By Dan Hust
FERNDALE “We’re asking you not to just think globally but think locally and act locally as well,” Chris Fowler told the crowd inside Ferndale’s CVI Building last week.
He was preaching to the converted, however, as this crowd represented some of the most ambitious and innovative farmers in the Catskills.
The occasion was the third annual Farm to Market Connection convention, organized by the Watershed Agricultural Council’s Farm to Market Manager (and Sullivan County resident) Challey Comer.
Various workshops, seminars and panel discussions focused on the goal of enabling small-scale farmers of all kinds to better reach their markets.
But keynote speaker Fowler who heads Syracuse First, a shop-local nonprofit based in that upstate city insisted the ultimate goal is far larger.
“What we’re really doing is changing the world,” he told the audience of about 200. “... This isn’t about growing a business it’s about changing lives.”
He ticked off issues like diabetes, sprawl and community disconnect problems Fowler believes local farms can ameliorate.
Syracuse First, he added, is introducing a model of collaboration rather than competition between businesses, with a larger focus on how to help locals rather than simply profit from them.
“What we’re trying to fight is 50 years of MBAs telling people what a successful business is like,” he explained, urging attendees to start calling customers “citizens” instead of “consumers.”
Treating customers like human beings and supporting a sense of community are lessons learned long ago by Sullivan County’s ag enterprises, but that Sunday’s raft of workshops nevertheless offered valuable advice for farmers and the companies which work with them, from how to boost sales to how to market products to how to access distributors and capital financing.
Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress also participated, hosting a “listening session” to gain data for the think tank’s research into “food hubs,” which encourage farmers to work together to bring their products to market.
Much of the day focused on awareness, which can lead to residents taking responsibility to keep their money in their communities.
“The new economy is homegrown, small-scale and independent,” Fowler affirmed. “The new brand is authenticity, and that’s what businesses like yours provide.
“The thing about it is, people want this,” he added. “There is a demand for this.”