by Anne Pyburn Craig
It’s chilling to reflect on how close the Hudson Valley came to losing farming forever. Between 1940 and 2003, we lost 70% of our farms while the population grew by 80%. Despite the hungry metropolis less than two hours south, corporate ag reigned supreme and local farmers starved for lack of viable marketing.
Twelve years later, there’s nothing more fashionable than supporting your local farmer. Roadside diners boast of local ingredient sourcing. Farmers’ markets have bloomed in at least 10 Ulster County locations and 15 in Dutchess, and a long list of major players—from state and federal agencies to private entities like FarmOn!, Glynwood, the Novo Foundation and Cornell University—have applied themselves to preserving farmland and supporting farmers.
|Photo courtesy of Hudson Valley Harvest.
A big factor identified by all concerned is distribution. The fallow years left gaping holes in the basic infrastructure that is needed to maintain and grow our local food system. To succeed, farmers need to be able to move their product reliably, at a greater volume than can be provided by farm stand shoppers and weekly community markets. Without that steady flow, farming is at best a labor-intensive hobby, often dependent on an outside income, and at worst financial suicide.
And unlike mega-agriculture, Hudson Valley family farms had no such steady flow in place. Fortunately, farmers and those who love them are a bright bunch. So how sustainable is our new agricultural focus for the farmers themselves?
The Problem with Farmers’ Markets
Richard and Jane Biezynski started raising chickens over three decades ago mostly because they wanted better chicken, and started selling their chickens when friends begged. Today, their North Wind Farms offers all natural pasture-raised beef, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, rabbit, goat, quail and guinea hen, online and at farmers’ markets within range of their Tivoli location.
But the enormous growth in the popularity of farmers’ markets, says Richard, is a very mixed blessing.
“A lot of people talk to me, and over the last few years, I’m hearing that the markets have been doing less for them. I think it has reached a saturation point,” he says. “Rhinebeck tried a Thursday market that failed. I used to do a market in Ossining, and the woman that ran it started markets in a couple of nearby towns, and right away, I noticed less sales in Ossining. She asked why I didn’t just split my business, send someone to cover the other market, but that’s not cost effective.”
For an individual Hudson Valley farmer, accessing that promising New York City market can be downright prohibitive. “I know a guy who brings produce to Brooklyn, and just getting there – between gas and tolls and spot rental – costs him between $650 and $800 every time. That’s before product and before what he has to pay a helper,” says Richard. “Then too, every supermarket has an organic section these days, so you’re competing with that.”
Nor is market agritourism—city dollars transported upstate in visitors’ pockets—the whole answer. “Rhinebeck has a Sunday market, and since we deal in meat, tourists would rather be able to pick it up at the beginning of the weekend,” says Jane. “One woman put it very well. She said ‘I’m not schlepping a chicken home on the bus.’”
Besides the cost of gas, site fees, and the product a farmer must bring, which there is no guarantee of selling, hours spent at a market are hours off the farm, and a farm is a jealous lover. Especially for livestock farmers, each day has a long list of essential tasks that must be done to avoid disaster.
The Food Hub Solution
Paul Alward started raising mixed livestock and vegetables at Veritas Farms in New Paltz in 2004, and quickly became aware of the issues involved in getting good food to customers and dollars into the bank. “Farmers pass each other on the Thruway a lot,” he says. “Over the years, a lot of us who worked in and loved food met at farmers’ markets. We’d talk about how lucky we all felt, and about the disconnect between the Hudson Valley and the city and how hard it was to find a humane slaughterhouse, generally how hard it is to amortize a small farm. Hudson Valley Harvest started from the question of how to give farmers more time on the farm.”
Alward started Hudson Valley Harvest in 2011 with a couple of friends, “a farmer, a chef, and a health nut,” he recalls. What with back-to-back hurricanes Irene and Lee, the first couple of years were tough. But aside from the weather, the timing was perfect; a 2012 report commissioned by the Local Economies Project and carried out by Mid Hudson Pattern for Progress strongly recommended investment in food hub development. Food hubs are, in essence, aggregators; they consolidate the processing, distribution, and marketing of food products from multiple (small- to medium-sized) local food producers under a single operation, maximizing resources and expanding a given region’s ability to meet wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.
A $775 million grant from the state department of agriculture and the Empire State Development Corporation allowed HVH and its crucial partner company, shelf-stability wizards Farm to Table Co-Packers (another idea that grew on a New Paltz farm, Jim Hyland’s Winter Sun), to move into larger facilities at Tech City, the former IBM plant in the town of Ulster. In 2014, HVH—now with bragging rights as the tri-state area’s leading local food company—tripled its production of fruit and veggies and increased its protein sales by 250%. Forty local farms were involved at last count.
“Our farms range from 5 to 800 acres, from conventional to totally organic,” says Alward. “We serve hundreds of restaurants and retailers, Whole Foods and Fresh Direct and 15 colleges. The New School started a dialogue, wanting to commit to local food; we designed a five-year program with specific long term targets and benchmarks. That allows us to build a program where farmers can grow their chickens, pigs, cows, vegetables and know the markets there.
“We’re so lucky have critical mass: great growers, great quality, a virtuous circle that builds on itself. We’re learning to structure distribution around demand. Without profitability, reliability, and consistency, none of it works.”
The 2012 report recommended enhancing existing infrastructures, saying that food supply chains are not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Successful ones, like the happy union of Hudson Valley Harvest and Farm to Table Co-packers, seem to arise organically from the farming community itself. Lucky Dog Farms, in the Delaware County Catskills, has organized as a grassroots food hub and aggregates products from fifteen local producers, marketing via runs to city markets and an email blast sent to local consumers each week.
Meeting The Challenge
Two smaller food hub proposals, one at the Stone Ridge Orchard and one at Hepworth Farms in Milton, have been identified as “priority projects” by the Mid-Hudson Economic Development Corporation. Dutchess County currently lacks a food hub, and the Biezynskis don’t expect one to emerge anytime soon, saying that establishing a food hub is expensive and a lot of work.
Professor Todd Schmit, an agribusiness management, agricultural marketing and economic development researcher with Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, says he finds a lot of farmers who would agree. “Doing a food hub study in the North Country, we found a lot of farmers interested in being involved in a food hub, but not having to manage it themselves. Some are willing to pay for the service.
|Photo courtesy of Hudson Valley Harvest.
“There’s still latent demand, and one emerging vehicle to meet it is food hubs aggregating and distributing to [major] buyers. Aggregating is key to accessing large scale buyers, as well as a mindset and skill set in marketing to them. Large buyers are interested in local produce, but they need an aggregator to make the connection, develop the communication channels, and define the member commitment that will meet their needs.
“Starting a food hub doesn’t necessarily involve building infrastructure or buying trucks—farmers or potential buyers may already have those. And food hubs are only one model; there are farmer cooperatives developing the skill set to aggregate and approach large customers.”
Schmit agrees that food hubs and farmers’ markets can better serve both farmers and consumers by thinking regionally. “Not every small community needs its own,” he says. “From a consumer’s point of view, demand and supply and availability are better that way. And as a farmer, is it really worth it to me to go to six markets? If there is a food hub available and wholesale customers, my labor and marketing costs are much less—of course, so is the price I can charge.”
Alward is a believer in his model. He sees it work daily. “Farmers come in and drop off, network, and new routes open up,” he says. “It saves people tremendous time and effort. People are working together; there’s a great spirit of camaraderie. Our part of Tech City has become Food City, and we’re looking to take more space. The dollars stay local, the farmers invest and put more land into production. It’s hard to measure the whole picture, but it’s real. It’s tangible.”