Anthony Flaccavento, SCALE Consulting Team - March 16, 2022
We’ve just come through another cold spell here in southwest Virginia – not as bad as Buffalo, mind you! – so I’ve removed a few large pieces of plastic we’d been using to warm the soil for an early planting of broccoli. These sheets are ‘repurposed’: taken off of high tunnels that needed new plastic after several years. We farmers are a frugal bunch, reusing materials, fixing equipment, turning waste into compost or energy, repurposing just about everything we can. Most farmers do this far better than me.
But frugality alone can’t compensate for the steep rise in costs western New York farmers are facing for their most basic inputs: seeds, feed, fertilizers, equipment and fuel and transport. Fertilizer costs, which had already increased substantially in 2021, are projected to jump as much as 80% more in 2022, according to a study by Texas A & M University. And while prices for some farm commodities have also increased a bit, the reality is that most farmers find themselves “caught between monopolized sellers and buyers”, according to journalist Claire Kelloway. “They must pay ever higher prices to the giants who dominate the market for the supplies they need. At the same time, they must accept ever lower prices from the giant agribusinesses that buy the stuff they sell, like crops and livestock.” For western New York farmers who completed our survey, rising input costs was among their top concerns, along with increasing access to better paying markets.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? Launched a little more than a year ago, the Western New York Food System Initiative is working to build a more equitable and resilient food system in the nine-county region, one where farmers can make a decent living, workers earn a livable wage and consumers – all of us – have access to healthy, affordable food produced nearby. Scores of people, from Rochester to Cattaraugus County, have come together to tackle this challenge, sharing innovative solutions that are emerging on farms and in local communities.
Many of these emerging solutions share a common characteristic: they create more direct connections between farmers and consumers. Ranging from mobile markets in Jamestown, Buffalo and Rochester to electronic marketplaces like Produce Peddlers and Farm Drop in Linwood, to food hubs and distributors like Headwater in Rochester, Eden Valley Growers in Erie County, or Brigiotta’s in Jamestown, efforts to build more locally-based supply chains are bearing fruit. Other enterprises, like Alliance Farm Butchery, are pooling the resources of multiple farmers to build meat processing infrastructure that is responsive to local farmers rather than distant agribusiness giants. And the Seneca Nation’s Gakwi:yo:h Farms and Blegacy Farm in Franklinville are both ‘incubating’ new farmers while rekindling the production of both healthy and culturally-rooted foods.
Fewer than one in a hundred Americans farm or are likely to take up farming. So, what can the other ninety nine of us do to support a better food system in Western New York? First, as my colleague, Michael Shuman pointed out in his February post, we can begin to shift some of our
savings and investment dollars to support these innovative local businesses. Two years ago, my wife and I invested in a local micro-dairy, Goshen Farmstead, that produces outstanding milk and yogurt, and which is paying its local investors an average return of about 5%. Though our investment was small, the gratification we’ve gotten from putting our money into a healthier food system is enormous. And the Jersey milk is fantastic!
And second, for many of us, we can invest in a stronger food system by choosing how and where we buy our groceries. Our ‘food dollars’ are a form of everyday investment. We can use them to help Walmart and Amazon increase their reach and power, or we can help build up the farms, markets and food businesses that are stewarding our land, strengthening local economies and rebuilding communities. Creating many more options for people to buy healthy local foods, including overcoming systemic challenges to food access, is central to the WNY food system initiative. Each of us can help make that happen, with every bite we take. And in the process, we will strengthen local farms, reduce food transport cost, and ensure that farmers get a larger share of the food dollars we spend.