scattered around New York State, 89 of them in the New York City metro area, as farmers increasingly find that they do better driving their own wares a few miles to where the choosy eaters are than they do by having industrial food processors round up tons of raw materials that, in today's system, travel an average of 1,300 miles from farm gate to dinner plate.

Erie and Niagara counties have their share of farmers markets, downtown, in Elmwood Village and in suburbs from East Aurora to Lockport. The Clinton-Bailey Farmers Market, which runs as both a wholesale supplier to grocers and restaurants and a retail market to local foodies, operates year-round. Others run from May well into the fall, or sometimes far enough into the winter to finish off the year by marketing fresh Christmas trees.

Customers who are serious about locally grown food have long known to go to the Lexington Cooperative Market in Elmwood Village, the Broadway Market in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood or one of the Feel Rite Fresh Markets. But the area's big-time supermarket chains, Wegmans and Tops, also enthusiastically advertise the availability of food grown in Western New York on their shelves and in their coolers. "You can bet the farm that locally grown means as fresh as it gets!," brags Wegmans. "Locally grown produce -- picked just for you," Tops answers.

Local restaurants are also getting into the act. Eateries happy to promote their use of locally produced food include the hippie Amy's Place, the pub-like Pizza Plant locations and fancy date night places such as O'Connells American Bistro in Buffalo and Carmelo's in Lewiston.

The state Agriculture and Markets Department also operates the Pride of New York marketing program. It lists and promotes growers, markets, restaurants and, with its logo -- the Statue of Liberty rising above a farmstead -- products found on the shelves of stores of all kinds. It helps those who want to buy local find the food of New York origins from among the heaps of industrialized foodstuffs that could easily come -- at great cost in fossil fuel burned and food quality lost -- from Chico, Calif.; Conception, Chile; or Christchurch, New Zealand.

George Pyle is a Buffalo News editorial writer and the author of "Raising Less Corn, More Hell: Why Our Economy, Ecology and Security Demand The Preservation of the Independent Farm."


On the Web:

For videos and an interactive map of local farmers markets and community supported agriculture farms, visit -- and for a chance to post your own thoughts and check out some extra Web and reading resources, visit the Matters of Opinion blog on that site.

Originally published by NEWS STAFF.

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