Written by Karen Miltner, photos by Jan Regan and Heather Ainsworth
Like a lot of couples who work long hours, Rick and Laura Pedersen appreciate home-cooked meals at the end of a busy day, but time is not always on their side. Even though the couple’s Seneca Castle farm business cultivates hundreds of acres of vegetable crops, they sometimes rely on Blue Apron, the national meal kit service that ships pre-measured ingredients, to get work-night dinners on the table at a reasonable hour.
For the Pedersens, that Blue Apron box sometimes arrives with a pinch of irony. The Romanesco cauliflower that will end up as a vegetable side dish actually originated in their own fields. The crop was shipped to a distribution/production center in Newark, N.J., and then boomeranged back to the Finger Lakes in a ready-to-cook state along with information about all the farms that supplied the ingredients for that meal.
“My son uses Blue Apron year-around and sometimes sends me pictures of my cabbages. He lives in New York City,” says Rick Pedersen, who has been selling cabbage, kale and Romanesco to the meal kit company for the past three growing seasons.
For boosters of Finger Lakes agriculture, scenarios like these could be pegged as finding local foods where you least expect them, as the demand for local pushes beyond direct-marketed channels.
“Local foods are not only what we see in farmers markets and CSAs,” says Miguel Gómez, an associate professor at Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “Most of the local foods make their way to consumers through channels with intermediaries in them.”
In fact, direct-marketed foods—that is, foods that are sold to the end consumer by the farmer who produced them—make up only a sliver of the total food chain. According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, sales of direct-marketed foods comprise only .5% of total consumer food and beverage dollars (yes, that’s a decimal point in front of that number).
In the past couple of years, farmers markets across much of the country have reported a drop in sales, according to the Farmers Market Federation of New York. Meanwhile local foods sales are growing exponentially. The USDA cites a jump from $12 billion in 2014 to an estimated $20 billion by 2019.
So where is all this local food hiding? It could be in your next meal kit delivery. Or even more likely, it could be in your local supermarket, which has been, in certain categories, diligently carrying local foods for decades, albeit without the meet-your-farmer fanfare.
Take the dairy aisle, for example. Milk and other dairy products such as cottage cheese, yogurt and sour cream always carry a numeric code on the packaging that identifies the facility where it was processed. The first two digits indicate the state (New York’s numbers are 36), followed by a hyphen and several more digits that correspond to the specific processing plant. While this code doesn’t specify the farms where the milk came from, it’s safe to assume the farms are regional.
Eggs are also a supermarket staple that frequently have a local/regional source, though it may not be as easy to tell. Clarence-based Kreher Family Farms, operators of a large egg farm in Wolcott that supplies national brands such as Eggland’s Best as well as Wegmans private label eggs, recently launched contracts with three small family farms—Ray Chels Farm and Cedar Valley Farm in Dundee and Big Oak Farm in Penn Yan—to supply pasture-raised, free-range organic brown eggs that originally were sold under the Born Free brand but will soon transition to the Wegmans private label.
“The pasture-raised regulations need small flocks and so we began contracting with these farms in 2017,” says owner Natalie Kreher.
Pasture-raised hens must be allowed to peck and roam outdoors and feed on grass and insects. Many call it the gold standard for humane treatment and nutritional superiority.
Frozen and canned vegetables and fruits are another supermarket arena where “invisible” local foods abound, and are available year-round, says Mike Gardinier. He is vice president of operations at Farm Fresh First, an Oakfield company that acts as an intermediary between farms throughout western New York (including the Finger Lakes) and Bonduelle, a private label packer that packs a huge variety and quantity of frozen vegetables (beans, carrots, corns, peas, just to name a few) for various food retailers.
The morning we spoke by phone in mid-September he was tracking sweet corn that was being harvested in the Finger Lakes. The corn would then be frozen at a Bergen processing plant, then packaged in a Brockport packing facility. It would eventually end up in all of the region’s major supermarket chains under their house brands, from Tops and Wegmans to Aldi and Walmart.
One vegetable that is making the transition from frozen to fresh and from imported to local is Mr. Edamame brand organic edamame. Ithaca-based Delight Farm introduced one-pound bags of the young legumes this fall to Wegmans as well as to New York City Asian markets. Delight Farm provides the seed variety, growing techniques and harvesting and processing equipment to its partner farms (Pedersen Farms is one).
Another area where locally grown is gaining a surprisingly strong foothold is in the Wegmans bakery department. About six years ago, the grocery retailer began sourcing Finger Lakes grains (soft white and hard red winter wheats, rye, spelt and einkorn) and developed a variety of breads containing some or all locally grown flour, from an organic miche sold throughout the chain to an heirloom einkorn rye (made and sold only at the Pittsford store with an in-store mill). If the loaves contains at least 25% local grains, they are identified with a sticker and in-store sign, says company spokeswoman Jo Natale.
Many loaves, including the chain’s line of organic sandwich breads, contain a smaller percentage, staying under the radar.
“This has given us a whole new market for locally grown grains, and it is a project that expands each year with more acreage and more farms,” says Mary-Howell Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yan.
Martens credits Wegmans artisan baker Nick Greco with the program’s success. “He makes [these grains] work as if they were commodity flour, despite their inconsistencies,” she says.
Looking for local foods beyond farmers markets raises questions about what the term “local” even means. There is no universally accepted definition, leaving it up to different entities and businesses to decide for themselves. The Ithaca Farmers Market, for example, only accepts vendors within a 30-mile radius. Some state agriculture departments say “local” lies within state borders. Meanwhile, the 2008 Farm Act gives a 400-mile span for farm products to be marketed as local.
Cornell’s Gómez prefers the broader, more far-reaching definition. Commercial producers who wholesale their products may not have the face-to-face cachet of a small family farm, but they are nonetheless vital to a sustainable local foods system, generating employment and economic activity, he argues.
The big guys also help the small guys. In Wayne County, the largest apple-producing county in the state, for example, the large apple growers serve as a food hub for smaller farms, providing cold storage and marketing for businesses that would otherwise not be able to reach markets year-round. Large local crop producers can also, for a fee, provide harvesting and post-harvesting equipment and processing to smaller farmers so they can get their products to market.
“Farmers markets and CSAs deservedly have a great reputation but they are but a tiny fraction of the food system. Their potential for growth is limited. In contrast, the opportunity to promote Finger Lakes food crops through supermarket and food service channels is huge,” Gómez adds.
Recovering food writer Karen Miltner lives and works in Geneva.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of the magazine.