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Food Sunday: Where Food Meets Entrepreneurship

So, Aunt Toby figures that everyone is pretty well ‘sick’ (heh) of hearing about the food-borne disease of the week. So, today, we’re going to talk about where the rubber (so to speak) meets (or meats, depending…) the road, which is where the entrepreneurship road comes up to the field. This week has been a double-header for our area in terms of news stories on this topic.

First, and not the least important because I’ve been waiting for this: Dean and Deluca Come to Norwich

There is a long history of Upstate New York farms providing milk for the New York City market, and every once in a while, we read about individual growers who are providing some specific item for one specific restaurant in New York City, but almost all of these growers are within a travel radius of less than two hours from the city. It was almost as if, for the New York City market, no one was willing to recognize that there were people growing all sorts of wonderful stuff past the 100 mile mark. And, even more so, that if they’d just turn their heads to the left, up Route 17 (Future I86!!), there is even more still. With the announcement that an organic grower in the Norwich area (which is in the next county up from me and even more ‘strategically isolated’ as they say, since the only way to get there is to use the ‘dog-leg’ to my area and then take secondary roads up from here – you’ve gotta really WANT to go up there), getting a contract with a large New York City specialty grocery chain, this is huge. This means that buyers are willing to leave the city, travel what is actually a very good distance, to find produce. You can’t even claim that this is really ‘local’ – but it’s certainly more local than Florida, Texas, Arizona or California. So, obviously these folks are doing something very very right in terms of growing what D&D need and want AND being able to get it to them at the level of quality and condition that D&D’s customers expect and will pay for. As I’ve said many times before here – FANAFI (Find a need and fill it) does not have to be high tech.  . . .

Second – and an organization that I’ve mentioned a number of times here but they have now hit the ‘big time’ media-wise, Cayuga Pure Organics: Cayuga Pure Organics

My interest in these folks is historic as well as entrepreneurial: They were probably the first in Upstate New York to recently recognize two things and act on them. First, that Upstate New York was, at least until the opening up of the big grain growing areas in the upper Midwest, a huge provider of grains to the country. Buffalo and Rochester, New York basically built their economies after the opening of the Erie Canal (1825) on milling the grain grown by Upstate New York farmers. Much of the breeding and selection of wheat varieties, for example, was done by independent farmers and farmer-seedsmen in Upstate New York in this period and one variety, Genesee No. 3, became the standard wheat for milling into bread flour. So, from the aspect of climate, rainfall, soil quality, etc., Upstate New York was a very good place to grow grains in the 19th century – could it be that it would still be good now? And second, that in the area, there was a growing demand for organic feeds for livestock. Customers want organic meat – and if you want to grow your livestock organically, it is not just a case of not using antibiotics. If you are feeding grain, you need to be completely in control of how the grain is grown, how it is handled, where it is milled and packaged. You can’t just call up your standard feed mill and ask to have them make you organic feed – their milling equipment is filled with the dust and remains of grains from other places that are NOT organic, or perhaps are genetically modified, or perhaps have other additives in them that you don’t want.

What the two farmers who started Cayuga Pure Organics found was once people found out that they were growing grains organically, they wanted them for human consumption and they also wanted organically grown dried beans. This business has been grown since its beginning in 2003 to not only serve food co-ops and restaurants in the Upstate New York area, but also the Green Markets and restaurants in New York City. They have also, through their partnerships with local farmers, started a flour mill for organic flours and meals.

But, let’s look at a couple of things here in terms of how this has worked.

First, the two farmers who started this could not have succeeded if they had not been able to find other farmers in the Tompkins County area who were already growing organically (and therefore, their soils were already certified organic) and who wanted to partner up to agree to grow grains and beans that were being requested. Could farmers in other areas, in other states, find the same enthusiasm and flexibility? They might, or they might not. Tompkins County, New York is a unique place, in the middle of another interesting place, the Finger Lakes. Tompkins County is home to Cornell University, which is a powerhouse of agricultural and ag marketing research. It also is the home to probably one of the most famous farmers markets in the country – the Ithaca Farmers Market is an actual destination retail center, where everything sold must be made or grown within one hour circumference of Ithaca. It probably has one of the highest per capita consumptions of Birkenstocks, organic food, vegan restaurants, and hybrid or electric vehicles in the country. They have their own monetary system with the means of exchange being an item called “Ithaca Bucks”, which is widely accepted not only at retail but for every service from music lessons to physical therapy.

Also, being nestled in what might be considered one of the gateways to the Finger Lakes, people in Tompkins County have had a front row seat to view the incredible and explosive growth in not only ‘Finger Lakes Wine Industry’ per se, but the specialization and localization of that, with the wine ‘trails’ on Seneca and Keuka lakes to the west, and more recently, the phenomenal growth of the wine trail on Cayuga Lake, Ithaca’s lake. So, residents, businesses and farmers are surrounded in that area by the powerful ideas of ‘find a need and fill it’, ‘our area is special and our products are or can be special’ and ‘there is every advantage to selling direct to the consumer.’ All of these things, coupled with a willingness to try things out, get their feet ‘wet’ by serving a local market, and more than a bit of self-promotion and use of the internet, has grown their business and brought these farmers other people who now work for them and who are now getting ready to become the second generation to run the business.

Considering what has been going on in terms of grain growing in other parts of the country and the world, this is not a bad thing at all.

[photos courtesy of New Amsterdam Market]

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Snarky housewife from Upstate New York. Into gardening, fiber arts, smallholder farming.