When my family moved from San Francisco to upstate New York in 2008, we tried to ease the transition by visiting a few farms. It was disconcerting to meet farmers who drove from Washington County or Columbia County straight down to the Greenmarket in New York City and never thought about finding local markets for their food. There were upstate farmers’ markets but they were small and boutique-y, with prices much higher than the city. The only local slaughterhouse processed meat into strange non-standard cuts.
In 2015, things are quite a bit better. Farmers’ markets are everywhere and the local farmers attend them. We have a meat processor everyone seems to like, Eagle Ridge of Cambridge. Local goods are also showing up in our supermarkets including my favorite, the pricey but passionate Healthy Living Market. And we’re seeing some sustainable economies of scale as distributors find it worth their time to source product from a number of small producers and bring it to market, working over an area that extends from Ithaca (home of Cornell and all the agricultural activity that program inspires) to Vermont (our next-door state and the home of Healthy Living Market.)
A good example of this principle in action is the “uncured” meats from The Piggery which I encountered at Healthy Living. They’ve got deli ham, capicola, a soft salami and the first bologna I’ve ever liked. The cure is light (and it’s celery powder, which they’re more than happy to admit contains nitrites) and the taste has notes of mace and other mild, slightly sweet spices. (The pigs are raised on acorns, which also contributes to the warm, full taste.) Farmer Heather Sanford told me that the goal is to replicate the deli meats that moms are used to buying for kids’ lunches in a natural way. The charcuterie products are sold at a number of outlets in the New England area and well worth seeking out. They have a much bigger range of products at their store and at the Ithaca farmers’ market.
I’d planned to talk with Heather in person, but she was waylaid by the flu and her demo station at Healthy Living was manned by her distributor, Tish Agagnos of Black River Produce. Black River is another piece of the puzzle, providing a full line of products to retail stores (including meats, slaughtered and packed in their own plant) while offering small farmers an economically viable way to get their products to market. Farmers’ markets are fun, but they’re not very scalable because the farmer can only be in one place at a time, and when you’re behind the counter you’re not working with your plants or animals. An efficient distribution network, as an alternative or a supplement, can make running a small farm practical.
The above isn’t exactly the same as locavore eating, in which you pledge to eat only things grown in season within a certain radius of your home in order to support the local economy and reduce carbon footprint. For me, right now in winter, that would involve a lot of cabbages and rutabagas. I rely on the Healthy Living folks to be diligent in sourcing responsibly (they were going to stock Kewpie mayonnaise until they discovered it contains MSG) and tell myself a truck barreling down the road from Ithaca or Vermont loaded with specialty foodstuffs is probably laying down less carbon than the battalions of curious or desperate foodies who would otherwise be foraging the countryside looking for something to eat.
We still need uni, and fresh ramen noodles. But we’re getting there.