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New center could help food, farm enterprise

LOCKPORT – Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County is trying to gauge interest in the farm and food community in a new center that would give its members a place to test and develop new products.

From farmers who want to create new food products and want to sell them directly, to shopkeepers who want to market new agricultural products, the new facility would be an active aid to hopes to bolster the region’s food industry.

Cathy Lovejoy Maloney, extension executive director, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted her organization $24,000 to pay for a feasibility study for the proposed new Food Enterprise Center.

The study will be done in-house, rather than hiring a consultant. A survey is available through a link at cceniagaracounty.org.

“We’re looking at it in terms of need – would it be used, is it wanted?” Maloney said. “That’s why we wanted to go to a planning grant, instead of straight into implementation.”

James J. Bittner, president of the Niagara County Farm Bureau, said he thinks that demand is out there.

“There is no facility like that here locally,” said Bittner, owner of Singer Farms in Newfane. “We really have to go to Geneva for that.”

The Finger Lakes community hosts an experimental kitchen and a Food Venture Center, which is a small food-processing center, aimed at fruit and vegetable products.

“If you want to do dairy, you have to go to Cornell,” Bittner said, referring to a site owned by Cornell University in Ithaca. “There is no test kitchen you can play with here.”

Maloney said, “We’ve got a building here on our grounds that we think would be perfect for it,” referring to a little-noticed structure near the Merchants Building on the County Fairgrounds, a one-story brick building.

“There’s been different businesses in there, so it’s an office format,” she said. “Recently, we rented it as a residential.”

It has an existing kitchen, which would have to be upgraded to commercial caliber, and potential conference space, too.

The fairgrounds has many buildings that are used one week out of the year, during the county fair, and one of Maloney’s goals is to figure out ways to make use of those facilities year-round.

“We certainly are looking for other kinds of stakeholders to get involved,” Maloney said.

But the food center would be focused primarily on people who want to create products. “Let’s say, they want to do a value-added product of something they’re already growing on their farm,” Maloney said, “or an entrepreneur wants to bake pies or make jams or sauces. They’re required to do it in a certified commercial kitchen, so we would have that.”

Bittner said product development is required in such a kitchen “to pass all the health inspections.”

Maloney said, “You used to be able to bake cookies and go to a farmers’ market and sell them. They don’t allow that anymore.”

The proposed Lockport center would offer not only a proving ground for all sorts of food products, but an educational component, as well.

“It could be business planning, marketing, how to start a business legally, all those sorts of requirements,” Maloney said. “We get calls, a fair amount now, from people who want to sell at a farmers’ market. From what we’ve seen, there’s not that access to a commercial kitchen that people would need.”

The idea isn’t limited to Niagara County. Maloney said she’s interested in the response to her plan from neighboring counties. The kitchen and other services would be available for a fee, yet to be determined, she said.

Besides saving local farm entrepreneurs costs of travel or development in their own facilities – if they have them – the proposed center would make more use of the expertise on the extension staff. New jobs probably would be created with the center, Maloney said.

“If this becomes big enough and busy enough,” Maloney said, “we would probably add to our staff.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com