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Serving Ellicottville & the Twin Tiers of Western New York since 1989
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Field and Fork Conference Targets
Local Growers & Chefs

By Kathleen Kellogg

Western New Yorkers have gathered together to share food and plan the harvest for hundreds of years.

The Field and Fork Network’s first annual Farmer – Chef Conference was that type of tribal convergence, held Feb. 23 at the Byrncliff Resort & Conference Center in view of the snow-covered fields and the wind turbines of Wyoming County.

Approximately 125 farmers, chefs, food educators, food procurers, food purveyors and just plain food activists found their common ground and answered a tribal call for this seminal event.
“I am reminded of all the dots out there and that nobody is connecting them,” said conference organizer Lisa Tucker, publisher of the new Edible Buffalo magazine.

Ms. Tucker co-hosted the event with food writer Christa Glennie Seychew, the producer of Feed Your Soul Buffalo, a unique agritourism adventure enterprise. The two realized they shared a common vision while attending Slow Food Buffalo events. Over the past few months they formed an advisory team and organized the conference as a way of bringing together the players from both ends of the food chain to do business and to seed a locally sustainable fresh food network. The pair explained at the start of the program that they hope the conference will stimulate the marketplace and build a sustainable engine for local natural foods.

“Everybody has been doing their own thing in a vacuum…nobody’s really linking it together,” Ms. Tucker said.

Keynote speaker Eric Hahn told of beginning his six-figure distribution business, Cherry Capital Foods in Northern Michigan, less than three years ago. 

“It has been an economic stimulus in Northern Michigan,” Hahn said of the $30,000 to $40,000 earnings now seen by some of the farmers supplying his business. “That kind of money is now coming into Northern Michigan where the customers were buying produce from Washington (state) before.”

Armed with the desire to fill a need using a small product list from local farmers, $5,000 and a van, his operation has expanded and he now distributes items from 150 farmers and processors to more than 300 grocery stores, restaurants, schools and resorts. He told the conference attendees that the same thing could happen in Western New York, with the right commitment, market conditions and a delivery system.

“We’re all a big school of fish swimming in the same direction but we’re speaking two languages,” Hahn said.

With Field and Fork as a nonprofit framework, Ms. Tucker and Mrs. Seychew have launched a certification process for “green” restaurants and hope to create an online Facebook-style social community along with a website that will help match farmers with products to sell with chefs, institutions, and processors. An eight-county food guide is also in the works, to be distributed at farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture farms that sell shares of the season’s produce to consumers.

“Our job is to make people understand that Western New York has the same advantages as Napa Valley does year-round,” said Mrs. Seychew, noting she is beginning to see some momentum as a result of the conference. The two will speak at the Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association’s “Enhancing Our Regional Flavor II” March 12 in Mayville.

She and Ms. Tucker believe Ellicottville, like East Aurora and Ithaca, is ripe for agritourism, seasonal menus, farm  markets and locavore feasts. They were happy to hear that at least one Ellicottville merchant has begun to stock locally-grown produce.

“Ellicottville has a great opportunity because of the tourism it gets  and you have the variety of clientele who could appreciate local food,” said Ms. Tucker, noting the rural communities and their restaurants and grocery stores are closer to the farmers and would benefit more from supporting local food producers than the city restaurants.

Quoting statistics on food trends from the National Restaurant Association and the results of local surveys showing consumers rank demand highest for locally-grown and organic food, Seychew told the conference-goers “We found farmers don’t understand or they undervalue the products they produce…. Those of you who have been toiling, well the time has come for you to get what you deserve!”

Among those attending the conference were David and Gail Reino of Farmersville, who donated their grass-fed beef for the hamburgers served to the attendees. The couple is now contemplating an expansion of their beef herd to supply a larger market, perhaps through some of the connections they made at the workshop.

Patty Hathaway of Hathaway Farms in Ripley, supplies a local fruit market and several Chautauqua Institution restaurants, in addition to selling produce at her own farm stand. During a panel discussion she said labor is a big issue, but believes farmers need to cooperate. She helps the Amish in her neighborhood by putting their produce on her truck and charging a small delivery fee.

Dave Cosentino, owner of Trattoria Aroma in Buffalo, said chefs recognize an “excitement factor” when going to a market to see what is available on any given day. He urged farmers to reach out to chefs to help them bring that excitement to the consumers and to help create a seasonal menu.

Mrs. Seychew said farmers can boldly eliminate the middle man in the current marketplace, while diners on the “foodie trail” will be pleased to see farmers’ names on the menu. And she would also like to see farmers develop their own websites and inform consumers electronically.

Conference-goers feasted and raved over a simple locavore menu, featuring some big hits: artisanal cider, squash soup and leeks, apple crisp and other items. After the workshop, a tasting array of wines, cheeses and preserves was laid out, destined to germinate a local foods system.

“This is an issue that touches everybody, between the food safety issues and things getting recalled, peanut butter, lettuce, meat. There are fundamental issues with our industrial food system as it is today. Given all these factors, environmental, nutritional, this makes sense for everybody,” said Ms. Tucker.

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