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Desire for locally grown produce helping to drive farm growth

After spending 12 years in California, Lana Ricupto moved back to the Buffalo area and noticed something different about local supermarkets: she could easily get homegrown produce.

It wasn’t always like that, she said.

In the past five years, the “buy local trend” has taken root in Western New York. Eden Valley Growers, about 20 miles outside Buffalo, has seen local buyers become a larger majority of its customers. Consumers say they’ve noticed better signs and advertising of local fruits and vegetables in supermarkets – a response the stores say is a reaction to increased interest from customers.

Local stores say they have always carried local produce, but in recent years it has become more important to consumers.

So important, that it’s not just a trend – it’s a movement, according to Lisa Tucker, an agricultural economic development and food systems educator for Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Niagara County.

“It’s a huge industry we could be supporting on many levels,” Tucker said. “It could turn the economy around up here.”

Dave Walczak, Eden Valley Growers’ sales and operations manager, says local support for the co-op farm’s vegetables gets stronger every year.

Ten years ago, 55 to 60 percent of the farm’s vegetables were shipped around the Buffalo area, now it’s nearing the 65 to 70 percent range, Walczak said. In the past three years, sales have exceeded $4 million each year.

The movement “is growing every year and it doesn’t seem to be waning,” Tucker said.

Keeping produce local has several benefits, including saving on transportation costs for buyers and sellers, and reducing the pollution from shipping. Steve Wright, the director of produce for Tops Markets, said the goal is for there to be fewer “food miles” so produce is fresher, healthier and tastes better once it’s for sale.

Tucker, who works to create a thriving regional food system, thinks people are realizing money that goes to local farms is money that gets multiplied within the local economy instead of leaving Western New York. Tops Markets pumps roughly $10 million into local economies from buying homegrown produce, according to Wright.

“Whether it’s the farmer or the person packing the product, I think its imperative that Western New York takes care of Western New York,” said Joe Dash, owner of Dash’s Market. He thinks consumers have picked up on that sentiment.

Dash’s Market, which has operated for the last 90 years, has always carried local produce, Dash said. Currently, local growers are mainly harvesting leafy greens, plus cauliflower and broccoli. Dash’s Market is also touting Clarence Farm blueberries.

Buffalo’s summer is prime for the local growing season. Dash said the local season lasts until the fall with apples, onions, squashes and herbs.

Rich soil

Despite a short local growing season, Tucker, of Cornell, said a lot of Buffalonians don’t realize how agriculturally diverse the area is.

Western New York’s nutrient-rich soil structure bolsters produce, like grapes, cherries, peaches, corn and cucumbers, and a variety of tree fruits, like apples and peaches, which all bring Western New York’s “agricultural density higher than anywhere else in New York,” Tucker said.

While some people may consider places like Indiana to be “farm country,” Tucker said they don’t recognize that those Midwest farms are mostly growing soybeans or corn. She has heard of people in Indiana driving nearly four hours to get to a farmers’ market.

Western New Yorkers may not realize how fortunate they are, she said.

Eden Valley works with all the major chains in the Buffalo area – Tops, Wegmans, Dash’s, Budwey’s – which all proudly push local produce when they have it.

The chains “are on the phone with us in the offseason, already planning in March,” Walczak said.

Jeff Freatman, the farm manager of the family-owned Freatman Farms in Niagara County, said about 90 percent of his vegetables and grains stay local. The farm, which has been around about 80 years, has always had a local customer base. Freatman has noticed “more of a buzz about local produce” lately and said the peaked interest is “continuing to keep our operation strong.”

For Janyce Phelps, a Clarence resident, the choice is obvious when local and non-local produce is side by side. She will always grab the produce identified as coming from a nearby farm. “Less hormones, less travel, less corporation,” she stated as her reasoning.

Kevin Komendat, a Wegmans produce coordinator, said customers are now more “in tune” with local produce and love the signs stores have been using to identify the farms produce is coming from.

Untapped potential

Dash’s, Tops and Wegmans have also taken to Twitter and Facebook to keep customers fresh on what’s in season and available within their stores.

Walczak pointed out it isn’t just the stores better promoting local goods. Restaurants are now promoting meals made with all local ingredients.

Tucker Curtin, who owns the Steer, Lake Effect Diner and Dug’s Dive restaurants, serves as a liaison for farmers to the marketplace through E.A.T. Market, a business his wife, Erin, owns. Curtin said farmers are only willing to grow what they know they can sell. But he hopes his role as a wholesaler at E.A.T. Market will serve as a catalyst to push local produce and increase the amount farmers can grow.

Pointing to the establishment of the Massachusetts Avenue Project, which turns vacant lots in Buffalo’s West Side into hubs for organic produce, as an example, Curtin said the push for locally produced food is “starting to happen,” and he hopes it will continue to grow.

Curtin, who describes Buffalo as a “food town,” said while there is an increase in available local produce, he doesn’t think Buffalo has yet to “touch what potential it could.”