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Farmers, restaurants link up during networking event at JCC (VIDEO)

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WATERTOWN — Farmers had a chance to sweet-talk restaurateurs Tuesday at Jefferson Community College’s Jules Center, promoting the benefits of locally produced meats, fruits and vegetables.

Similar to speed dating, the farm-to-restaurant networking event hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County gave 21 farmers and 23 restaurants a venue to connect during the four-hour event.

That was plenty time for farmers to make connections with restaurant owners who wish to enhance their menu with locally grown ingredients. Loren and Chris Bush, co-owners of Bush Gardens, Carthage, said they capitalized on the opportunity by talking with several restaurant owners about their offerings.

“We now have a better idea of what restaurants are looking for,” Mrs. Bush said.

The couple learned that an Italian steakhouse in Adams, La Bella Fonte, hunts for a variety of seasonal vegetables four times a year, Mrs. Bush said. The couple also spoke with owners from Cavallario’s Cucina of Watertown, Rainbow Shores Hotel and Restaurant of Pulaski and the Ridgeview Inn of Lowville.

After starting a vegetable garden in their backyard seven years ago, the Bushes expanded their operation to harvest vegetables and fruits on 16 acres. The couple had a strong selection of produce to show restaurateurs. A seasonal chart showed they offer a mix of 26 vegetables and fruits at different times of the year, which they sell at farmers markets in Watertown and Lowville.

A greenhouse built this past winter has allowed them to diversify what they offer, Mr. Bush said.

“We’re now able to offer cucumbers at the end of May, when most people don’t have them ready until the end of June,” he said.

Livestock producer Stephen G. Winkler, owner of Lucki 7 Livestock Co., Rodman, also was busy making connections Tuesday. Mr. Winkler, who sells most of his meats in New York City, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, said the local food movement has gained traction in the north country as consumers have changed their attitudes.

“The biggest factor is that the prices of commodity food — beef, pork, poultry, chicken and eggs — have gone up,” Mr. Winkler said Tuesday. “The prices are now close enough to where it makes it attractive to buy locally grown food, even though it still costs more. But there’s an extra value because the dollars stay here locally, and you can visit the farms where food is produced.”

Ordinarily, the hectic schedules of farmers and restaurant owners make it a challenge to make business contacts, Mr. Winkler said. But Tuesday’s event brought everyone into the same room, he said.

“I just spoke with Brenda Cavallario, who owns a restaurant in the city,” Mr. Winkler said. “We talk two or three times a year, but we’ve never had time to sit down and go over prices and specifics about how she wants products sized, frozen and packaged. Here, we’ve both chiseled out a few hours to do it.”

Warren L. Allen, owner of W+E Allen Pure Maple Syrup, Beaver Falls, sells his syrup to a mix of gift shops and bakeries across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. On Tuesday, he looked to expand his clientele by selling his syrups to restaurants.

“There were two people who sounded quite hopeful,” said Mr. Allen, who has owned the small business for 40 years. “It’s a win for me if I can sell my products to one restaurant. There are many restaurants that get supplies from other states, but if we can source it locally, then we’re all better.”

Steven W. Ledoux, local foods community educator at the Jefferson County extension office, said farmers at the event attended a salesmanship course in early April to learn how to present their business plans effectively to clients. The extension office helped prepare resumes for each farm that included their contact information and a complete list of products they sell.

Mr. Ledoux expects other such networking events will become increasingly popular as locally grown food further penetrates regional markets.

Video can be viewed at http://wdt.me/Farm-to-Restaurant.

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