Local Farmers, Food Vendors and Students Learn from Each Other

March 13, 2019

By Monica Calzolari

Students benefit by connecting what they are learning in the classroom with real needs in the community. Dr. Carlena Ficano, Professor of Economics and Business Administration and Accounting Department Chair, brought a group of 17 local farmers and food purchasers to campus recently for a moderated discussion to identify the barriers to accessing more local food. This project is being conducted in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schoharie and Otsego Counties and with support from the Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE).

The four students enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Hub class titled “Envisioning Models for a Regional Agricultural Development Center” presented statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (2012 Census), the United States Census’ American Community Survey, and the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. This gave the farmers and food purchasers in the room a macroeconomic view of the supply and the demand for their products.Bar graph of data from 2013-17 American Community Survey and 2017 Consumer Expenditure Survey

There was a lively, 2-hour exchange among the 25+ participants who met in Hartwick’s Makerspace, one of three innovation stations on campus that is part of the College’s Griffiths Center for Collaboration & Innovation. The census data was an eye-opener. It showed that there are 2,231 farms in the surrounding three counties of Otsego, Schoharie and Delaware with a large percentage of those farms being small or medium sized farms of 10-49 or 50-179 acres.

The annual median income of a farmer in this area is only between $16,000 and $18,000. This number resonated with one farmer in the room who added “Farming is a full court press, a 24/7 job.” 

Three-county area map showing numbers of farms in eachDr. Ficano explained, “Access to locally-grown and produced food is important to consumers in the region, and enhanced farmer profitability represents an important component of economic development in Otsego and the surrounding counties.”

Tianna Kennedy of Star Route Farm and The 607 CSA pointed out that “big agriculture is subsidized by the government and so is the transportation to distribute the products to market.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the American farming industry. USDA duties range from helping farmers with price support subsidies, to inspecting food to ensure the safety of the American public. Many participants agreed that “Good Agricultural Practices” and Food Safety Programs are expensive to maintain. It is hard to be profitable farming the land.

Distribution and price were central themes among the farmers and purchasers of their products. An executive chef from A.O. Fox Hospital, Michael Dufresne, said “People want price and convenience.” He said “Restaurants need reliability and consistency year-round. It is easier to call Sysco than to call 3 different farms who can only supply a small portion of the full order.”

Sysco Corporation is a multinational corporation headquartered in Houston, TX that markets and distributes food products to restaurants, healthcare and educational facilities, hotels and inns. It boasts annual revenue of $55.37 billion (2017).

Shannon Finn of Danforth Jersey Farm in Jefferson described her dairy farm as a 7th generation family business that has been in operation for 202 years. The farm produces milk, yogurt, cheese, butter and beef jerky from its 40-45 cows and sells mostly within a 60 mile radius. Two owners from The Green Earth, one of her customers, were part of the discussion and carry her products. Finn educated her peers saying “Milk is the most perishable product and is hard to transport.” Her newest product is beef jerky.

Another dairy farmer, Tom McGrath, who operates a 100% grass-feed farm with 58 cows shared with the group that for some companies “25% of the price of milk pays for marketing.” With such a low annual income, it is hard for small local farms to compete and market themselves. McGrath suggested to “share a cold storage facility and a cold storage truck.”

Another way to build awareness and educate customers about the benefits of “Buy Fresh. Buy Local” is participating in “Family Farm Day,” held annually in August. According to David Cox, a representative from Cornell Extension, 55 farms participate in this form of agritourism and attract local residents and tourists as well.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is another way for multiple small farms to share their crops with local consumers. Rather than the farmer paying for marketing, members of the community pay a subscription of $30 per week for 26 weeks and receive $780 worth of fresh, locally-grown vegetables. The CSA market “grows by 30% every year” according to Tianna Kennedy of The 607 CSA. Farming the land is very labor intensive. In addition, small farmers must spend a lot of time on the road delivering their products to merchants and consumers. Therefore, distribution is a major barrier to more people accessing locally-grown and produced foods.

Entities like the Lucky Dog Food Hub helped Catskills producers get their products into as many kitchens as possible. New York City is a prime market for these goods; however delivering to NYC and returning to Central New York is a 7-hour round-trip commitment. Paying livable wages plus transportation costs makes distribution costs a barrier to more accessibility to locally-grown products.

Headwater Food Club in Rochester was cited as a successful aggregation point for farmers to drop off their products in a designated place so that consumers can easily access local produce. Some of the participants wished that there was a similar aggregation hub closer to Central New York.

Devin White works for ARAMARK Food & Support Services Group, Inc.  and manages approximately 50 employees who supply food services to Hartwick College. He feeds about 1,200 people per day on campus through catering, cafes, and the cafeteria. He was born in and bred in Delaware County and said he “is committed to sourcing and buying more products from local farmers.” ARAMARK is headquartered in Philadelphia, PA, employs 270,000 people. Aramark provides food service, facilities and uniform services to hospitals, universities, school districts, stadiums and other businesses around the world. It remains to be seen how local farmers can supply products to Aramark at Hartwick College and how efficiently can they do this.

Educating consumers about the price and the quality of locally-grown and produced products was another topic of conversation.  Shannon Finn of Danforth Jersey Farm said “There is a mentality out there that food should be cheap.” She mentioned that some of her friends do their grocery shopping at Aldi and Walmart and are looking for ways to cut their grocery bills even further.

Aldi is a discount supermarket chain with over 10,000 stores in 20 countries owned by two German families with revenue of more than €50 billion annually.

Walmart Inc. is another multinational corporation that operates a chain of hypermarkets, discount department stores, and grocery stores. Headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, Walmart employs over 2.2 million people and generated revenue of $138.8 billion in 2018.

A family farm with a few employees cannot compete with these huge corporations. There is a lack of understanding about why local foods are more expensive which needs to be addressed.

Perry Willett is a freshman at Hartwick College enrolled in this “Envisioning Models for a Regional Agricultural Development Center.” She grew up in Huntington, Vermont and was introduced to organic foods by her school cafeteria. She is convinced that “education about the value and benefits of locally-grown food should start with young people.” She grew up requesting that her parents buy foods that she tried in school. The state of Vermont can be a role model for the state of New York. VT has figured out how to get local foods into the hands of local consumers on a large scale through the school system. Willett expressed a desire for the Hartwick cafeteria to offer “healthier food choices.”

Taylor Diepold, another member of this class, also understands the importance of a healthy diet. As a Biology/pre-med major interested in becoming a physical therapist, Diepold studies the relationship between the mind, body, and spirit through exercise, hot yoga, and a no sugar diet. She expressed appreciation for the valuable “connections” she is able to make with “with local businesses and local farmers through a directed study with Professor Carli Ficano.” Her course of study epitomizes what Hartwick does best: hands-on, interdisciplinary learning.

“For the students in the class, this topic is far more than academic” said Dr. Ficano. “Immersed in the reality of local agricultural and each with their own personal connection to sustainable food production, they are learning to negotiate the entrepreneurial process of research and design with an eye towards making a meaningful contribution to their adopted home community.”