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Farms can save our economy

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My best friend came to visit for about two weeks in late May. She is a professional chef in Texas, and we don’t get to see each other that often. This was her first time in this part of the country. The region left an impression on her.

It wasn’t the beauty of this place that blew her away, although she told me what I already knew about how beautiful our little part of the world is. It was the quality of the food produced here.

I bought her a pint of locally produced maple syrup. She drank – literally drank, shot by shot – the whole bottle in a week. The eggs, pork and beef my husband and I get from a Heuvelton farm’s community-supported agriculture program wowed her. And she is someone who has tasted the best of the very best throughout her decade-long cooking career.

That got me thinking. We have something really special here, and we would be crazy not to try to capitalize on it.

We hear all the time about efforts to spur economic development, but agriculture is an often overlooked part of that equation. We should be looking at ways to help our farms get their amazing products out in the marketplace and onto the high-end restaurant tables they deserve to be on.

In recent years, economic development efforts have mostly focused on attracting manufacturers and heavy industry. That’s the same model we’ve followed for years with only so-so results. The manufacturing jobs we have lost are long gone, and we have to come to grips with the fact that in all likelihood, they’re not ever coming back. We are not going to get another General Motors no matter how hard we try.

If we want to grow our economy, we have to change our way of thinking. If we’re talking about using what we already have to get to economic prosperity, we can’t forget that we already have farms.

St. Lawrence County is now and always has been an agricultural county. Dairy is still the predominant agribusiness here, but our farms are becoming more diverse all the time. There is a huge market for the small-batch, high-quality foods they produce. The challenge is to help these farms market their products in the right places and support them while they find their customers.

The first step is to make sure as many local dining businesses and institutions as possible are serving locally produced food. More restaurants are serving locally produced meats and vegetables all the time, and using the fact that those products were grown in St. Lawrence County as a really effective selling point. That is a promising trend that I hope will only gain momentum. The county’s colleges are also taking advantage of locally produced foods through the North Country Grown Cooperative. However, there are still restaurants and institutions who are not taking advantage of what our farms offer, and our farm advocacy agencies should talk to them to find out why. If there are obstacles standing in the way, they should be able to figure out a way to overcome them.

Our economic development and agribusiness-minded agencies should be at the forefront of this effort. If the North Country Regional Economic Development Council and the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency pool their resources and have some serious discussions with the county’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, the county Farm Bureau and cooperatives like North Country Grown, I am sure they could find a way to increase the number of restaurants, schools, hospitals, colleges, you name it, taking advantage of the bounty around them. Once that happens, they can turn their focus to marketing those products outside the region to gauge demand.

I suspect they will find that if the word gets out about our farm products, people who live far away from here who are looking for superior quality cheeses, meats and produce will gladly pay top dollar for them. They get the quality of ingredients they are looking for, and our farms flourish. If our farms flourish, the region’s economy will follow suit.

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