Something is simmering in The Finger Lakes. The region has slowly and steadily become one of the country’s premier areas for wine, agritourism and farm-to-table dining. If you live here, you’ve likely tasted bread from Wide Awake Bakery, doused pancakes with Sapsquatch Pure Maple Syrup, sipped wine from Heron Hill or Damiani. Restaurateurs, cider-, wine- and spirit-makers, fruit growers, bakers, farmers, cheesemakers and others have won over residents and visitors alike with delicious homegrown offerings.
There are about 7,000 farms and more than 120 wineries in the Finger Lakes. More than 4,000 households in Ithaca and Tompkins County buy their fruits and vegetables directly from farmers. The people behind these numbers are your neighbors. You know how hard they work, their days bubbling over with the business of feeding us.
So when on a frozen January morning, dozens of local food and beverage luminaries host a protest banquet at Houston-based energy company Crestwood Midstream’s facility in Reading, it should pique our interest. When the people who bring us what we eat express concern about something, we should see what’s brewing.
The demonstration, organized by We Are Seneca Lake, was part of an on-going civil disobedience campaign against Crestwood’s proposal to expand methane storage in abandoned salt caverns beneath Seneca Lake. More than 75 protesters participated―many from Tompkins County―including celebrity chef Emma Frisch of Firelight Camps, Northstar restaurant owner Lee Hamilton, baker Stefan Senders of Wide Awake Bakery, Peggy Aker of Macro Momma, farm and food business developer and consultant Krys Cail, and organic farmers Chaw Chang and Tony Potenza.
The message was clear: Crestwood’s proposed facility poses a real threat to the local wine, food and tourism industry. Attendees including Chef Scott Signori of Stonecat Café explained that food and wine businesses provide many more jobs than the 8-10 new jobs Crestwood projects, and said Crestwood’s expansion could endanger an agriculture and culinary destination just as it’s starting to flourish.
Food Hub or Gas Hub?
Ithaca resident Emma Frisch, a local chef and hotelier and rising Food Network star, helped organize the banquet. “I have a responsibility to feed people clean and healthy food,” said Frisch. “As a chef and business owner, the Finger Lakes is a core part of my brand. We have a choice: Do we want to build on what generations before us have done? If so, we have to think about long-term sustainability. Crestwood’s business model is not built for the future.”
This wasn’t the first time chefs, winemakers and others spoke out against the project. In a letter to Governor Cuomo last summer, more than 50 winery owners and winemakers said creating a “hub” for gas storage is “not compatible with the expanding wine industry” in the Finger Lakes. More than 200 people have been arrested, some more than once. On this morning, participants formed a human blockade at the gate and prevented traffic from accessing the facility for four hours. None were arrested.
One Seneca Lake Defender, Stephanie Redmond of Enfield, traces her involvement in January’s feast to her father-in-law Gary Redmond who founded Regional Access in Trumansburg to help small rural businesses start up, expand and thrive. “Many generations have spent time and money developing the Finger Lakes as a foodie destination,” Redmond said. “Crestwood’s expansion would undermine all of that.” But she adds that her initial reason for getting involved was her three children: “It’s important to keep our home safe for our kids. Gas storage in salt caverns has been the source of many catastrophic accidents. That’s not what I want my children to inherit.”
Ultimately, the protest succeeded in showing how carefully-tended businesses grown from local lands and waters stand in stark contrast to Crestwood’s plans. In a first-person account, “Dispatches from the Seneca Lake Uprising” for EcoWatch, scientist, writer, Trumansburg resident and We Are Seneca Lake founder Sandra Steingraber said the demonstration was perhaps the world’s first farm-to-table civil disobedience action. It was also a fantasy pot luck for any Finger Lakes foodie:
“…two oak banquet tables—each laden with steaming dishes of food—were standing, like mirage, in the snow-drifted strip of land before the compressor station fence…
There were meatballs, sauerkraut, noodles, artisanal bread, popcorn, salads, cheeses, honeycombs, pate, maple syrup-drenched pastries, bowls of apples and cakes of various flavors—all prepared from local, seasonal ingredients. There were three kinds of hot tea, jars of grape juice and cider, artful centerpieces and a portable compost station.”
Frisch says the organizers hoped a feast would help make the topic of gas storage more relatable. “Food is comfortable and inviting, and it is universal,” she said. “But what truly blew me away was how many volunteers have been working around the clock, in the coldest winter ever, to fight this day after day.”
It makes sense when you think about it―when you care about where your food comes from the next logical step is caring about the health of that place, and doing what’s necessary to protect it.
Hungry for more? Get involved at: WeAreSenecaLake.com