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Buying local builds benefits for farmers

Math lesson: If each household in Cortland County were to buy $20 of local food each week, that would inject more than $19.4 million into the local economy.

That $19.4 million would increase agriculture revenue more than 30 percent, to $82 million from $63 million, according to the 2012 agriculture census.
That’s a lot of cabbage.

Nationwide, federal Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said recently that buy-local efforts created $12 billion in sales for 160,000 farms.

In New York, as part of a trial program, the state gave $500,000 in March to help Cornell Cooperative Extension in Broome County develop a one-stop agriculture development center and Taste-NY market. The center will help farmers plan and develop markets and is part of a larger plan to create a regional farmers market and commercial production kitchen.

Still, no federal or state regulation gives a good definition of “local.” A truck can travel nearly 1,000 miles in 24 hours, and a plane thousands of miles. Many farmers markets define “local” within a range, 30 or 50 miles typically. But their rules vary.

So talk to your farmer, said Heather Birdsall, a livestock specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County. Cooperative Extension offers a biennial guide to local food producers, a web-based guide to sources for meat products and plans another online guide to all food producers sometime in the summer or fall.

“There’re so many farms and we want all the information out there for consumers,” Birdsall said. The guides — a paper variant is available now at Cooperative Extension’s office at the Cortland County Office Building on Central Avenue — list farms that sell meats, specialty foods, produce, honey and maple and dairy. Farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs are highlighted, too.

In fact, depending on how one defines local, you can create an entire meal from nothing but local ingredients.

START WITH THE FARMER’S MARKET: The simplest and easiest way to buy local food is to stop by a farmers market. Four are available in Cortland County. But make sure you know the market rules.

Homer’s market, for example, requires food to be produced from within a 30-mile radius, and sold only by the person who produced it, said Bob Holdsworth, president of the market and owner of Edgewood Bakery. Cortland’s market requires sellers to live within 30 miles of the market and they must produce their own product, except fruit. Fruit can come from anywhere in the state.

“Anything to get people to come to the market,” said market manager Joan Franklin, who operates a farm in Scott. She plants 13 acres for the market, and this year will offer pork, too.

The advantage of a farmers market is that shoppers get easy access to many producers — nine at Cortland and 10 in Homer. And people receiving public benefits, from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for example, can use their benefits there.

The challenge is that you get only as much as they can bring with them — and don’t expect to get produce out of season.

FARM STANDS AND STORES: Farm stores like Anderson’s in Homer or the Local Food Market in Cortland offer variety, but read the labels. To keep that variety in the off-season, sellers must buy product from someplace else.

“Our cherries, oranges and bananas are nowhere near local,” said Bill Anderson, owner of Anderson’s. He estimates 20 to 25 percent of his product line comes from in or near New York state. “We’ve been doing it so long our supply chain is really well established.”

Anderson’s definition of local — New York, adjacent states or the southern edge of Canada — may or may not match acustomer’s. He offers local eggs, cheese, meats, potatoes, onions and carrots — even tomatoes, although they come from a nearby greenhouse in the winter.

His big challenge is to make sure his timing is right. Too much product and it goes to waste; too little and he disappoints customers.

GO TO THE FARM: Eileen Scheffler sells at the Homer Farmers Market, but the better variety is available at her Groton farm.

The challenge she faces is demonstrating to customers that her meats aren’t the same as most meats from a grocery. Farmers’ prices compete with the grocers’, but a burger-to-burger comparison is difficult. That’s because farmers are more likely to sell niche products — grass fed or organic or in Scheffler’s case both.

“People have to adjust to the idea that they’re buying nutrients,” Scheffler said, not just stuff to fill a tummy. Grass-fed meats tend to be higher in protein and lower in fat thangrain-fed meats, and Scheffler lists a variety of other nutritional benefits.

Some farmers, like Scheffler, offer retail cuts at the farm. Others sell either beef or pork by the whole or half. Some will help arrange partnerships so customer can share even further.

CSA — the all-in-one option: Community-supported agriculture programs — Cornell Cooperative Extension lists five in and near Cortland — offer this deal: Share the farmer’s risk, share the farmer’s reward.

Here’s how it works. Participants pay, up front, the cost of membership. In return, they get a share of the crop. If it’s a good year, they get a lot. If some disaster occurs, say a plague of locusts, the participant doesn’t get as much.

It can offer cost savings, but the participant can get only what the farmer grows. That’s why Alison Frost of Frosty Morning Farms in Truxton plants hundreds of varieties. “You might have tomato blight, but you’ll fill the box with something else,” she said. “The risk is different when you’re diversified.”

Her challenge is teaching customers what’s seasonal. Stores can sell tomatoes year-round — even local tomatoes, if they come from a greenhouse. Farmers have to stick to Mother Nature’s schedule.

Many farmers sell in different ways — Frost sells at farmers markets and through a CSA; Scheffler at markets and direct from her farm. Anderson has to buy from farmers, too. They all suggest getting to know the person behind the product.

“Ask some questions; you can tell their enthusiasm,” Frost said. “When somebody takes home a pumpkin, it’s like taking home my baby.”

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