This story originally appeared in the Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy
However this niche locavore market has plateaued at the same time that farmers face the increased costs and logistical challenges of servicing what is now a multitude of neighborhood city greenmarkets.
The long-term viability of the local fresh food movement now depends on small and mid-scale farmers securing more efficient and more robust channels for reaching urban consumers beyond greenmarkets, and, most critically, on the elimination of the barriers that have constrained wholesale and institutional demand for their produce.
Fortunately few see the answer for the region’s struggling farmers in former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s now infamous dictum: “Get Big or Get Out.” Instead market players who take the long view understand that the solutions lie in creating more robust collaborative networks reaching across the supply and demand side of the local food market. They are wisely investing in more robust knowledge-, skill-, and infrastructure-sharing initiatives.
Annette Nielsen, Manager of Community Partnerships and Food, Nutrition, and Culinary Programs at the Horticulture Society of New York, and an award-winning food writer, recently illuminated how a farmer in Central New York; the director of the GrowNYC food hub in Hunts Point; a food service manager at a large New York City not-for-profit; and a chef who operates a teaching kitchen in a Manhattan settlement house are designing a new network architecture for the Greater Hudson Valley’s regional food system that will ensure that it continues to grow and thrive.
— Susan Arterian Chang, Director, The Field Guide.
As part of Annette Nielsen’s series Designing the Greater Hudson River Valley Foodways, we celebrate the accomplishments of farmer Brian Reeves and foodservice manager Frank Walrond.
Brian Reeves of Reeves Farm
Brian Reeves owns a large tract of land in Baldwinsville, New York — 2,100 acres including woods and ponds, to be exact. The farm has been in his family for five generations and Brian is part of the fourth generation to work the land. When Brian’s great-grandfather arrived in Baldwinsville from England over 100 years ago, he grew vegetables and raised livestock. His grandfather followed with what was primarily a dairy farm. Brian’s own father returned to mostly vegetable farming.
Brian and his brother, Mark, actively and sustainably farm 500 acres with over 300 in crops that include fresh market vegetables and berries, 40 acres in rye grain, and another 100 acres in cover crops. The Reeves Farm also employs a seasonal workforce of 50 to 65 workers. Their commitment to healthy crops and healthy soil includes employing Good Agricultural Practices or GAP (Global GAP certified), the use of Integrated Pest Management (minimal pesticide use), organic certification (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York or NOFA-NY) for their blueberries and a number of their vegetable crops, and thoughtful crop rotation and cover crop planting.
To continue to farm sustainably Reeves Farm also needs to operate sustainably by financial measures. The farm now sells its bountiful produce, not only at its farm stand, but also across New York State to large supermarkets like Wegmans, Hannaford, and Price Chopper, and to New York City retail outlets like Blue Apron, Dig Inn, Fairway, and Sweetgreen. Still, Brian and his brother continue to seek better and more cost effective ways to access their existing markets and to reach new ones.
From his informed perspective as president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, one of the oldest agricultural associations in New York State, Brian speaks of how his fellow farmers struggle with “last mile distribution,” or the final step in the farmer’s delivery process. Reeves Farm also belongs to the Upstate New York Growers and Packers Cooperative, a farmer-owned statewide marketing cooperative selling produce to wholesale and retail buyers. The Cooperative is working to address that last-mile challenge, which can in fact range from a few blocks to a number of miles. “It would be nearly impossible for me to do that last mile on my own,” Brian reports. “You need a critical mass of volume to make it worthwhile to make the trip. I have my own truck, but no tractor-trailer.”
Frank Walrond of Bronxworks
As the Food Service Manager for BronxWorks, Frank Walrond’s introduction to food service started when he began helping out in the kitchen there 15 years ago. Now, he’s responsible for food service in two of BronxWorks’ five facilities: Safe Haven and the Living Room. He brings passion and resourcefulness to his mission to serve healthy, fresh foods to his clients, overseeing the preparation of 195 meals a day, 1,365 meals a week and about 70,000 over the course of the year.
Two years ago, Frank enrolled in The Teaching Kitchen at Lenox Hill Neighborhood at the invitation of NYS Health Foundation, which was sponsoring their grantees to attend the training. “I was excited about the possibility of going through the training,” he relates. “At that time, in our facility we were a warming kitchen, preparing a lot of convenience food,” so he was open to training that would allow him to serve a more expanded menu. Frank had volunteered in kitchens where they cooked from fresh ingredients, so he already knew it would be more work. But it didn’t seem right to Frank that so many institutions were preparing meals from frozen vegetables knowing the superior taste and texture and health qualities of fresh. The first change he implemented at BronxWorks was to introduce fresh vegetables as substitutes for frozen. The kitchen was already serving salad, so broccoli was the first fresh vegetable he introduced.
Frank admits that motivating staff to make the transition to fresh produce was not always easy, since it requires more washing and chopping up. He passes on to them what he has learned at The Teaching Kitchen training course, and looks for ways to cut down on their prep time, for example, finding fresh broccoli that requires less trimming, and had taken time to instruct his staff in the delicate art of how not to overcook fresh vegetables.
BronxWorks clients’ acceptance of the transition from frozen to fresh has varied from facility to facility. “At one, the population was super happy and at the other, it was so-so,” Frank admits. “They were not as into fresh vegetables.” The adult male, chronically homeless population at BronxWorks’ Pyramid, a 75-125 bed facility, had been accustomed to iceberg lettuce, and balked at dark leafy greens, Frank reports. At the Living Room a 50-bed drop-in center that houses both male and female homeless, clients come and go off the street, shower, eat a hot meal and get essential help. “Some aren’t used to vegetables, but are more used to getting a ham and cheese sandwich, not a salad.”
Frank has found ways to make the salads and vegetables more appealing, keeping them basic with red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, olives, and sometimes adding fruit. And he always takes feedback to heart. When clients complained about raw kale in the salads, he started mixing it with iceberg lettuce or spinach and found the complaints subsided.
Other healthful changes he’s implemented include beverage choices. “I’ve totally gotten rid of juice, pushing for more whole fruit, different types of fruit, and it’s working out ok,” he notes. While his kitchens serve milk, water is now the main beverage served. On special occasions he serves seltzer, providing the fizz of soda without the empty calories.
Salad dressings have also posed an interesting challenge, but not an insurmountable one for Frank. Even his staff didn’t think he was offering enough dressing, he reports, and recommended he continue with squeeze bottles on the tables, but he realized he was using a lot of dressing that way. Now he pre-dresses the salads and uses less.
“We learned a couple of new dressings from Lynn at Lenox Hill and tried them out,” he adds. “The clients love them.” “Mostly,” Frank says, undaunted, ‘it’s about changing habits – you have to introduce something new a number of times.”