Local Food Movement Gives Small Farms a Big Boost


About two miles south of the village of Millbrook, N.Y., is a patch of rolling farmland that looks at lot like much of rest of the landscape in this bucolic corner of the Hudson Valley. But there's a notable difference that takes a keen eye to notice. It's not the land but rather what's grazing on it: miniature cows.

Dawn Coralei and her three teenage children raise the diminutive Hereford cattle, which were cultivated from preserved bloodlines, on 200 leased acres, where the animals spend lazy days gnawing grass and doing whatever else cows do. Their smaller size makes them easier to handle and requires less space and food, Coralei says. Plus, she says, "they're so adorable."

In some ways it's a misnomer to call Coralei's herd of cows "miniature" because they're the same size cows used to be before modern cattle feeding and harvesting techniques were developed around the middle of last century. Greater use of grain for feed and other changes resulted in cows that are roughly twice the size they once were.

A Four-Legged Pet Project

Feeding on grass rather than grain provides health benefits for both animal and consumer, Coralei says, and helps to meet organically grown standards. But the cows' smaller size also means consumers get more realistically sized cuts of meat. "They're more of an appropriate size -- more of what you should be consuming versus a dinner-plate sized (portion)," she says.

Employed by the nonprofit Dyson Foundation as a project manager, raising cows isn't Coralei's full-time job. It's kind of a pet project, if you will, that she undertook three years ago. But it's been so successful, she says, that she can't meet demand for either breeding stock or beef to sell to consumers looking for an alternative to meat sold at traditional supermarkets.

Coralei has tapped into the growing "locavore" movement, joined by a growing number of Americans who are coming back to the land to raise their own food, whether that's cows, goats, chicken, or fruits and vegetables. Those that don't grow their own are increasingly interested in buying locally produced foods and goods in part as a way to connect with their communities.

Farms Close to Home

By their actions, these new-age pioneers are helping to preserve farms and open space that might otherwise fall fallow or be developed for housing or strip malls. Consumer interest in locally grown food has raised the number of small farms in the region and caused sales of direct-to-consumer goods by farmers to jump during the last decade, says Sara Grady, a researcher at Glynwood, a nonprofit dedicated to saving farms in the Northeast.

The locavore, or local food, movement is being driven in part by recent food scares, such as the massive egg recalls last month at two large Iowa egg producers and tainted tomatoes two years ago, among others. But it isn't just safety that's fueling demand for locally produced food; consumers now demand higher quality food, says Janet Crawshaw, co-publisher of The Valley Table magazine, which covers farms, food and cuisine in the Hudson Valley.

"People have been looking for better food, and they're finding it closer to home," Crawshaw says.

An alternative to selling directly to consumers is, of course, selling to restaurants. That once was a hard sell for many farmers. But just as consumers have jumped on the locavore bandwagon so have a growing number of talented chefs.

"The market is really demanding better food and local food, and so farmers -- who 10 years ago were being turned away from the kitchen door of a lot of restaurants -- are now being wooed," Crawshaw says.

Infiltrating the CIA

Many local chefs in the Hudson Valley are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, the main campus of which is in Hyde Park. The college began a local-food buying program about 20 years ago, says spokesman Stephan Hengst. The college's esteemed reputation has allowed it "to make a dramatic difference in buying habits, specifically of restaurant chefs, which of course then influences consumers (and) trickles down to supermarkets," he says.

CIA typically has a student body of about 1,500 students each year, where aspiring chefs are taught about the importance of finding local sources of food. But CIA, which also runs five restaurants, has a significant impact on area food producers, purchasing about $750,000 worth of products each year from 30 local farms.

Also driving direct sales of farm-to-consumer goods is a program sponsored by the county tourism agency, which brings New York City-area residents north via train for tours of local farms and wineries. Known as Farm Fresh, the initiative is geared to those who don't own cars. It has brought about 2,300 people to the area, about 70 miles north of Manhattan, during the last three summers, says Lydia Higginson, deputy director at Dutchess County Tourism.

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"The biggest challenge for us is transportation. It's very expensive," Higginson says. A grant this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped offset the cost, reducing out-of-pocket expenses to tourists for train fare and bus transportation to about $30 each.

If You Bring Them, They Will Buy

Farm Fresh and other tourism agency sponsored programs have helped local farms and wineries sell more of their products. One organic farm, as an example, reported sales on average of $32 a person, while a winery said it sold an average of two bottles of wine per visitor, Higginson says. Such incremental sales are welcomed and helpful, especially given the nation's struggling economy.

Higginson says tourists' curiosity about local farms is sometimes driven by concern about the food safety. Consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from, she says. "As people become more scared about the overall food source, they become more comfortable about finding out about (local foods)."

But there are also those visitors who simply want to experience a bit of rural life -- even if just for a day. For them, coming to a farm can be an eye-opening experience, Higginson says. "Some people," she says, "have never seen an ear of corn."