It’s 2008; do you know where your food is coming from?
Buying local in WNY

By Donna Hoke Kahwaty; photos by kc kratt

Stewart Ritchie, owner/operator,
Native Offerings.
If the title wasn’t nabbed in 2007, let’s call eating locally the 2008 Food Topic of the Year. Bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, countless newspaper articles, and even global warming initiatives have heralded homegrown not just as a hip and healthful alternative to the well-traveled produce at the supermarket, but a catchall way to become an exemplar of personal responsibility. “Locavores,” as they are called, have emerged as socially conscious champions of their own health, the environment, their communities—heck, even the entire planet. It’s a hard calling to resist.

Eating your way to environmental redemption isn’t as difficult as it sounds. There are plenty of organic and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms in Western New York. Though many participate in area farmers’ markets or offer on-site service, two will actually deliver the wholesome goodness (almost) all the way to your doorstep, making it that much easier to incorporate freshly picked produce into your daily diet.

Family-owned for fifty-two years, Porter Farms is the area’s largest CSA, with one hundred of its five hundred acres dedicated to vegetables, many of which are distributed to its more than five hundred members. On a rotating basis, members pick up shares at the Elba farm, then bring them to local distribution points throughout Genesee and Erie counties.

Western New Yorkers are on board. From its 2006 to 2007 seasons, Porter Farms counted more than 170 new members, and owner/operator Mike Porter expects further increases this year. “We’re going to let it go where it wants to go; we’re not going to cap it off,” he says. “We like it: It’s direct, it’s guaranteed, it makes more sense than trucking stuff all over the country. And it’s fresher; if we harvest something Friday, people have it by Saturday afternoon.”

Shares from Porter Farms average 10–12 pounds, which can keep a family of four in veggies for a week. “In the summer, we buy virtually no produce,” says Rita Capezzi, associate professor of English at Canisius College and a Porter member since the CSA began in 1996. “We eat what we get, and by the end of the season, we have such an abundance that we have to start cooking and freezing. I’m eating soup now made from last season’s vegetables.”

If that sounds like too much, Native Offerings, which has operated in Little Valley since 1997, offers vegetable shares in both small and large sizes, as well as fruit, pork, and beef shares. Central pick-up points are in Buffalo, Orchard Park, and Amherst, and members can select their own produce, substituting one item for another if desired. Like Porter, Native Offerings has seen tremendous growth since it began, starting with sixty members and now numbering more than three hundred, which is sell-out capacity.

“It really did just seem to explode here, and we’re still getting e-mails every day from people wanting to join,” says owner/operator Stewart Ritchie, who credits media attention and books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, for the increased interest. “People began to realize that there is very little oversight in food, that their food is coming from China, that organic doesn’t always mean excellent. The baby boomers have reached an age where health is important to them.”

If there is a drawback to locavoring in this area, it’s the lack of variety, particularly in winter. Though Ritchie recommends a goal of eating just fifty to seventy-five percent local food, Porter concedes that the limitations can still make for an occasional hard sell. “It’s a twenty-two-week commitment, and you have to assume some responsibility not just for the pickups, but for the risks of growing,” he points out. “Last year, we had a complete failure on peas; this year, there are all kinds of peas but no leeks. Most people accept that and it’s okay, but for some, it’s really just not.”

For Rita Capezzi, accepting those risks makes her membership a more meaningful experience. “Belonging to the CSA is not just a political expression and a way to be connected to Western New York, but a way to be connected to the weather beyond just putting on a raincoat,” she explains. “I wonder what it will mean for the farm, what my food bag will look like. We went through some weird periods where there wasn’t a lot of produce or variety, but if we get tired of eating zucchini, what is it like for the Porters if they don’t have a market for it? Some members come and go under those conditions, but we’re in it for the long haul.”

The reward for that loyalty? Taste. If you’ve ever scooped up seasonal crops at roadside stands on your way home from work, you already know that their flavor can really make you question what happens to produce—even neatly bagged and washed organic produce—en route from anywhere to here. “The flavor of fresh food is amazing,” Capezzi declares. “There is such a difference. [Supermarket] food can look beautiful, but it just doesn’t taste the same.”

That can also be said for locally produced meat, cheese, even raw milk, all of which would market well here, according to Ritchie, who cites a need for more CSA farms in WNY. The problem, he contends, is that aging local farmers don’t have succession plans; without them, he wonders where the new farmers will come from. “Long term, it seems that there will be less and less locally grown food, because land prices are so high, and it’s not an easy life; children who grew up on farms aren’t following in their parents’ footsteps,” he notes. “But the farther east you go, the more you see, so maybe Buffalo just needs to catch up.”

Porter is a bit more optimistic. “It’s not a trend,” he maintains. “Fuel isn’t getting any cheaper and it can get higher; people are going to have to change the way they live and this country will change. You didn’t used to see everything every week at the grocery store because cucumbers and lettuce aren’t in season twelve months a year. It’s not realistic, and people need to get back to a little of that.”

Donna Hoke Kahwaty has been a writer/editor for more than twenty-three years. After seventeen years living and working in the tri-state area, she returned to Buffalo with her four children in 2004.


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