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Back on the family farm and loving it

Julie Blackman, 46, is a sixth-generation member of Blackman Homestead Farm in Cambria, a 160-acre fruit farm that grows pears, apples and Concord grapes. A physical therapist for almost two decades, Blackman returned to farming five years ago when she and her business partners opened Farmers & Artisans, a bakery and local foods market now located in Snyder at 4557 Main St.

Blackman lives to tell the story of farming. She believes everyone should know the path food takes from farm to table. Splitting her time between her Cambria home and the shop in Snyder, Blackman is most happy on a country porch on the Niagara Escarpment with fragrant fruit growing as far as the eye can see.

People Talk: Why wasn’t farming your first career choice?

Julie Blackman: I was accepted in the Cornell University agriculture program, but I was the oldest of four kids, and we ran a dairy farm growing up. We couldn’t leave the farm until after 9 a.m. and we had to be back by 5 so my Dad could milk everyday. As a young kid it was fun. As a teenager we had to work all the time. There was a point where I wanted out. I had a fantastic career in physical therapy. I don’t regret that at all.

PT: What brought you back to the farm?

JB: It was time. Things were changing in local foods. My parents took the leap when they started their U-Pick business back in the ’70s. I was 5, and agritourism was just starting. There were struggles. We had sold the dairy herd in the ’80s, but farming is what we’ve done forever so we constantly had to reinvent our farming business. That’s exactly what we’re doing now with the value-added products.

PT: Explain that, please.

JB: Fruit butter, pie filling, sauces. It’s taking a base commodity and producing a product that has a shelf life and can be stored. Potato chips are value added. They are niche products and that’s where agriculture is heading. Starting the value-added product line allowed me to go to farmers’ markets year round.

PT: What led to your food shop?

JB: It was a huge leap. I realized the potential in local foods – knowing what you eat and where it came from. Those things were cycling back. My grandparents ate locally. I bet they never had avocados. I doubt they had Chilean grapes.

PT: You bundle your products in interesting ways. A mixed meat box?

JB: That goes over very well. I get combinations of meat from different farmers. I just finished a “Julie bought a pig sale.” I buy fabulous whole pigs from T-Meadow Farm in Newfane. I sold two pigs in a day and a half – head to tail. That was a learning curve for me – the different cuts, what customers like, what size thickness. I inventoried it, put it on a spreadsheet – the cuts and the pricing – and put it in our newsletter. We brought all the pork here. Because it was so cold, we had outside freezer space. I lined all the bags up outside against the building for my customers to pick up.

PT: You are a grand facilitator.

JB: I act as a connector for the farmers who I’ve known and grown up with. My parents are among generations of farming families who I have connections with. I tell their story through the newsletter. I make it fun. I think it’s very important for people to know where their food came from, that they know what goes on behind the scenes. But also to have an appreciation of what it takes to get it to their table. I think it’s crucial to everyone’s health and well-being.

PT: You must go through a lot of gas fetching all the produce.

JB: Off-season, a tank and a half of gas each week. During the season about two tanks. I now have a line of bottled juices – our pear juice and apple cider. I haul our fruit to Dundee in a big pickup truck for processing. It takes me about seven hours round trip. Plus I pick up some of the produce from the farmers, too. We’re getting big enough now that I need to hire transportation services to help us. I need new tires this year.

PT: You deal regularly with different farmers. What about them surprises you?

JB: How resourceful and perseverant farmers are. We can fix anything. We figure out how to make things work to get through a season.

PT: Tell me about hydroponically grown tomatoes.

JB: They’re grown in Niagara County. They’re grown right next to Modern Landfill. The methane gas is captured and funneled underground to the 12-acre of greenhouses. It is converted into heat and electricity.

PT: Are you a procrastinator?

JB: Some things. Some days I call procrastination days and I write a list of everything I’ve been procrastinating on, little things, and I do them. Like a handle fell off something and it would take five minutes to fix.

PT: Do you go to supermarkets?

JB: Rarely, between here, what we produce and farm stands. I do like my avocados.

PT: What’s your favorite food?

JB: I love meat. Steak, vegetables – and chocolate.