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SAVOR THE SEASON: Local food panel discusses issues

September 21, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

WESTPORT - How do you reach mainstream shoppers and turn them on to locally produced food?

That was just one of the questions posed to a panel of four people in the Essex County agriculture community as they sat down Saturday, Sept. 15 at the Adirondack Harvest Festival to talk about the current issues they face.

The discussion, held in the Floral Hall at the Essex County Fairgrounds, was moderated by North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein, who has reported extensively on agricultural issues in northern New York.

Article Photos

David Sommerstein, far right, of North Country Public Radio, moderates a panel discussion at the Adirondack Harvest Festival in Westport Saturday, Sept. 15.
From left are Cynthia Johnston of DaCy Meadow Farm, Dan Rivera of Triple Green Jade Farm, Jori Wekin of The Hub on the Hill and Brittany Christenson, executive director of ADK Action who established the Farmacy fresh food market at the Keeseville Pharmacy.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

The panelists came from different sectors of the local food scene.

There was a farmer, Cynthia Johnston, who owns and operates DaCy Meadow Farm in Westport, raising heritage cattle and pigs and offering a unique farm-to-table dining experience. There was a baker, Dan Rivera, who runs Triple Green Jade Farm in Willsboro. There was a commercial kitchen operator, Jori Wekin, the director and co-founder of The Hub on the Hill in Essex who also operates a local food delivery service. And there was a retailer, Brittany Christenson, the executive director of ADK Action who established a fresh food retail operation called the Farmacy inside an established business, the Keeseville Pharmacy, in November 2017.

The panel discussion was titled, "Growing the Local Food Movement in the Champlain Valley."


Converting people

When asked about how to reach the mainstream population, Christenson said it's about making it interesting and fun.

"You just become a part of people's lives."

Rivera said reaching the mainstream population and turning them on to locally produced food is about sharing his story with consumers.

"We have a story to tell them, and you don't really get a story at Hannaford. ... It's a totally different experience. They connect. They want to hear what you're doing. They want to hear what you're working on. They want to hear where you failed."

"To me, a farmers market is like a day off because I get to connect. I get to see these people. They re-energize me. And they're coming for that same connection, too."

Sommerstein interjected, saying trying to convert mainstream customers - those who shop at the big supermarkets and fast food chains - puts a lot of pressure on farmers, who are already spending most of their time making this food.

"And not only are you trying to find places to sell it - whether it be a restaurant or a farmers market - but you're also having to be brand promoters for the while thing. You have to convince people one person at a time that it makes sense to want to hear somebody's story about where the food they're going to want to eat comes from."

It's also encouraging people to make choices about where to spend their money on food, Wekin said.

"And it's not just in their food; it's into our community, to each other. And hopefully the products that they're getting are worthwhile. It makes them feel better. It tastes amazing. And I think that picture for the larger community is meaningful. ... It's probably not easier, but maybe that choice is worth it."


Easy steps for growth

In order to get to the next step of growth, Sommerstein asked the panelists what would be the easiest thing - the low-hanging fruit - they can do to make the biggest difference in their business, something they haven't gotten to yet?

"As we reach out to more institutions or farms for producing things for their CSAs (community-supported agriculture), equipment in our kitchen is a big thing for producing things a bit faster. And our vehicles," Wekin said.

As The Hub on the Hill expands its local food delivery service, having a fleet of dependable vehicles is important.

"We're realizing now - pushing trucks and vans every day and getting to know our local mechanics and depending upon them a little too much because we're in and out a lot - having a vehicle that will be safe for our drivers and get our food safely to these places is our next challenge. And we're ready for it. We just need a new vehicle, or four."

This year, Christenson found herself on the consumer end of the wholesale business at the Farmacy for the first time, and that posed some challenges. She found that the local food producers all have different billing and delivery systems.

"And man, could we as a farming community make it easier for businesses to buy food." she said. "I think that a software platform that all of the farmers and producers of the area subscribe to so that if I want to order food for the Farmacy, I go to one website and I can do all my local ordering at once, because trying to figure out which days of the week things are delivered from which farm. Do you call or do you email? Do you use their web platform? And then what if it doesn't come or it comes without an invoice? There's just so many inconsistencies from farm to farm and producer."

Johnston's one big challenge is labor.

"A functional labor force would be really nice," she said. "Folks that show up, that do their job, and we're willing to pay them to do their job. I think labor is going to be a big obstacle for all of us."

"How do you get there?" Sommerstein asked.

"I have no idea. Do you have an answer for that?" Looking to her left, she added, "Do you have an answer for that, Dan?"

Dan Rivera said he's been reluctant to hire anyone because he doesn't want to put himself in the awkward position of not being able to pay someone.

"We're still in our early days. As far as labor, I think it's something everyone has to think about because you can't do it by yourself. And if you want to reach more folks and hit more customers, you need help. How much do you pay? Is it part time or full time? There's paid family leave now. So there's a lot of stuff to think about. It's not a bad thing, I'm just saying, it's a lot of paperwork."

Sommerstein asked Rivera about his low-hanging fruit idea.

"We just got some cows, so we're going to go into a micro-dairy eventually," Rivera said. "We have an old barn on the farm. ... Like Jori said, equipment, that's going to be our thing. A 40-gallon butter churn is not cheap and a vat pasteurizer. We think it's a good companion to the types of products we sell right now, and we have the land. We have the pasture. We have the grass. It's going to be good to get more and more animals on the grass and do those kind of things."


Business opportunities

Given some of the challenges facing the local agriculture community, Sommerstein asked the panel if they saw opportunities for entrepreneurs to step up and help solve some of their problems.

Wekin said a person could easily start a delivery trucking operation for food produced in the area.

"Do the thing that we're doing. They can roll with it. ... It's tricky. We're also in this community with limited humans. So it's a bunch of hustle. It's a bunch of long hours. But I think with creativity and working together, there is opportunity."

Christenson said there is an opportunity with agritourism. She sees it firsthand at her husband's farm, Fledging Crow Vegetables in Keeseville.

"Getting folks together and collaborating on tours, the ecotourism aspect of farming, there's a lot of great things happening in that area. On my husband's farm, we get calls all the time about tour groups, and it just gets to be a drag after a while because everyone expects it for free or you don't have it well enough sorted out to actually charge a price. And then it takes you away from your work day. So I can imagine a business that has relationships with multiple farms and takes people on tours and takes them from farm to farm to brewery to winery, that kind of thing. And then co-marketing."


Five-year plan

Sommerstein asked the panelists where they would like their businesses to be in five years.

Christenson said the Farmacy's first summer was successful, and there is room for growth.

"For the Farmacy project in Keeseville, we're trying to ramp it up. The sales have been pretty good over the summer, and we've been able to move from a consignment model - where the farmers would stop at the store and get paid for what they sold, and they'd get paid 100 percent of what they sold - to a wholesale model. ... We're finding more and more year-round locals coming into the store."

Some of the Farmacy's success came from having a full-time intern over the summer, which showed Christenson that there was a need for more personal interaction with customers.

"That personal interaction with people was huge," she said. "Out of that experience this summer, I'm applying for some funding right now to try to get someone that will be a full-time Farmacy coordinator that will work on-site."

Christenson said she's also creating a "toolkit" for other communities to replicate what she's done in Keeseville.

"In a lot of our small communities, grocery stores aren't making it or have already closed down five, 10 years ago and are just sitting as these giant eyesores downtown. ... We're hoping that this mixed-use model of having a retail option for local food in an existing building will be something that can be helpful for small communities."

In five years, Christenson said she hopes to have the funding for a full-time person as well as the toolkit for the mixed-use retail food model, "and that we have at least three other locations."

Wekin said she hopes The Hub on the Hill will improve its infrastructure within five years and that their services are "beefed up and solid."

"We're going to need a new well soon and a new vehicle. Just reliability and a personal goal for the Hub is to really get into the schools and help support that effort. So any way we can see that strengthened ... expanding the local food scene."

Rivera said he hopes the agricultural scene in Essex County will continue to grow. He envisions the Champlain Valley becoming the Napa Valley of New York.

"There's wine, there's cheese, there's even charcuterie coming out of Keeseville soon. We have awesome vegetables in this region. We have agritourism. We have so much going for us. We just need more and more people getting involved, and we need all of you to keep doing what you're doing, coming to events like this. And five years from now, we could be bigger and better and involving a lot more people, and schools, of course."

Johnston, who retired in 2012 as the Keene Central School's principal/superintendent and has taken temporary superintendent jobs at districts such as Peru, said she is looking forward to the day when she can retire from farming. Yet she wants to see the farm continue operating after she's gone.

"In five years, I think our farm will be more of an agritourism hub than it's been. I think we're going to switch a little bit more towards glamping and having people stay, a farmstay situation. I want to be an incubator for some young farmer family. So if you know of any young farmer family who wants to partner and then take over the farm, I have a transition plan in mind. That's where I think we're headed."



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