If 2008 was the year of the locavore, 2009 is the year farmers and food buyers try to figure out how to turn the buzzword into reality.
That was why more than 100 farmers, chefs and others packed a Byrncliff Resort banquet room on Monday. Judging from consumer surveys, the demand for locally raised vegetables, fruit and meat is soaring, said Lisa Tucker, publisher of Edible Buffalo magazine.
The hunger for local food and beverages is there, and the local products are there too -- but farmers' markets aren't enough. The distribution network needed to efficiently move farm products to consumers, restaurants and institutional kitchens all year round doesn't exist yet, said Tucker, who helped organize the conference as part of a larger effort called the Field and Fork Network.
But Western New Yorkers have huge incentives to figure it out, Tucker told the crowd. "We have all of the answers here in the room, as far as we're concerned."
The daylong event featured a keynote speech from Eric Hahn, a chef who owns a northern Michigan distributor of fresh farm products. Workshops followed, on issues like composing menus to take advantage of seasonal produce and how to efficiently use an entire animal nose-to-tail in a restaurant kitchen.
There was cross-pollinating aplenty. Amish folk mixed with sideburn-sporting hipster restaurant chefs, and weather-burned farmer types sat with vegan food activists.
A tasting event, allowing conference attendees to sample producers' efforts, wrapped up the day.
First, though, everyone enjoyed some local products: a creamy butternut squash soup with crispy leeks and parsley pesto was followed by a half-pound burger of pasture-raised beef topped with caramelized onions and roasted fennel aioli. David and Gail Reino, whose steer had become lunch, accepted compliments on their work.
The Field and Fork Network will try to develop tools that help farmers find timely buyers and also help buyers get their fruit, vegetable and meat needs met, said co-organizer Christa Glennie Seychew.
There's going to be an annual food sourcing guide, with a "very thorough, accurate list of places people can source local food," Seychew said. There's plans for a Facebook-like Web site for Western New York's food community, for a source of not only the products but the inspiration and information needed to use them well.
Plus an annual conference like this one, Seychew said.
Youngstown farmer Tom Tower said that a working local distribution network would be "a bit of inspiration" for farmers who have been struggling to make their work pay off. When a restaurant menu takes pride in its sourcing, that rubs off on the customer, and even the farmer, he said during a farmer-restaurateur panel discussion.
"I enjoy having people stop by and say, 'We had your whatever at whoever's,' " Tower said. "It's nice after a lifetime of corporate agriculture, and loading tractor-trailer trucks with forklifts, and having one load in 10 turned around as a general practice, to keep you in line -- it's very nice to have somebody say, 'Thank you.' "
There's a different feeling when the guy who grew the Swiss chard brings it to you, said Carmelo Raimondi, owner of Carmelo's Restaurant in Lewiston.
"What we've done is market it as 'Tom Tower's Swiss Chard Cakes,' and it helps both ends," Raimondi said. "People say it was delicious, we say go to Tom's."
That sells a lot of Swiss chard, Tower said. "We have the same customer base, the same group," Tower said. "So we just bounce off each other, and it's two plus two equals eight."
David Cosentino, owner of Trattoria Aroma, said that eating in Italy used to leave him frustrated.
"Do they have better heat?" he would ask himself. "Do they have better pans? Better cooks? Why is this food so much better?"
After exploring the local food issues, Cosentino said, he realized the answer was simple: It was fresh.
Italian towns are surrounded by the farms that feed their people, said Cosentino.
"That, to me, is what's exciting, and intriguing," said Cosentino. "Hopefully we can grow enough local vegetables to supply us 12 months a year."
In the end, success depends on making connections between people and their food, the panelists said.
Shopping at the Tower Farm market, people have a chance to make connections that supermarkets don't stock.
When you're buying your tomatoes there and the teenager helping you runs outside to clip you some fresh cinnamon basil, Tower said, it makes a difference. "She runs outside, cuts six sprigs, says, 'Take them, you bought the tomatoes' -- then you've got a customer for life."