Making the farm-to-table connection easier
Andrew Harris delivers fresh, locally grown produce to area restaurants once a week.
Photos by Eric Frick
The Sunset Farm Network
Canticle Farm, Allegany
White Valley Farm, Whitesville
Living Acres Farm, Alfred Station
Maple Ridge Farm, Stanley
South Hill Farm, Boston
Ladybug Farm, Belmont
Blue Marble Farm, Genesee, PA
Abers Acres, Kennedy
Living Cultures Farm, Alfred Station
Sunset Farm, Wellsvile
Marble + Rye, Buffalo
CRaVing Restaurant, Buffalo
The Black Sheep, Buffalo
Coco Bar & Bistro, Buffalo
Root & Bloom, Buffalo
Yoshi, East Aurora
The Roycroft Inn, East Aurora
Winfields Pub, Lackawanna
The Texas Hot, Wellsville
Five years ago, Sunset Farm’s Andrew Harris was the polar opposite of the animal ethicist and organic produce purveyor he is today. But a cumulative series of conversations, realizations, and life events led Harris down a path that diverged, dead-ended, then spiraled upward into a blossoming business that benefits farmers, chefs, consumers, and his conscience.
Back then, Harris owned a pub and eatery in Wellsville that was known for its chicken wings. Around his tenth year of ownership, Harris began to learn more about how factory-farmed meat was raised and slaughtered. He was horrified, became a vegetarian, and grew increasingly uneasy that his restaurant’s profits were tied to an industry that disturbed him so much. He switched most of his menu to local, humanely raised meat, but couldn’t find a source for the quantity of wings he needed at a price his longtime customers would pay. To make up for it, he donated a dollar from every order of wings to the local SPCA, who put the nearly $6,500 gift toward hiring engineers and architects to build a new animal rescue shelter.
About a year later, Harris sold the restaurant. The decision had been in the works before the meat awakening, he explains: “We had just had a baby girl, and being a dad and bar owner at the same time wasn’t going to work for our family.”
Just before he left the restaurant, Harris heard a talk given by Dan Garvey, director of food and beverage for the Roycroft Inn. Garvey said he believed the future of food is local, but that he can never find enough for his restaurant. Harris remembers Garvey telling the audience that he’d buy anything he could get, even if it was a handful of tomatoes—and that he needs people to supply the demand. That got Harris thinking about his own next chapter, and with the proceeds from the sale of the restaurant in hand, he sprang into action applying some yin to the factory-farming yang he had been surrounded by.
First, Harris established a chicken sanctuary on his family’s hillside property in Wellsville, a parcel of land he grew up on and dubbed Sunset Farm for the spectacular evening view visible from the height of land. He rescues chickens from factory farms, Amish enterprises, and farm supply stores that sell sickly chicks. The motley flock has since grown to include a few turkeys, ducks, and a couple of goats, all of whom spend their days pondering on a quiet, sunny pasture.
Next, Harris dove headfirst into researching solar greenhouse designs that could grow vegetables all year round to supply local restaurants with produce. He toured another bio shelter outside of Pittsburgh, looked up plans online, recruited some friends, and built a barn-sized greenhouse lined with raised beds fertilized with chicken manure and heated by the sun.
But the first year of greenhouse farming exposed unforeseen flaws in the plan.
“We didn’t think about the summer warm weather; it got way too hot in there to grow much,” explains Harris. “In the winter, there wasn’t enough daylight. The plans looked good on paper, but not in reality. We could grow a few things, but there was no way we could grow enough to supply all of the Roycroft’s needs.”
But his neighbors could. During the course of a casual conversation with friends who own Living Acres Farm in Alfred Station, Harris learned that the CSA farm had an excess of produce they couldn’t find places to sell. So he offered to bundle their produce with his, making a big enough delivery for the Roycroft to deploy on a menu. Then he found another farm. And another chef—Steve Gedra at Black Sheep, who made introductions to his colleagues and opened up the Buffalo restaurant market to farms located nearly two hours south of the city. More farms, more chefs, and now Sunset Farm is a network of growers and restaurants making the farm-to-table dream a reality for many.
Each week, Harris makes the four-hundred-mile round trip to deliver produce. He sets out to ten Allegany County farms in his delivery vehicle nicknamed “The Crisper,” a small white refrigerated box van he bought from Edible Arrangements, loading the shelves with bags of salad greens, a rainbow of veggies, flats of berries, fiddleheads and ramps Harris forages on his property, and specialty crops grown specially for chefs. Then he delivers the goods to the kitchen doors of ten restaurants from Wellsville to the West Side.
Mark Printz, manager at Canticle Farms in Allegany County, says that without Sunset Farm, it would be next to impossible to get produce to Buffalo; the farm’s tiny staff can’t afford to have one person absent from the fields for the five-hour round trip to the city and back. But with a steady market for their produce beyond their CSA and local farmers’ market, Canticle, like many other farms in the network, has been able to expand their operations and diversify their crops since they began working with Sunset Farm.
Chef Adam Goetz of CRaVing Restaurant, winner of Buffalo Spree’s 2019 Best Use of Local Ingredients award, says he could easily use every bit of produce Harris can bring him and still need more. He credits the Sunset Farm network, which includes farms that grow a variety of storage-suitable root crops and use hoop houses to extend the greens growing season, for allowing his restaurant to feature locally grown produce all year round.
Harris encourages chefs to list the actual source farm rather than Sunset Farm on menus (and most do), but with an ever-expanding network of growers within a product realm devoid of branded packaging, it’s easy to lose track of where this week’s salad mix came from, so Sunset sometimes becomes the default catch-all name in print.
“The Crisper” is at capacity on every delivery run it makes.
“This model allows for real food production where farms get a premium for their stuff without having to park someone at a market for hours, chefs get the freshest beyond organic produce available that lasts longer in the cooler, and customers get the A-grade food they expect. But the supply is not keeping up with the demand. We need more farms, and we need more of me.”
For now, Harris can only deliver once a week; his true full-time job is a stay-at-home dad of three kids, the youngest of which is only a few months old. But his mind is always working on how he can expand this network of far-flung farms and restaurants looking for ingredients. There could be a franchise operation in Niagara County with fruit, he says. Maybe he can lease vans to others for deliveries. He even welcomes competition as long as it ultimately benefits the greater Western New York farm-to-table economy. Harris’s end goal is to help put an end to factory farming and feed people food that rests easier on the collective conscience.