I eat oatmeal almost every day, with fruit and yogurt. Eating my breakfast on the second day of Locavore month, I had a moment of realization. This was locally grown food, and it was not the struggle to source my oatmeal that it was on September 2nd, 2013 (and 2012 or 2011). In years past, September meant an alternative porridge made from New York cornmeal or buckwheat groats; or cold pre-cooked wheat berries, barley or Freekeh bathed in yogurt and fruit (very cooling during a September heat wave). Great as those breakfasts could be, I did always miss oats in September; it seemed a weird thing to give up in the spirit of going as local-foods as possible, because I knew oats were and are indeed grown in New York (I was always on the hunt for rolled NY oats in bulk, grabbing them when I could). It’s not as though I was pining for the mangoes and bananas I ate when I lived in the tropics…So, what’s changed that’s made my breakfast more easy to source locally? It’s not really about a shift in the amount of oats planted in New York (maybe a little shift, but not that much). Rather, I can pinpoint two important factors, which affect every locavore in some way.
Nectarines thanks to K & S Bischoping Farm in Williamson, NY; Oats grown at Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, NY; Yogurt cultured in my apartment in Rochester, NY, from cows raised and grazed in East Meredith, NY and bottled by First Light Creamery
Factor 1. Value-Added Production. This is a broad group of processes and actions that turn today’s harvest into tomorrow’s shelved products. It could be as simple as labeling and packaging a ready-to-go food, or as complex as a certified commercial scale processing of fruits into jams or milk into aged cheese. Value-added production allows for farmers to offer more than a raw, fresh product; from the locavore’s perspective, value-added processing done by small-scale producers and artisans allows for eaters to have locally grown versions of the foods and products they regularly eat: from syrup to pancake mix, jam to bread, a lot of foods fall into the value-added product category. These processes allow for products to be sold in a greater range of venues, from farm stands to grocery stores. Because of value-added processing (specifically, farmers being able to roll the oats, and a local bakery packaging them for sale) I’m able to reliably find bags of organic, New York-grown oats in at least one supermarket in Rochester, NY as well as at several farmers’ markets. My brain is happy because I’m able to reconcile my love of oats with my desire to support local organic farms; my mouth and belly definitely notice a difference in the sweet, fresh flavor of the oats. This is not a food I just eat during locavore month (which would be something hard to source reliably or economically throughout the year). This breakfast absolutely has a superior flavor and is now just as convenient for me to source as any alternative.
Behind the increased visibility and availability of many foods made with local ingredients, there is a bigger story. Farmers choose to add value to a raw product, anticipating being able to sell it differently (at a different price, scale, venue or time of year). Consumers pay a different price for that same amount of good produced at the farm, hence the term value-added, but it’s not necessarily easy for a small-scale producer or food artisan to make investments in the technology and marketing effort to get that product made (or simply packaged according to the end sellers’ requirements) and sold. Last week, the USDA released its list of Value-Added Producer Grants for 2014. I had not paid much attention to this grant in the past, but this year it really hit me because many of the farms I work with (and that NOFA-NY works with) were on the list of recipients. The USDA funded investments for Ashlee Kleinhammer (North Country Creamery) to quickly label her yogurt containers (a major labor-saver); for hops processing for McCollum orchards (again, ensuring quality and labor efficiency) and to support marketing and processing support for many growers who want to produce and sell hard cider from their New York fruit. This grant will boost producers across the US so they can sell more than a raw product, and put that product into markets that normally could not or would not accept a raw product. Even without a grant, producers seek ways to add value to their raw products, giving those farmers sales opportunities beyond the growing/producing season, sometimes beyond the farmstand, and sometimes beyond a one-on-one relationship with a customer (which happens to be Factor 2 below). They are able to use beautiful, descriptive labels to tell the story of their farm from shelves of an independent cheese shop or natural food store and reach customers who are quick to gravitate to a highly flavorful, thoughtfully crafted food or ingredient to include in their meals.
Factor 2. Direct Marketing. Direct marketing and distribution opportunities bring farmers and their customers in direct contact, without many of the traditional buyers, brokers and sellers involved in large-scale movement of food from farm to tables. Examples of direct marketing are Community-Supported Agriculture, farm stands (wherein the products sold at the stand are the farmer’s own), and farmers’ markets. The direct marketing option often (not always) allows for the local eater to get to know farmers, to tell them what they’re looking for, to hear what’s going on at the farm, and put a face and a story behind the food on the table at home. Extremely important to both producer and consumer, direct marketing ensures that the most possible money is going to the farmers because the food hasn’t been bought and re-sold by a number of middlemen.
This direct from farm to consumer marketing works for farmers at a certain scale, but isn’t the only way that farmers choose to make their living (in other words, don’t read this as a directive to never buy local products sold outside of direct marketing channels). While value-added can open up opportunities for farmers to reach consumers indirectly, direct marketing benefits farmers and consumers to similar heights; case in point: the fruit and yogurt on my oatmeal. In my own fortunate situation of living in Finger Lakes/Western New York, there is never a week I’m without local fruit. True, about half the year it’s apples and whatever fruits I froze or dried from the summer (I admit to eating out-of-location bananas and mangoes during the winter). I am buying those apples from farmers during the winter, thanks to recently-established winter producers’ markets; I could go on for hours debating my favorite summer fruits, so ripe and tender because having traveled only a short distance from farm to the market, and I’m pretty sure the farmers near me used to think I was feeding a family of four on the amount I would purchase (nope, just me). The milk that I turn into yogurt is available at farmers’ markets, too, though I have pre-paid the farmers who own the pasteurization and bottling facility (again, value-added products) for a weekly half gallon of cream-top grassfed milk along the lines of a vegetable Community Supported Agriculture share. In short, I invest up front and hope for all to go as planned, but understand that product loss might happen and I’m not getting a refund in exchange for the fact that the farmer continues to farm. I’m putting my grocery money directly to the farmers in these instances, receiving satisfaction and major flavor rewards. This is not a challenge for me in the sense that I have to make myself do this. It happens year-round, thanks to the people who recruit producers to sell directly to consumers. Have you thanked your farmers’ market manager lately? Put that on your to-do list (I just did).
Direct buying is an alternative grocery shopping option. For example, I could buy yogurt under the label of Ithaca Milk Company, Maple Hill Creamery, Evans Farmhouse Creamery (also recipients of a Value-Added Producer Grant), or several other creameries that stock the shelves at stores in Rochester. I’m fortunate that these brands were created, turning hormone-free, often grassfed milk into yogurt which I can reliably find and providing dairy farmers a way to transform their raw product for slightly longer shelf life and higher value. Yet, I love to get my half gallon of creamy Jersey Cow milk from First Light Farm & Creamery (I’m one of the customers who “asked for it for years” thanks to regularly seeing the farmers at weekly markets) and devote part of it to yogurt and part of it to some other delicious cause (lately, that has been sherbet and ice cream). Since I’m not allowed to keep a cow in Rochester, I’m glad that direct marketing (and in a pinch, local grocery stores partnering with farms) provides multiple chances for me to secure a half gallon of top-quality organic milk.
Farmers’ markets have rapidly increased in number, and many have increased in size/diversity of products, over the past few years. Grants and incentives now make it possible for farmers to accept EBT (SNAP, WIC and other benefits programs) in New York, meaning that those beneficiaries can get to know farmers and flavorful foods. CSA is an increasingly popular way for farmers to distribute their produce, with a rise in participation of local organizations and partnerships that help bridge the price for lower-income consumers. Farmers receive their asking price, and customers enjoy quality, seasonal foods.
Yes, this whole blog entry started in a revelation that came to me over sleepy bowl of post-long-weekend breakfast porridge. A lot has changed since my first official locavore challenge (though I’d been a local eater for years prior, my first challenge caused me to examine what more I could be doing as a locavore). Locavores, what’s changed for you since you first discovered local eating? Was it yesterday, last week, or last year? Let’s all take our moments this month stop and enjoy the positive trends in our local food culture, and get out there and keep supporting the diverse and growing options for local food enjoyment!