Upstate farmers get innovative to access major food markets

Sarah Harris/NCPR
May 24, 2013

Most of the time, Eric Andrus is a beef and rice farmer. But lately, he’s learning to be a boat builder. When I arrive at his farm, he’s in the barn, sanding the hull of a big wooden barge.

“We’re about to apply the second layer of plywood,” Andrus says.

Andrus lives in Ferrisburg, Vermont, near Lake Champlain. This fall, he plans to load up the boat with potatoes, grains, honey, apples, beans, and maple syrup, all produced in the Champlain Valley, and sail to markets further south. It’s called the Vermont Sail Freight project.

“Products that have a longer shelf life tend to be under-supplied, chronically under-supplied, in the New York City area because they require too much space to grow and aren’t economical to grow in high rent land areas. The sail freight project represents a way for farmers with shelf staple products to have that representation through a very visible and magnet platform.”

Eric Andrus admits that, for now, the boat is kind of floating publicity stunt.

But it also indicates just how creative North Country farmers have to get when they try to access major markets.

Bernadette Logozar, with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Malone, sums it up this way:

“Are there farmers in the from the Adirondack North Country region selling products into New York City? Yes. Is it without its challenges? Absolutely not. Is that still kind of the diamond prize that’s hanging on the horizon for many? Absolutely."

Challenges of reaching larger markets

One of the biggest challenges is how much money farmers can get for their products in major markets.

David Connor teaches sustainable food economics at the University of Vermont:

“The problem for farmers is that they sell it into a commodity pool and basically end up competing in a high volume low price kind of a market. If you have a specialty product that it does tend to allow you to capture a greater percent of the consumer dollar.”

And then, there’s the problem of distribution.  New York City is really far away.

“The distance works against ya – it’s a 7 hour haul just to get down to the edge of the city.”

That’s Ralph Childs, a farmer in Malone. He’s doing something most North Country farmers aren’t: selling to the commodity market.

Ralph grows massive amounts of greens. Each week in the summer, he fills up 5 semi-trucks with spinach and cilantro and ships it all down to Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx. It’s the world’s biggest produce wholesaler and supplies approximately 22 million people.

In order to make it all happen, Ralph works with broker Bob Monzeglio:

“We find the customers in the markets, we secure the transportation, we hire the trucks and send them over to Ralph’s cooler, we guarantee the payment, we’re billing the customers for Ralph, we tell him what the market’s bringing.”

North Country farmers leveraging cooler weather

Bob says he and Ralph were able to break into the New York City market by taking advantage of the North Country’s cool summers.

“Eventually we narrowed it down to a few crops we knew had the potential to be monetarily lucrative during that summertime period. That’s our niche for large scale agriculture is to supply items that cannot be grown in say Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, in summertime.”

Bernadette Logozar with Cornell Cooperative Extension says building those connections to bigger markets takes work.

“They also have to divide their time between production and marketing. And they have to make the connection and then once they make the connection if they don’t have the capability or whoever they made the connection to doesn’t have the transportation ability or the distribution ability then the farmer needs to get it there.”

Here’s farmer and boatbuilder Eric Andrus:

“For farms that are more than a few hours drive from the city, there’s an extreme quality of life cost to accessing the New York City market. In many cases farmers I know who do this drive through the night in order to conduct these marathon farmers market sessions and come home exhausted.”

Other farmers are turning to online services like Wholeshare and Farmigo that streamline distribution and allow users to connect with a regional network of farmers and consumers.

Food hubs

And then there are food hubs, which professor David Connor says have the potential to help get products to market:

“They sort of wear a halo right now that they think they can be the answer to this problem –that they do the sort of aggregation, so gather product from lots of smaller scale farmers to create the volume that makes it worthwhile to bring down there, as well as doing the distribution to actually drive it down there.”

But there’s no easy way to get products to market. And Bernadette Logozar says that means farmers need to have a plan:

“Wherever your market is, you need as a farmer or a producer, you want to know where you want your product, and how you’re going to get it there. Who is your target market and aim for them.”

So, should North Country farmers aim for a greater share of the big city market? The answer is maybe – as long as you know which truck – or which boat – will help you get there.