Farmers offer ideas to solve common woes at meeting

AFP Correspondent

HARDYSTON TOWNSHIP (Feb. 1, 2016) — Farmers were joined by policy makers, food safety advocates and agriculture support staff at the rambling golf and condominium complex for a Foodshed Alliance information session on Jan. 13.
While the majority of the session was devoted to information about food incubators, other questions about successful farming were posed during the full-morning event.
Ben DelCoro, co-founder of the Sparta Farmers’ Market, brought up some of the challenges he has faced in five years running the market.
“The awareness is not there,” DelCoro said. “There is not enough education about local and regional food.”
When the Sparta market was at the township municipal building, across from the local supermarket, the Stop ‘n Shop parking lot was inevitably full even when the farm market wasn’t busy.
An audience member commented when she worked in the Poconos she heard a co-worker say the best way to get local food was to go to a farmers’ market in New York City.
DelCoro said he is looking for a solution to the waste of unsold crops. He has worked in restaurants where he took food scraps to a pig farm.
“Food waste is a major problem,” he said, adding, “Farmers work hard, but there is too much left in the field.
He suggested one thing that would help local farmers would be a processing facility for freezing, canning or dehydration to give them a year-round revenue and to keep residents used to buying local food all year.
“The growing season is short,” he pointed out.
One point brought up by several members of the audience was the need for commercial kitchens to allow farmers to process their own surplus food. Fruit with a very short season, like strawberries, could be turned into jam and sold if done under state health department regulations.
DelCoro noted along with the proper space, farmers would need training in compliance and regulations as well as marketing their new products.
Farmer Walt Menegus pointed out fees can be prohibitive just for selling produce at a farmers’ market and could be very high for processed food.
He said farmers have to be careful the health inspectors are actually charging fees correctly.
He told of one farmer charged fees for each of the markets he participates in even though there was only one health department inspection.
Several attendees suggested some sort of cooperative arrangement for a commercial kitchen.
Menegus said after the meeting he knows of specialty producers who attempted to sell niche products produced in a commercial kitchen, but none that succeeded. He said there is sometimes grant funding available to help start up such a venture.
While no one was able to solve the processing problem, Menegus said there are plenty of parcels of state Department of Environmental Protection land that are leased on a three-year basis to farmers.
He said some of these small parcels are restricted to cover crops but others can be used for any purpose.
The ability to lease a few acres can be helpful to many farmers, he noted.