New York in the World: an old economic engine is new again

Aug 23, 2013

Back in the 1930s, when Finger Lakes resident Carl Mortensen was a kid, agriculture was his small town’s link to the rest of the state.

“New York City was full of horses,” Mortensen said. “They used horses for everything. And our big thing then was to put up oats, straw and hay and like that and ship it to New York City.”

What happened next is a story that’s been told so many times it hardly needs repeating: a gradual disappearance of farms and farmland to urban development, the allure of white collar jobs and mechanization and global pressure that made it hard for all but the biggest and most high-tech farms to compete.

These days?  Many of those bigger New York farms are actually doing very well. But this is a story from the other end of the spectrum.

On any given Saturday you might find Tina DeGraff picking out produce at the farmers market in Manhattan’s Union Square. But it’s not for eating. She’s in food styling for magazines and commercials..

“You got to make a pretty picture, right?” she said. DeGraff says the quality of the produce here is top notch, but there’s another reason she comes.

“It’s always best to shop local. I think that’s the best way to shop.”

That sentiment can’t really be called new any more. But as consumers continue to hop on the local food bandwagon, the financial benefits for farmers are real.

Mark Brechenridge of Norwich Meadows Farm  in Norwich, N.Y has been with the farm for eight years and says that every year, it gets bigger.

As he gazes into his crystal ball, former New York State Agriculture Commissioner Nathan Rudgers predicts that’s a story that will be repeated over and over again in the next big agriculture census.

“What we’re going to find is a significant stabilization in the number of farms, a significant increase in the number of new small farms and an increase in the amount of land in farms,” the former commissioner said.

Rudgers says a lot of that is thanks to the rise of the middle class in places like China, more money to spend, usually means more interest in animal protein, which is good news for a big dairy state like New York.

But, he says, there’s also that growing interest in eating local.

“What consumers are really looking for is someone who puts a human face on the food that they’re consumering and who has responsibility and accountability for the quality and the safety of that food,” he said.

Few people could provide a more jovial face than Anthony Road Wine Company owner John Martini. He’s been making the five-hour trip from Seneca Lake to Union Square market for 18 years.

“In the beginning, for the wine, people would walk by and I could hear them say ‘Oh New York wine’ in falling tones. You know like, sweet and fruity and blah, blah, blah. We don’t get that anymore. There’s a recognition that New York wines are better than they were. And so now we hear ‘Oh, New York wine’ in rising tones and ‘I love Reisling.’”

Wine, local produce, even large scale dairy exports may never get us back to the literal “hay” days of agriculture when horses filled the streets of New York City, but there sure are a lot of human mouths to feed around here and that’s all market opportunity.