For my senior project I was able to cover any topic I wanted. I chose to write about Rochester’s local food movement, including farmers markets, CSAs and whether or not Rochester residents are latching onto eating local and sustainable foods. Some of the content below was published in a senior project magazine titled, “Wine, Food & Games,” along with the work of two other journalism students.
We are the first three journalism students to complete our senior project and two of us will be the first to graduate with a journalism degree from RIT this May.
Please enjoy the full coverage of this topic below, which includes my written articles and photography.
My goal is to provide viewers with the true feel of what it’s like to walk through some of Rochester’s markets, through the use of sounds and visuals.
A Green Winter in Rochester
Rochester residents might be surprised to see fresh salad greens, herbs and many root vegetables picked and sold at a time when most of the city is covered in inches, or more often feet, of snow.
There were two winter farmers markets in Rochester this year, which is one more than usual. The Long Season Winter Farmers Market is in its third year and the Highland Park Winter Farmers Market is in its first.
The Rochester Public Market also runs during the winter, but is not technically a farmers market since much of the food is shipped in from distant locations.
Sue Smith is manager of both the Brighton and South Wedge farmers markets that run during the summer. In 2008, the same year that both markets opened, she held her first Long Season Winter Farmers Market, a collaboration between the two.
This market ran for seven weeks during November and December on Sunday afternoons at the Brookside Community Center on Idlewood Rd.
The products at the winter market are different from those seen during summer months. Some common finds are root vegetables like carrots and other ground-grown vegetables like kale, leeks and onions.
Some vendors store crops from earlier in the season like apples and squash. Or, they freeze produce like blueberries, strawberries and corn.
“The farmers are able to bring really quite an amazing variety of product for winter in upstate New York,” Smith said.
Since the market’s first year, the number of winter vendors has nearly doubled from 16 to 31. This may be partially due to the fact that many local farmers are working harder to extend their seasons.
John Bolton of Bolton Farms sells at both of the winter markets in Rochester and maintains a 20,000 square foot hydroponic green house in Hilton, NY. Hydroponic growing only requires water, nutrients and light, so it can be done any time of year.
“It’s hard to grow in the winter,” Bolton said. However, this soilless growing method allows him to provide items like fresh salad greens and herbs that typically are not seen in Rochester this time of year, like basil and thyme.
“It’s especially cheering to see fresh greens in December,” Smith said.
Smith doesn’t keep an exact count of market goers, but she can say the winter market attendance is up from previous years, even though it is still not as high as the warmer months.
She sees that residents value eating local, sustainably grown foods. Some reasons may be that there is a lot of information in the media about it lately, or simply that people are trying these foods and realizing that the flavor is better.
One resident with this type of interest is Kristina Schanz, who said, “I feel healthier when I eat that way so I’m willing to spend a little bit extra money on what I see as better quality.” Schanz is a market regular and also signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Argriculture) through Clover road farm.
Some other reasons she buys from these resources are to support the local economy and also help the environment by reducing shipping and pollution.
The community’s need for local product is one reason why Del Ippolito, manager of the Highland Park Winter Farmers Market, thinks the market is so successful. She said they are getting a good turnout for it being their first year.
Ippolito, 34, considers herself to be a “full-time wannabe farmer,” she said.
Her market began in November and runs on Wednesday’s from 4-7 p.m. through May 25 at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Building on Highland Ave. It is what Ippolito calls the “beta year” of the market.
Ippolito and other board members began planning for this year’s market in 2009 to give farmers enough notice to grow abundant crops to provide to market-goers.
Board member and full-time farmer Ed Fraser, of Fraser’s Garlic Farm, is planning on tripling his produce production for next year’s markets.
Fraser ran out of garlic to sell in early March even after starting with about 400 pounds. He sells both locally and across the US.
“Where is your garlic?” one market attendee asked him on her way out.
When she found out there was no more she stated, “I hate getting it from Argentina!”
Ippolito said that market attendees drive from as far as Geneseo to get this sustainably grown food.
A lot of the food is even certified organic, which means the farm undergoes periodic on-site inspections to check for certain standards like the absence of synthetic chemical inputs. This certification is made easier with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) located in the very same building as the market.
Both the Long Season Winter Farmers Market and the Highland Park Winter Farmers Market are already making plans for next winter to provide abundant crop to their faithful community.
Smith received a grant to begin renovation this summer on a large barn on Westfall Rd to become the new market location. She hopes that the barn will be ready for this year’s winter market, and that it will allow the market to grow and become a permanent destination for residents.
She said she can envision extending the winter market’s dates as long as there is abundant product and a strong market for it.
“There is a real potential for year-round farmers markets in this area,” Smith said. “There’s obviously a demand that seems to be growing and the farmers are really working hard to meet that demand.”
Rochester’s Local Food Market
A Good Food Alternative
Farmers markets are a great way to get local food in the hands of people who want it. However, it’s not always best model for the farmers. Some Rochester farmers are ditching the markets in favor of other distribution methods. Not only are they winding up with more money in hand, but also more of their food in the hands of local residents.
Chris Hartman, 36, is the founder and director of Good Food Collective, a multi-farm CSA in Rochester. With the Consumer-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, customers pay a flat rate to receive a specified amount of fresh produce each week.
There are about a dozen other CSA’s in the Rochester area, said Hartman, but his is the only multi-farm CSA, with eight farms supplying food. This allows farmers to focus on specific crops and know exactly how much of each crop they need to produce.
Brian Beh, 32, of Raindance Harvest is one of the farmers who supply food to Hartman’s CSA. Produce he supplies includes lettuce, spinach, swiss chard and tomatoes.
Beh grows somewhere between 100-150 varieties of tomatoes on his farm, which makes it one of most diverse heirloom tomato farms around.
In addition to providing food for the Good Food Collective, Beh sells at many local farmers markets including ones in Fairport, Brighton and the South Wedge and at the Rochester Public Market. Having such a diverse crop of tomatoes puts him ahead of some other market vendors.
“At a farmers market you have to provide the most unique and premium quality because you’re competing against lots of other farms,” Beh said.
However, he generally does not like selling at farmers markets.
“It’s a very dangerous way to conduct business for a farmer,” he said. If nobody buys the produce, he has nothing to do with what is left.
Also, every time he sells at a market, he has to load his truck, spend several hours selling at the market, and then unload what is left when he returns to the farm. This takes away from time he could be spending tending to his farm, not to mention his social life.
In fact, this summer he will not be attending any of the markets. Instead he will have other people there selling his products.
He said that there is a good side to farmers markets, because the farmers get full retail value for their items. However, he prefers the efficiency of the CSA model.
“I can load up the truck, drop it off, and be done within 45 minutes and have a check in my hand,” Beh said. “As long as you can grow the crops, you know that you’re going to sell it.”
Chris Hartman is not against the farmers market model entirely, he and his wife actually founded the South Wedge Farmers Market and helped get many others up and running too.
“As wonderful as farmers markets are and I’m a huge advocate and fan of them, they are actually a pretty inefficient way to move food into a community,” he said.
The Local Food Movement
When starting the CSA, Hartman was already a fan of the CSA model, but wanted to scale it up to make the food available to more people. His desire was to become a year-round sustainable food system in Rochester. He is getting closer to becoming just that.
In the first year, his CSA had 100 members, then 225 in the second, and his goal for this summer is 400. Hartman even ran his first winter CSA this year and quickly filled his limit of 150 members. Next winter he wants to double it to 300.
“We have been experiencing really exciting and momentous growth,” he said.
There must be something driving residents to purchase and consume more local, healthy and sustainable foods. Hartman sees this interest firsthand, but also has ideas about why his CSA and other local food suppliers are seeing increased business.
“Good food has a local component to it,” he said. People are becoming more interested in eating organic, supporting the local economy and local farmers, and taking care of the environment.
Hartman sees more attention about it in the local media, within communities, and anybody who is health, community, environmentally or socially conscious.
“Food is increasingly on the radar of all of these people’s attention,” he said.
Beh has a different opinion on local interest.
“The local food movement here is a little bit behind the times,” he said.
In places like New York City, San Francisco and even Ithaca you will see a lot more interest, Beh said.
“It takes a long time for this community to grasp onto something,” he said.
One reason some Rochester residents might be slow to latch onto buying local is that they simply don’t understand it.
The CSA is a slow sell sometimes because of the unknown element. Hartman said customers don’t always know how it works or what they are going to get.
“It’s different than going to grocery store and picking out what you want for that week,” he said.
Even farmers markets can be a hard sell. Beh tries to convince as many people as he can to stop by and check it out.
“A lot of times customers will come when they open up in May and there’s not a lot of produce available so they get discouraged,” Beh said. They don’t always see the types of fruits and vegetables they want, and may not understand the seasonality of those products.
Available and Accessible
With the combination and abundance of CSAs and farmers markets, Rochester is well on its way to matching the national interest in local food.
Both Hartman and Beh are taking steps to push this along by making sure that their food is not only available, but high quality and easily accessible.
Beh is on the board of the South Wedge Farmers Market, and said that for every vendor they do a farm inspection. Farmers also need to meet certain requirements, like being sustainable and within a certain radius of the market.
He wishes that food suppliers like Wegmans would purchase more food from local farmers, but said they tend to do business with larger, industrial-size farms.
Hartman is already partnering with some local restaurants and schools to supply them with fresh products.
He’s also working with a neighborhood-based not-for-profit in a “corner store initiative.” The organizations will work together to transform corner stores in downtown Rochester and provide good food in underserved areas. They already purchased their first store.
“We’re going to work with them to transform it into a healthy food access point for urban residents,” Hartman said.
The plan is for local farms to supply produce and other locally-made goods to the store.
“We’re definitely noticing a lot of people out there that are really interested in connecting with local, organic, wonderful foods in affordable, enjoyable and really convenient ways and that’s what the good food collective is all about.”
Farmer Profile: Sunscape Farms
Nathan Savage first became interested in farming when his father would take him to the Webster Farmers Market around age 12. Now just twice that age, Savage has a farm of his own.
“Other kids my age were playing video games and sports,” he said. “I was really interested in growing things and seeing the fruit of that growth.”
Savage, 24, owns and runs Sunscape Farms in Penfield, with the help of his wife Courtney, 20.
They sell at three local farmers markets in Fairport, Irondequoit and Avon and also at street-side stands.
Savage likes the atmosphere of the markets, and seeing happy customers returning week after week.
“People actually come looking to buy quality produce and I enjoy selling that to them,” he said.
Courtney enjoys setting out the beautiful produce and flowers they have grown. “It’s the culmination of the hard year of work,” she said.
The Savages married in April 2010 after being friends for much of their life. Their families knew each other and attended the same church.
“He was kind of my brother’s best friend,” Courtney said.
At the time they married, Courtney did not have much farming experience. Now, she helps out mostly with planting and transplanting seeds. However, she also does a lot of work on the business end.
A third-year applied mathematics student at Rochester Institute of Technology, Courtney also has minors in communication and computer science. She designed their website and edited all of the content for it.
She also did an overhaul of her husband’s financial system, including putting much of his paperwork into electronic form.
Besides being a full-time student, Courtney works as a private tutor for two hours every weeknight. Nathan works on 90-100 hours every week on average during his peak months.
They are a young but busy couple, and plan to keep the farm running for a long time to come.
“Currently I’ve got so much invested in it that I don’t see myself doing anything else,” Nathan said.
During the winter months Savage has more time for activities like rock climbing and paintball. But come spring, he’s ready to begin from scratch again.
“Every year you get a fresh start,” he said, describing farming as being similar to creating a work of art. “It’s almost like the field’s a canvas and all the crops are the paint.”