Chautauqua County Highlights how Food Can be a Pathway to Growth

The Jamestown Post Journal recently featured the partnership between Chautauqua County and Growing Food Connections, a project of the UB Food Lab.  Written by Peter Lombardi of the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation, the article highlights how food could be a pathway to growth in a county that is ripe for opportunity in connecting farmers and consumers.  Check out the original article here or read below.

Focus On Food Could Be A Pathway To Growth

April 20, 2015
By Peter Lombardi Jamestown Renaissance Corporation , Post-Journal         

We have an agricultural paradox on our hands. Chautauqua County has more farms than any other county in New York State – over 1,500. But it also has “food deserts,” areas where residents lack regular access to fresh fruit and vegetables for geographic, economic and educational reasons.

That’s why it’s good news that Chautauqua County was recently named as one of eight “Communities of Opportunity” by Growing Food Connections, an initiative funded by the USDA to better connect local farmers and underserved communities.

This puts Chautauqua County in a diverse group that includes the counties containing Portland, Maine; Kansas City, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Albany, Georgia; Columbus, North Carolina; and Las Cruces and Deming, New Mexico.

Over the next three years, Chautauqua County will have a chance to work with researchers and food system experts, as well as representatives from the other Communities of Opportunity, to identify and address factors that limit the prosperity of local farmers and stand in the way of solid connections between farmers and both local and regional consumers.

Although the topic is food, the implications for the future of Chautauqua County are wide-ranging. A healthy food system is critical to the well-being of the county’s rural communities, where stable food production means jobs, land preservation, tourism and a thriving farm culture. But it’s also a key to the vitality of the county’s cities and villages, where consumers, markets, processing facilities and restaurants all benefit from a steady influx of high-quality local produce.

These agricultural ties between urban and rural communities used to be obvious. The emergence of supermarkets and large scale agribusinesses after World War II diminished these ties, but the recent surge in interest around local and organic food has rekindled a relationship between town and country that dates back to the rise of civilization.

Chautauqua County is uniquely suited to take advantage of this movement. Besides having the largest number of farms in New York state, it’s also a county of striking agricultural diversity. Between the grapes and other fruit farming in the microclimate of the Lake Erie Plain, to the dairy, livestock, and vegetable farming on the Allegheny Plateau, the county is almost a perfect microcosm of traditional American agriculture. Throw in the urban populations within the county and the millions living within a three-hour drive and you have a considerable marketplace at the producer’s doorstep.

But overcoming some of the factors that limit producer/consumer connections has to come first and that will be a priority of Chautauqua County’s participation in the Growing Food Connections program, which will build on the solid understanding of local agriculture contained in the county’s award-winning comprehensive plan.

Among the limitations that need to be addressed, food processing is involved. Some livestock growers in the county need to travel hundreds of miles and make appointments years in advance to get to certified slaughterhouses, increasing the risk of an already-risky venture.

Other issues include supporting a new generation of farmers – especially those who lack the capital to get started – as well as understanding the needs of the many farmers who enter the sector later in life as a second or third career.

In Jamestown, Dunkirk, and other part of the county, increasing regular access to local produce is important, whether by expanding farmers markets, improving transportation to existing market sites, or boosting utilization of programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) at markets and farm stands. This has already been happening in Jamestown, where the downtown farmers market operated by the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation experienced a nearly 100 percent increase in electronic benefit card transactions between 2013 and 2014.

Agriculture, food processing and an intricate web of producer/consumer relationships have been foundations of life in Chautauqua County for over 200 years. Thanks to the county’s inclusion as a Community of Opportunity and the ongoing work of thousands of individuals from various sectors, they could set a foundation for future health and prosperity.

Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news and commentary from the front lines of Jamestown’s revitalization.