Tompkins County’s farm to table movement began over 40 years ago. Monika Roth, Agriculture Program Leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension and adviser to Ithaca Farmer’s Market, is an expert on the local food system which rose from this movement. In her paper presentation given on May 13th at the Farm to Plate Conference, Roth gave an overview of Ithaca’s food system, highlighting its history and areas for growth.
A food system has three main components according to Roth: producers, distributors, and consumers. The producers are the farmers. The distributors are organizations like supermarkets and delivery services. The consumers include restaurants and the general public.
Roth said that Ithaca’s current food system, which has a focus on organic, local food, began defining itself in the 1970’s. Driven in part by rising gas prices, a “back to the land”, organic movement began to gain national support. A regional organization called the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) was created. In Tompkins County, a large percentage of NOFA-NY members weren’t farmers, but rather consumers and home gardeners who wished to be active and informed in the local food system. Also part of the movement in Tompkins County was a large number of collectives and communes with shared gardening and farming.
Fast forwarding to the present day, Ithaca has a local food system which generates an annual revenue of $20 million. “Per capita, Ithaca and Tompkins County must be at the top of the pyramid when it comes to local food,” Roth said during her presentation. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, which saw a boost to popularity in the 1990’s, now serve approximately 4,400 households in the Tompkins County area. 15-25 restaurants in the area buy local products regularly. Large supermarkets and institutions are buying a larger percentage of their goods locally and regionally.
Roth, while celebrating these successes, is also considering the future. CSAs have reached a saturation point, she said in her presentation. The farmers need new and innovative ways to attract consumers. Healthy Food for All helps WIC and Food Stamp eligible consumers participate in CSAs by providing subsidized prices. Some individual CSAs also provide EBT Food Stamps and installment options. These approaches have had great success, with CSAs able to gain an additional $75,000 in annual revenue.
Another concern Roth has is that area farmer’s markets are seeing stagnant sales growth. This is a difficulty facing many farmer’s markets nationally, though the problem in Tompkins County is different from most other places. Whereas in other parts of the country more farmers are needed, in Tompkins County there are plenty of farmers but not enough people with access to their goods. Roth has been working with farmers to alleviate this problem. The Ithaca Farmer’s Market now accepts EBT Food Stamps.
Some farms have widened their distribution to New York City corner stores, which want to carry regional goods. Agri-Tourism is also a good opportunity for farms to make extra income, by marketing to tourists who are interested in touring farms and sampling what makes them special.
We’d like to hear what you think. Are you a regular at a farmer’s market or part of a CSA? How do you think Tompkins County can sustain its food system in the future? Comment below or send an email to email@example.com.