Finding Your Food: Regional food hubs connect consumer with food

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY / NNY BUSINESS
Peter Martins displays a handful of strawberries at Martin farm on Needam Road in Potsdam.

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Guest essay: A taste of New York agriculture

Darrel Aubertine

I travel across the state in my role as Commissioner of Agriculture, but there is nothing like Jefferson County in the summertime. The river near my home, the land, the silos, the vineyards and the livestock are all intoxicating to a lifelong resident and farmer like me.

The area is teeming with agriculture, just like all of New York state. One day last month, I went from Cape Vincent to Syracuse, from Syracuse to Albany and from Albany to Batavia all in the same day. It was a whirlwind trip and I was very happy to sleep in my own bed the next night. When you travel the state as much as I do, it’s inevitable that you see parts of it that you didn’t even know existed. I continue to be amazed at New York’s beauty, to which agriculture contributes a great deal. The most important thing that I’ve learned as Commissioner is that New York is indeed an agricultural state, and one of the most important agricultural states in the entire nation.

You name it and we’re at the top in terms of production — dairy, wine and grapes, maple, apples — the list goes on. We have huge national industries such as yogurt that depend on New York agriculture every day. And we have a governor who actually wants to help agriculture succeed.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is prioritizing agriculture in a way that I’ve never seen before and treating it like the business that it is. He created FreshConnect Farmers Markets across the state, including one in Watertown, to help farmers better market their products and provide New Yorkers with healthy eating options.

He provided $96,000 for hops research at Madison County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension, which in turn helps growers produce and process their crop in a way that ensures they can produce high-quality hops that can be used year-round. And he brought industry and government together at two summits, one for the yogurt industry and one for the wine, beer and spirits industry, and asked them how state government can help them better do their jobs. From where I sit, these summits were just a starting point. I personally take part in conference calls and meetings every week with Gov. Cuomo and his staff to talk about where we go from here.

And where we go from here is easy: forward. There is no looking back. We want our big agricultural industries such as dairy to be even bigger. We want to help emerging industries such as hops production to continue to grow. Gov. Cuomo likes to say that “big happens here” in New York. We are thinking big and, more importantly, we are thinking creatively under this administration.

Take the topic of food hubs. The state is currently helping to fund five of them. I visited one in Kingston a few months ago. I often refer to them as “the missing link” from farm to fork because they not only provide important services to farmers such as branding, processing and storage, but they help distribute products to vast markets.

The food hub I visited in Kingston has a reach from the north country to New York City, and it is still growing. Gov. Cuomo also provided $350,000 to establish a food hub in Canton.

On the creative side, a new initiative called “Taste NY” goes hand in hand with this administration’s focus on tourism and state agriculture. “Taste NY” will highlight New York products at special events, such as the Great New York State Fair in Syracuse and the PGA Tournament in Rochester, tourism destinations and stores statewide. “Taste NY” tents and stores will soon be a recognizable brand in promoting New York agriculture. I have a feeling that it will soon be as well known as the “I Love NY” brand is to visitors across the country.

New York agriculture is a key component of our state’s economic development model. Gov. Cuomo sees a great tie between agriculture and tourism, and I do as well. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets operates the Great New York State Fair, an annual event in Syracuse that exposes one million visitors to agriculture per year. Our state is home to vineyards and a growing craft beer industry, with wine and beer trails accompanying these growing sectors.

All of a sudden, being a “foodie” has become trendy. The good news is that we have an abundance of fresh New York products available for “foodie” tourists. Agritourism is growing here in New York, and you don’t have to go very far to find it.

I’m a proud resident of the north country, and even more proud of the fact that the place I live makes such a large contribution to the state’s agriculture. The winters are tough, but a nice glass of Coyote Moon on a warm summer night more than makes up for them. Does life get any better than sitting outside at my farm enjoying the fruits of north country agriculture?

Darrel J. Aubertine is New York State’s 27th Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets. Prior to joining the Cuomo administration in 2011, he served in both the New York State Senate and Assembly. He was born and raised on a dairy farm in Cape Vincent, where he has worked for 35 years and continues to farm.