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Pick of the Crop—Five Perspectives on Local Food in the Hudson Valleyby Jamaine Bell

Produce Bin, Adam’s Fairacre Farms

With the warming days of April, many here are turning their thoughts to growing food, with the anticipation of those first lettuces to come as an incentive to grab the shovel and get digging. Those of us that don’t have access to gardens have options for great local produce as well, with all of the Hudson Valley farms, farm-stands, CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture), and stores that make a determined effort to provide local foods. No doubt about it, the Hudson Valley is a very special and unique place in terms of its localvore lifestyle. We have managed to keep our farm heritage alive, while other areas of the country are grappling with crop monoculture and the corporatization of food production, or the abandonment of farming altogether.

Cheese Display, Adam’s Fairacre Farms

But don’t get too excited—that we have a great supply of fresh vegetables during the summer does not mean we have an overabundance, or even an adequate level of locally grown foods to meet our demand, much less our needs. The corporate model of farming, along with the centralization of food processing in the past 40 years, has taken its toll on the Hudson Valley food economy as well, with the loss of family farms and local processing a major blow to the area’s industry. While some of these gaps are starting to be filled again, many obstacles remain.

Jim Hyland, Winter Sun Farms

I talked with several people involved directly in the local food chain, from a farmer, Pete Taliaferro of Taliaferro Farms, to local health-food store owners, Kitty Sherpa of Beacon Natural Market and Chris Schneider of Mother Earth’s Storehouse, to CSA director and food processor, Jim Hyland of Winter Sun Farms and Farm to Table Co-Packers, to the marketing director of a large local grocery store chain, William Lesser of Adam’s Fairacre Farms. I wanted to get their impressions of where the Hudson Valley stands in terms of local food availability, and the successes and challenges still ahead. All had the unique perspectives of their place in the “chain” of the food economy, while also offering great insights into the overall picture.

An awareness is growing across the country and in the area that buying locally grown food is better for our health and for our economies. However, while other areas of the country have lost their local food connections and are having to recreate them from scratch, the Hudson Valley has managed to keep its local farms alive and going, in part due to the huge green markets in New York City. Everyone I spoke with acknowledges the impact the city markets have had and says that many area farms are prospering because of the demand from the city—and that demand is growing. New York City is close enough to be considered “local”, though far enough away and large enough to also be considered competition for local food. Also, since the farmers can sell directly to the consumers at the markets, and at a premium price, many area farmers have decided to market and sell solely in the city, bypassing the Hudson Valley stores and markets entirely.

Pete Taliaferro & sons

So, where does that leave us in the Hudson Valley? Nearly everyone I spoke with agreed that demand outstrips supply. William Lesser, of Adam’s Faircacre Farms, says that they could easily buy up as much local produce as can be found. As he explains, “Our market is huge; they can’t keep us in enough produce.” He also adds that there are not nearly enough farms here. He suggests that the surge in population over the last ten years have left property values and taxes too high for area farmers to make a living. Pete Taliaferro, a farmer for over 30 years, agrees that more farms and farmers are needed, but wants to make sure that folks getting into the business understand the business and economic side to farming. Taliaferro’s is an organic farm that produces vegetables and eggs, and this year, apples. He runs his farm as a CSA, while also marketing his produce through farmers’ markets and through a wholesale distributor. He does not go to the city, finding satisfaction instead in filling a niche locally.

Jim Hyland

Jim Hyland, from Winter Sun Farms CSA, has both local and city shares, and sees the demand rising every year. His advice to someone wanting to get into farming, or local food production, is to “be a little bit creative. You don’t want to start something that’s been completely saturated. Where is the market? Where is the niche?” He started Winter Sun Farms CSA as a consumer driven project to get local food to consumers in the winter season. He got a grant from New York State, and the idea took off immediately, with phenomenal success. He simply saw a need (local food availability in the off season), and filled it. He sees a huge demand here that is not being met, as does everyone I interviewed.

Packed Produce, Winter Sun Farms

Along with more farms and more food, an infrastructure is needed to fill in the gaps from the farmer to the consumer: the processing of the food, the marketing to the different points of sale such as stores, markets, and restaurants—as well as the distribution to those points—all need to be set up and working together. Unfortunately, the last 40 years have not been kind to many industries here in the US, the food industry included. Chris Schneider, of Mother Earth’s Storehouse, has been selling local food and produce for over 30 years. He notes that in times past, there were many local food processors: canneries, meat packagers, dairies, etc. Most of those are gone now, although a recent resurgence here in that side of the business has just begun. Hudson Valley Fresh dairy is a relatively new local dairy co-operative that has brought new life into the local organic dairy farms. Operating as a non-profit, they buy organic local milk at a fair price to the farmers, process it in their Kingston plant, and then distribute it locally at a fair price to the consumer. Their mission is to save New York dairies and farmland, and to keep the economy local.

A new food cannery and processor is coming to Kingston called Farm to Table Co-Packers, which will be a “soup to nuts” operation, according to co-owner Jim Hyland, and will offer a service to farmers who wish to have their food processed and packaged to sell themselves; or if they want, they can sell their produce to Winter Sun Farms CSA to be frozen and delivered to their co-op members. One of his main challenges in setting up his kitchen to process the food is finding equipment to suit his needs. He has found that what is available to him is either “tiny or huge” and not suited for a small-to-mid size operation, which has led to some creative innovation in getting the kitchen’s equipment needs met, either by converting existing equipment to new uses, or creating the equipment outright. When I mentioned the new processing plant to the grocers, all were very supportive.

Kitty Sherpa, Beacon Natural Market

The grocery store owners and managers I interviewed, Kitty, Chris, and William, all stated that they would love to see more local foods on their shelves. In fact, each made a point that they have made an extra effort to offer local products, and that having frozen and canned local foods would greatly increase availability as well as offering expanded selling opportunities for local farmers, thus enhancing their livelihood. Kitty Sherpa, from Beacon Natural Market, explains her position as a storeowner offering local products, “I think in the past, sometimes, a store was considered an unfriendly opponent to the farmer’s markets. Hopefully, everyone will go forward and think that local stores are just more venues for local foods to get to the consumers.”

Beacon Natural Market

Another component in getting food from the farm to the table is distribution. As Kitty explains, “Everybody is working so hard. The farmers are overworked and stressed,” and adds that getting a local farm to deliver to your store is not easy. There is one major distribution company that delivers local produce to local stores and restaurants, and others are getting into the business or are ramping up their operations to take on more distribution, but Jim Hyland adds that getting the food out to the consumers is a major hurdle, perhaps the biggest. Kitty sees an opportunity for someone, either as a farmer’s co-op, or even a “man with a van” to find a distribution niche in delivering from farms to stores.

Chris Schneider,
Mother Earth’s Storehouse

Though challenges in restructuring our regional food system to a sustainable level are not small, people in the business here see great opportunities for growth in all areas: farming, processing, distribution, and sales. With opportunity comes potential for jobs and spurring our own economy, which has already come to pass with new businesses and farms that have recently joined the local food scene. Our representatives in Albany and Washington have taken notice and are working to bring jobs and grants to the area to spur more growth. The USDA, as well as New York State, offers grants and loans to get farms and related businesses up and running. Pete Taliaferro has applied for such a grant that will allow him to have “wind tunnels”, which will extend his growing season and allow him to provide more food from his farm. He credits those that are getting needed development funds to farmers by saying that, “The reason why that has been made available with all the economic downturn is because there are farmers who are standing up and saying, ‘We need to manage and take care of our local food system.’”

Deborah Davidovits, owner of
Beacon Bee Balm

Still, the Hudson Valley is a little ahead of the game in comparison with other areas of the country. Jim Hyland sheds light on why this area, in particular, is seeing such growth, “In the Hudson Valley, I don’t think the infrastructure is unique. I think the passion, you could say, is more unique, with the great small farms, and the people really wanting it and pushing it. The infrastructure would not be created without the people and the farmers really wanting this.” Chris Schneider agrees, “We have to do something to keep everybody going, because if we lose this, we’re never going to get it back.”

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