Above is a video recapping this year’s Field & Fork Network Farmer-Chef Conference which took place on January 25 at the Beaver Hollow Conference Center. It was a packed day of networking, panel discussions, keynote presenters, educational/informational workshops and concluded with a local food Tasting & Trade Show. We had record attendance this year with over 200 attendees. Enjoy!
Below is a post written by Caitlin Henzler, a young aspiring farmer and Edible Buffalo intern. Here is her take on the Farmer-Chef conference and how it inspired her.
After a great trip to Saratoga Springs for the NOFA conference on January 23-24, my weekend of intensive travel and learning continued on Monday at the Farmer-Chef Conference. The Field & Fork Network’s second annual Farmer-Chef Conference was held at the Beaver Hollow Conference Center in Java Center, NY. Although the weather was a bit dreary the day of the event, over 100 farmers, chefs, and food distributors made it out to discuss the future of Western New York’s local food scene.
As an aspiring farmer and intern for Lisa Tucker of Edible Buffalo, I had eagerly been anticipating this conference for months. I had been doing my research on Western New York’s farmers and chefs by compiling an entire notebook of names, locations, and information about of many of the attendees. So when I had the opportunity to help with registration by handing out the name tags, I was thrilled. This was my opportunity to put faces with names, and introduce myself to many of the farmers that I secretly had been admiring.
Helping with registration were the Field and Fork Network board members, Daniel and Jane Oles of Oles Family Farm & Promised Land CSA. In the chaos of finding name tags for people, I hadn’t even realized who they were. Afterwards I was able to introduce myself, and talk to them about their operation. They were attending the conference with their daughter Pam, and I was encouraged to hear about their successful farm which is entirely run by family members. In a way they had been too successful this year. With 300 CSA members and an on-site farm store, they were feeling short on labor. They were considering looking for an apprentice in the coming season, and I was eager to share my knowledge on the pros and cons of being a farm apprentice. (I spent the past growing season at Littlewood Farm in Plainfield, VT, and will be apprenticing at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield, MA this coming season.)
I ran into the Oles at the rest of the workshops that I attended, and had the pleasure of hearing them speak at a talk entitled “Community Supported Agriculture as a Profitable Model for Your Farm”. Along with input from Jessica Runge of Roots n’ Wings Farm, who I had gotten to speak with at lunch, I learned of the challenges that each had faced in starting a CSA. Both of their operations were rather new. While the Oles have been farming for over 20 years, they only began offering a CSA in 2007. In that short time they have seen tremendous growth and demand for their shares. They pre-package their shares and have convenient delivery points in the Buffalo area.
On the other hand, Jessica Runge operates her CSA in and around her town of Cherry Creek in Cattaraugus County. With little prior agricultural experience, she decided two years ago with encouragement from other local farmers to jump right in and start a CSA on her land. She has been happy with the outcome, and enjoys the community connections that she has made through her operation. Her CSA offers more flexibility by giving shareholders options of what to take. She also has a swap basket where members can switch out items they don’t want that week with something from the basket. Since I plan on incorporating a CSA model in my future agricultural endeavors, I found the workshop helpful and was encouraged by both farmers’ stories
Hearing Jessica speak, I admired her bravery for starting a CSA with little prior experience. It reminded me of what the keynote speaker Patrick Martins, of Heritage Foods and Slow Food USA had said. He commented that there is a lack of action on the part of many people looking for change. A lot of effort is spent in planning, and discussing solutions to the problems in our food system, but real action is what we need. Many times we look to policy makers for answers that don’t come, and we forget who are the real drivers of change. According to Patrick, people who do the nitty-gritty are the true solution; those people who work hard day after day to provide a quality flavorful product. Patrick stressed the importance of having a superior product. However good intentioned chefs and consumers are in supporting local agriculture, they aren’t going to do so if the product doesn’t stand out in quality and taste. Many chefs, distributors, and consumers seek out fresh produce and flavorful heritage meats at a reasonable price. It is up to the farmers of Western New York to meet this demand with consistent quality products.
Unable to find fresh local produce, dairy, and meat when he arrived in Canada in the 1980s, Chef Michael Stadtlander, another of the keynote speakers at the Farmer-Chef Conference, went in search of them himself. He was successful in doing so, and has since made it his mission to support and promote local farms by giving them the recognition they deserve for superior products. Partnerships with restaurants are a great way to promote your farm, and Stadtlander finds that modern young chefs are usually the ones supporting the local food movement. Today, chefs have the status of celebrities, and when they use your ingredients they are placing a stamp of approval on your farm. One idea that Stadtlander promoted is to set aside one night a week to connect people to their growers. Restaurants would showcase a local farm by using it’s ingredients in the dishes served that evening.
The more that you can get people involved with and aware of your farm, the more successful you will be, according to Stadtlander. He hosts a number of on-farm events throughout the year at his 100 acre Eigensinn Farm. He creates an intimate dining experience by serving guests a twelve course meal from ingredients produced on his land. Chef Stadtlander describes the experience as “eating the landscape”. Guests are not just eating cultivated vegetables, but fish from his rivers, and wild edibles from his fields. I admire the way that Chef Stadtlander approaches food. He looks to his land, beyond what he cultivates, to sustain himself. In doing so he uses practices that nurture and maintain the health of his farm and the greater community.
Being able to attend the Farmer-Chef Conference was an invaluable experience for an aspiring farmer. I was able to meet many of the farmers and local food advocates that I admire. I was interested in hearing their stories and many times they were just as interested in hearing mine. I came away impressed with how generous they were in sharing their knowledge and advice. Many even offered to show me their operations, and I look forward to visiting them in the coming months. Maybe I’ll even get a chance to get my hands back into the soil.