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Thursday, October 30, 2014
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Local niche products continue hitting shelves of metro markets in Big Apple

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Niche markets across the state and in the metropolitan markets of New York City are being found by agribusinesses for products made in the north country, a trend business owners say will grow as they tap into more markets.

North Country Farms, off Route 37 in the town of Pamelia, has quietly grown its variety of niche products sourced in the north country since the business was hatched in 2008. The agribusiness, which does about 90 percent of its business in New York City, produces a wide range of products through partnerships with local farms and producers that are sold under the company brand: white and whole-wheat flour, pancake and muffin mixes, maple syrup, honey and jams and cheese curds.

“The goal for North Country Farms has always been to fill niches,” said president Kevin L. Richardson. “We fill specialty niches where locally grown, healthy foods have an impact.”

Every 15 days, trucks ship 47,400 pounds of whole-wheat flour produced at the business’s flour mill to New York City markets, Mr. Richardson said. That stone-ground pure flour, which doesn’t include additives, has been in high demand at bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Big Apple.

The mainstay of the North Country Farms has always been its flour, made from wheat grown by Robbins Family Grain in Sackets Harbor, Mr. Richardson said. But the business has also quietly launched other niche products that have become successful in recent years using the same strategy, forming partnerships with producers who sell their product under the North Country Farms brand.

Last year, for example, Mr. Richardson started buying cheese curds produced at Great Lakes Cheese in Adams, which makes products using milk from north country dairy farmers. Its honey is bought from Many Flowers Honey Co., Alexandria Bay.

“I felt that cheese curds were another product with local ingredients that come right from north country farms, so that goes along with the story behind our brand,” Mr. Richardson said. “Everyone knows cheese curds come from the north country, but I saw the opportunity to push the produce into the central and eastern parts of the state.”

And more products soon are expected to be added to the brand’s already diverse repertoire, Mr. Richardson said. This year the business is seeking to partner with grass-fed cattle companies from the region to market and sell meat products that would be processed at Red Barn Meat, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified facility in Croghan.

Another agribusiness that has been quietly tapping into metro markets is Lucki 7 Livestock Co. of Rodman, owned by Stephen G. Winkler. Mr. Winkler’s livestock operation has tapped into markets statewide and in New York City that have a demand for meats. Anywhere from 30 to 50 hogs at Lucki 7, including those raised by other north country livestock farmers, are taken weekly to the Utica region to be butchered and packaged. New York City distributors then deliver the meat to restaurants.

Pork that comes from the Rodman farm’s pigs, of which there are 300, is in especially high demand, Mr. Winkler said. For the past seven years, pork has been sold in a total of 42 markets based in New York City. Most recently, Mr. Winkler has joined five other livestock farmers from Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties to supply chicken to a New Hartford-based restaurant named Piggy Pat’s BBQ. The restaurant owner is starting a food hub to tap into markets across the state.

“They are selling 200 cases of chicken a week, and plan to sell it to Mohawk Valley Community College and Utica College,” Mr. Winkler said. Chicken from the north country “is processed by Red Barn Meats, a USDA processor in Croghan, before it’s shipped.”

He added that New York City is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for meats produced in the north country.

“These high-end food distributors are figuring out that, if they want to be competitive, they need to find food produced in New York,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase of about 20 percent each year in the past five years. In the next five, I think that could get up to 30 to 35 percent. The demand is in front of us, and we have an opportunity to take control of this high-margin type food in the demand. But if the farm community doesn’t get up to speed to meet demand, the high-end customers are going to find other regions across the country.”

Upscale retailers in New York City are attracted to farms that have humane and ethical practices for the way they care for livestock animals, Mr. Winkler said. Lucki 7 became certified in 2008 by the Global Animal Partnership with a “Step 4” rating, which means its animals have full outside access to pastureland for grazing and aren’t treated with antibiotics or proteins. Upscale retailers, like Wegmans, conduct inspections at the farm to make sure humane practices are being followed. Mr. Winkler’s certification, like a badge of honor, offers proof that practices are followed, because licensed farms are already inspected by a third-party audit twice a year.

“This certification helps me step over some of the other farms doing this, because it tells retailers that what I’m saying just isn’t made up,” he said.

Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agricultural coordinator, said businesses that market and sell products across the state, like North Country Farms and Lucki 7 Livestock Co., may lead to a wealth of opportunities for local producers.

“When we see different consumer trends, the industry has to be responsive for what the consumer is looking for,” he said. “And right now people are looking to buy local product. They want to know who grew their product and that it’s grown safely. That’s been a huge opportunity for our value-added producers who grow the agriculture products, and the people who serve as marketers or distributors that take the products, aggregate them, and get them to the marketplace.”

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