About $1.7 billion of the $3.2 billion spent annually on food by Western New Yorkers is used to bring edibles to the table from long distances.
At the same time, about $3.5 billion is earned by local farmers who exported their homegrown items out of state.
"Now if people organize themselves there's a lot of money to be made," said Hank Herrera, a member of the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group that met with a dozen people Monday night in the Cornell Cooperative Extension's Ellicottville kitchen.
"It's hard to get fresh, affordable local foods," said Herrera, who suggested that a "value chain" could supply the local population and provide a fair price to farmers now receiving only 18 cents for every dollar spent by the consumer.
Herrera, of Rochester, is being assisted in organizing the group by Joan Petzen of Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Among those attending the meeting were several directors of the Canticle Farm, a community-supported agriculture operation in Allegany; a vegetable grower that supplies farmers' markets; a woman who hopes to build a sustainable-living cooperative in Humphrey; a beekeeper; and a beef farmer whose animals are fed grass.
They agreed many Cattaraugus County consumers are uneducated about locally grown foods and don't know how to prepare them or can't afford the vegetables purchased in the urban green markets.
"There is something really important about breaking bread," said beekeeper Bob Brachman. "If you want to have a a strong family unit, [cooking] is a wonderful tool."
Most consumers in the area are unaware of health issues, while many restaurants and markets seek out the low-cost suppliers, one grower pointed out.
"The very best restaurants and chefs are already preparing regional and seasonal menus. There is a wave of this, and we have to meet the demand," Herrera told them.
He urged members of the group to talk to their friends, neighbors and businessmen as a way to revive neighborhood distribution of local agricultural products and sustain farmers with a fair share of the income.
"It's a matter of conversation. We are in a competitive business. If we don't talk we will give up that $3.2 million market," Herrera said.
He told the group that Cattaraugus County's population could be served by eight groups of growers, suppliers and consumers, while 84 farms with 50 acres each could meet the needs of about 10,000 people and earn an average income of $130,000 a year per farm.
The group made plans to invite other farmers to contribute to the discussion and to meet again on April 3. An assessment of the community's food resources and a local distribution system to serve area restaurants and institutions will be on the agenda.