More farms are now offering experiences to consumers — visiting a farm for “u-pick” produce, farm tours, farm weddings and public events and concerts and direct sales to consumer
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Although only 2% of the population farms — compared with 72% in 1820 — New York remains a state with a vibrant agricultural industry, ranking as a top producer of numerous farm commodities.
It is little surprise that consumer interest in farm goods has continued to grow, partly spurred by the disruption in the food supply chain during the pandemic.
“By and large the biggest trend I’m seeing is a desire for rich experiences,” said Maureen Ballatori, founder and CEO of 29 Design Studio Branding and Marketing in Geneva and Rochester. “Those experiences could range from a tasting dinner at a restaurant to a special event at a winery, or a new beer release party. Consumers want more unique ways to interact with their local foods and beverages.”
29 Design Studio represents numerous clients in the farming and food and beverage industries.
These farm experiences also include visiting a farm for “u-pick” produce, farm tours, farm weddings and public events on farms such as the concerts hosted by Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in Lafayette.
Ballatori also sees rising interest in certified organic and sustainable farming practices.
“From certified regenerative organic to certified upcycled, as farmers adopt these certifications, we’ll see more products on grocery store shelves carrying these symbols,” she said. “Retailers in Central New York and beyond have already started seeking out brands that pursue sustainability efforts like these.”
Another consumer preference is value-added products from farms. Consumers tend to view these items such as jam from a berry farm or pickles from a produce farm as both higher quality and a better deal. Value-added products also help farmers remain sustainable.
“We’re seeing more farms that have a bunch of produce leftover and they’re looking for something to do with it,” said Amanda J. Taranto, director of retail operations and marketing at Nelson Farms in Cazenovia. Not actually a farm in the conventional sense, Nelson Farms operates a store of local goods and an FDA-inspected kitchen facility is available for use through a shared use agreement. Nelson Farms also provides classes in food preservation.
“We’re seeing rising food costs in grocery stores and people are turning to more cost-effective options,” Taranto said.
Farmers produce value-added products to avoid wasting surplus perishable produce and also to generate an additional revenue stream.
Josh Roman agriculture community educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension Oswego County in Mexico, has also “definitely seen an increase in direct farm to consumer sales. Between 2012 and 2017, we saw an increase of 120% in the value of farm products sold directly to customers in New York.”
Tapping into specialty products and farming practices — such as kosher or organic — has primarily been a trend among small farms. For example, a large apple orchard that trucks fruit nationwide could likely never grow pawpaws on a large enough scale to be profitable because the fragile fruit does not ship well. But a small farm selling pawpaws through a farmers’ market, farm stand or community supported agriculture program could likely do well.
These methods of acquiring food continue to grow as more people are interested in food resilience.
“During the pandemic, we were seeing the food system disrupted,” Roman said. “It was minimal in some cases, but there were more people who wanted to buy directly from farmers. Building food resilience is something the state is moving towards.”
Wars, weather, plant diseases and pests can also disrupt the food chain and that’s why Roman is seeing greater realization among consumers that they need to source locally, whether from their own gardens or from local farmstands.
Extension has seen an uptick in interest in its Master Gardener Programming in which consumers can learn more about how to be successful growers.
Another trend is more government investment in locally sourced food. New York recently announced investing $700,000 to improve farmers’ markets statewide and bolstering its Farm to Institution program to tap into the $419 million K-12 schools and $150 million public universities in the state spend on food. Schools and other institutions buying food who spend at least 30% of their food budget on goods from New York farms receive incentives from the state as to the amount of food dollars they receive.
In addition to selling directly to consumers and to institutions, farmers are also selling more to restaurants and through their own restaurants, breweries and wineries.
Lindsay Raychel, media and content strategist for Visit Syracuse, noted examples such as Eden Restaurant in Syracuse, which “is purely focused on local food, brewers and distillers,” she said. “We’re home to 20-plus breweries that use their own or locally grown hops. Last Shot Distillery has almost everything from grains to bottles to casks that’s all local.”
Patrons are looking for an entire experience and these establishments strive to provide it. Raychel mentioned The Whiskey Coop, slated to open in May, which will serve local maple and local grassfed beef.
“It’s whiskey–fried chicken spot,” Raychel said. “That’s something new and different.”
Last Shot Distillery also locally sources ingredients. Farm breweries like Buried Acorn FLX at Stone Bend Farm in Newfield has a 4,200 square-foot greenhouse, in addition to farm brews and locally sourced food.
Raychel added that ONCO Fermentations’ Heiberg Maple Amber Ale is made with maple syrup from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
“They also partner with Old Fly Farm in Fabius every year on a Beer plus CSA,” she added. “Old Fly will be growing their lettuce, basil, tomatoes and other vegetables for their in-house kitchen run by ONCO owners Brian and Erin Bullard. Their L.A.B. Blend Two Wild Ale won gold in a New York state competition last year. It’s made with local blueberries and cherries. Finally, ONCO made a pilsner called ‘Not Complicated’ and it was brewed with grain from Springer Hill Farms in Lafayette.”
In addition to giving consumers the satisfaction of supporting local farms, businesses buying local can use the freshest ingredients and possibly enjoy a savings over goods shipped from great distances.