Every year, we hold our own version of the Oscars: the Local Hero Awards, wherein readers vote for their favorite local chefs/restaurants, farm/farmers, non-profits, culinary artisans, beverage producers and food or wine retailers, and the winners are awarded with a feature in our March/April print issue. Every weekday till the polling booths close on January 19* we’ll be looking back at last year’s winners. Today we’re highlighting the 2014 Local Hero for Farmer/Farm: Tony Potenza and Potenza Organics! The below story originally appeared as part of our Local Heroes feature in the March/April 2014 issue.
Tony Potenza and Potenza Organics
By Kristina Strain • Photo by Heather Ainsworth
Finger Lakes Bean King Tony Potenza’s first crop was carrots. It was 1974, and the 27-year-old was living and working at Kosmos restaurant in Trumansburg when he decided to parlay his love of gardening and Cornell agricultural engineering coursework into growing food for the restaurant. And he started with carrots. “The first year we sold to the Syracuse Real Food Co-op and the Rochester co-op, and we delivered them in a yellow VW beetle,” Potenza says. “There was room for the driver and the car was filled with 25 bag of carrots.”
Despite the unconventional mode of conveyance, the crop was a success and next year Potenza expanded into growing more things—52 different things to be exact—but he quickly decided that über-diverse, CSA-style farming wasn’t his cup of tea. He cites the joint-creaking realities of growing salad greens and other small vegetables as his main motivation for turning his nascent CSA over to his employees after just two years. “I preferred to sit on a tractor than deal with a real perishable product I had to compete with my friends with,” Potenza explains. “So I got off my knees, I stopped ‘going to church.’ Beans and grains aren’t as romantic as fresh vegetables, but they’re not as time-sensitive or weather-sensitive.”
Less than romantic they may be, but what beans and grains lack in glamour they make up for in economics. When he was ready to move on from the CSA business, Potenza saw the possibility of filling a then-vacant niche in the local food scene: No one was producing dried beans of any kind. Potenza hasn’t had to worry about much serious competition over the 40 years he’s been in business. Add that to the self-stable nature of beans—meaning unsold inventory is not an emergency situation—and you’ve got a winning business plan. Unlike a lettuce farmer, who may be desperate to move his rapidly wilting crop onto grocery shelves before it expires, Potenza’s bins of beans can rest in the warehouse, waiting for demand to pick up.
Not that lack of demand is an especially pressing problem. Since the beginning, Potenza has supplied all or most of the soybeans for Ithaca Soy, Ithaca’s hometown tofu guru. He has had contracts selling to Eden Foods in Rochester, Dean and DeLuca’s in Manhattan and even a group of Japanese tofu makers who showed up at his farm in the 1980s, eager to buy his whole crop of Vinton 81 soybeans. “Now we’re doing mustards, too—soon there will be local culinary mustard out there,” says Potenza, whose beans can be found all up and down the East Coast thanks to Regional Access. “And we’re getting into Cornell variety trials for soybeans, trying to find newer, better varieties out there.”
Sitting on the tractor to sow a crop, Potenza’s body may be mostly still, but it’s clear his mind is always going, always itching to test a new variety, a new technique, a new crop. “We’re constantly trying to figure out what niche we can fill.”
9782 Congress Street Ext, Trumansburg, 607.387.9387
Kristina Strain blogs about growing food, raising chickens and home renovation at Sweetfern Handmade. She lives and homesteads in Gilbertsville.