Back in business after a devastating fire
Deb and Stew Ritchie
Photos by Luke Copping
Deb and Stew Ritchie are pioneers in community-supported agriculture. They met in the mid-1990s while working at Grindstone Farm in Pulaski, New York, married a few years later, and became farm managers at Arden Farm in East Aurora. There they launched the first community-supported agriculture model in Erie County, Buffalo Organics CSA, quadrupled its membership, and started looking for their own land.
They saved Clark’s five-generation dairy farm from developers when they bought it in 2002 and turned 180 acres toward growing vegetables and grass-fed beef. They changed the name to Native Offerings Farm, which now grows certified organic produce for 350 CSA members plus several restaurants, co-ops, and a farmers market. They raised three kids, formed partnerships with other local farms to source things they don’t grow themselves, from seeds and hay to honey and tree fruit, and won several awards for their contributions to conservation and the local food movement. Last year, the Ritchies launched a second farming operation on an adjacent piece of land called Rural Resurgence LLC, which grows industrial hemp for the production of CBD.
It’s impossible to accurately quantify the number of people who have gotten to know Native Offerings as Deb and Stew’s customers over the last twenty-two years. Those who haven’t may have heard of them as “the farm whose barn burned down last year,” an event that showed the Ritchies a different kind of community-supported agriculture.
On November 28, 2018, the farm’s historic 1900s former dairy barn was completely destroyed by an electrical fire. In less than two hours, the flames leveled the barn, which contained a wash house, storage cooler, storage room, germination room, six of the farm’s seven tractors, most of the farm’s tools and equipment, winter storage crops including over ten thousand pounds of potatoes, six hundred pounds of squash, and enough onions to last CSA members the winter, and thousands of hours spent in the field planting, tending, and harvesting the crops. An adjoining barn that held the hemp harvest and a walk-in cooler full of beets and carrots just barely survived, with one charred wall standing in testament to just how much bigger the loss almost was.
In the months that followed, the question the Ritchies heard repeatedly was, “But doesn’t insurance cover it?”
The short answer is no, not all of it. The longer answer has to do with the seasonal nature of farming. Like homeowner’s insurance, coverage is based on the value of the contents stored inside a building. When someone’s garage burns down, chances are the homeowner can claim the lawnmower, bicycle, tools, and so on that were in there automatically.
But a barn is different. Farm insurance doesn’t cover an item unless it’s specifically listed on the policy. And a barn’s contents come and go sometimes week by week. In the spring, there are seeds, potting soil, huge rolls of row cover. In late fall, those supplies are replaced by thousands of pounds of produce in coolers. In the winter, the tractors are stored inside; come summer, they’re all out in the field again. In the Ritchies’ case, at the time of the fire, a freezer in the barn held about $20,000 worth of beef that had just been processed and was only supposed to be there for three weeks. For a profession whose workday spans from sunup to sundown seven days a week, updating an insurance policy every time something gets moved in or out of the barn is next to impossible. All told, insurance only covered the barn and three of the tractors at Native Offerings.
Farming is a tough business, even without the fires, floods, droughts, tariffs, or illnesses that can suddenly descend on a farm family, events that are compounded by shortcomings in self-funded insurance. But, just as fellow Western New York farms and dedicated customers pitched in to help the Dispenzas, the Towers, the Oles, and the Prudoms when crises struck their farms in recent years, the community rallied around the Ritchies immediately and fervently following the fire.
Farms including Root Down, Porter, Plato Dale, Promised Land, Rusty Bucket, and Canticle offered part of their storage produce to fill the share boxes for Native Offerings’ CSA customers, and refused to accept payment for the veggies. A GoFundMe page swelled to almost $80,000. Fundraisers at area co-ops, restaurants, and distilleries attracted hundreds of supporters. The donations meant that Native Offerings could pay for demolition, cleanup, and site work before the snow fell. Because of that quick work, the site was ready for new barn construction in the spring despite heavy rains that delayed other area construction projects where site work wasn’t finished last fall.
The new barn is a functional phoenix. The layout and materials are designed for efficiency in day-to-day operations and to stay ahead of the FDA’s new Food Safety Modernization Act that will go into effect next year, things that weren’t as easy in a century-old wooden structure originally designed to house cows. There’s a dedicated farm share pickup room in the front, new washing stations, radiant heat to keep workers warm and floors clean and dry, and plenty of natural light to illuminate workspaces.
The Ritchies were out in the fields planting this year’s crops as soon as the soil was dry enough to work. They’ve juggled the full-time tasks of farming with the nearly full-time job of reconstruction. They’re confident they’ll have plenty of organic produce to fill the CSA share pickups in Buffalo, Amherst, Orchard Park, and at the new barn, and to keep customers in vegetables at area restaurants, co-ops, and the Bidwell Farmer’s Market (where they’ll also have individual cuts of their pastured beef for sale for the first time this year).
Connections with members, customers, partners, and fellow growers are stronger than ever before.
“We’re a small community of small farms,” explains Stew. “Just like you can’t have a wine trail with just one winery, we can’t have a farming community without each other.”
For more info, visit nativeofferings.com.