By Garet D. Livermore, executive director, Cornell Cooperative Extension Herkimer County
Obtaining fresh food in the Adirondacks has always been a challenge. Between the cold climate and the poor glacial soil riddled with stones and boulders, farming in the Adirondacks is, at best, a difficult proposition. The indigenous people of the region, the Mohawks of the Haudenosaunee nation had large settlements in the rich river valleys that surround the Adirondacks that supported large farms that grew the “three sisters” (corn, beans and squash) that sustained their communities. When they came into the central Adirondacks, they brought these food staples with them to supplement the fish and game of the mountains.
The European settlers coming into the Adirondacks in the 19th century attempted farming, but few stayed on the land for long. The growing conditions were simply too poor to support lasting settlements. Within a generation most moved on to western lands that were more hospitable to growing foods and building communities.
Today’s Adirondackers face similar challenges in keeping their families well fed. Many year-round residents plan for elaborate monthly shopping trips to Utica or Glens Falls to stock up on essential food items. Similarly, vacationers often arrive in rented cabins or to campsites with coolers stuffed with all of the food that they need for their vacations.
Even the grocery stores within the park face serious challenges in their operations. Simply getting food to stock their shelves in a time of supply chain issues are magnified many times when your business is at the end of that supply chain. Finding willing workers is a major issue for all businesses with the park; it is an even greater problem for the grocery stores that need to be open for long hours, seven days a week. An invisible concern to many of us is that there is a generational shift happening amongst these grocers, many of them and the independent contractors who distribute food are nearing retirement and there is not a clear succession plan in place as to who will take over these businesses when this happens.
There are bright spots within this picture. Farmers’ markets in the Adirondacks are thriving; these seasonal weekly events in communities throughout the park are bringing in fresh produce, meats, dairy products and baked goods for residents and vacationers. Grocery stores are building relationships with farmers to stock summer favorites like sweet corn and tomatoes that are difficult to grow within the Blue Line.
In the areas surrounding the Central Adirondacks there is a farming renaissance occurring. After many decades of most regional farming consisting of conventional dairy farms, we see people envisioning a new future for farming in our region. In the Champlain, Mohawk and St. Lawrence River valleys a mix of new farmers, Amish and Mennonite farms as well as multi-generation farms diversifying their operations are producing high quality farm goods. Some of these are making their way into the region while more go to New York City and other metropolitan markets and are sold as “local” foods.
In this context, three organizations, LivingADK, Mohawk Valley Economic Development District and Cornell Cooperative Extension Herkimer County are working on a project to understand and improve food distribution in the Central Adirondacks. We started in May with an Adirondack Food Access Survey (https://forms.gle/dN2jzg9rRFubUW7R6) to determine exactly what issues people were having with obtaining their groceries and what interest they had in supporting new food ventures. From there we will present the findings to state and local officials and work to support improved food distribution networks of farm fresh and other food products to the central Adirondacks.
In the short time the survey has been active the planning group has learned many lessons about the nature of where and how people get fresh food in the Adirondacks. Amongst them are:
- Our local grocery stores in the Adirondacks are a key element in improving access to fresh food in the region. They are the most immediate food sales venue that are open throughout the year and are open to working with new distribution networks. Like all Adirondack businesses, they operate in a challenging environment that is highly seasonal and with a very small labor pool from which to recruit. It is important that we support them to keep viable food businesses in our downtowns.
- The demand for farm fresh food continues throughout the year even though farmers’ markets are only open seasonally. Some farmers have joined Old Forge area residents to create an informal off-season distribution network of farm products. They call in orders once a week and one of the farmers drives up to Old Forge from the Utica area to deliver the food. Such a model could be used as a model for future deliveries.
- Technology has caught up with the Central Adirondacks. Several families are now getting food from on-line sources like Misfit Market, Butcher Box and Amazon. These are delivered directly to people’s homes although they are neither local nor inexpensive.
- Seniors on limited incomes and young families eligible for SNAP benefits are particularly affected by the limitations in the food supply. Often, they have neither the income or transportation to shop outside the Adirondacks and have a hard time finding fresh produce they can afford in winter.
The Adirondack Local Foods Survey is a first step for improving food access throughout the year in the Central Adirondacks. The survey is vital for planning efforts to support existing food distribution networks and to create new ones. If you are either a resident or a regular visitor to the Central Adirondacks (roughly the Route 28 corridor between Old Forge and Long Lake) we would appreciate it if you would take a few minutes to participate in the planning process by completing the survey. If you are unable to take the survey online, it can be taken over the phone by calling (315) 288-3687.
Garet D. Livermore is the executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension Herkimer County
Photo by Jamie Organski of the Old Forge Farmers Market.