By EMMA HENNESSEY
North Country Grown Cooperative, the major farmer cooperative in St. Lawrence County, has officially suspended its operations until further notice. This decision comes in tandem with the cooperation’s dismissal of its only two employees in early March, although manager Sue Rau will continue intermittent deliveries until mid-April when the delivery truck is finally pulled off the road.
As a farmer cooperative, NCGC is entirely owned by its producers and growers, and previously supplied locally grown foods to restaurants and universities such as St. Lawrence. The cooperative took a major hit this fall when St. Lawrence University and SUNY Potsdam decreased their purchases of food, as was reported in the Hill and voiced in letters to the editor last semester.
As Dulli Tengler of Birdsfoot Farms wrote to The Hill News earlier this academic year in regards to the cutback in food bought from the NCGC, “I feel burned that a commitment was made and not honored, and that I have to donate my boxes of extra grown crops to the Neighborhood Center or compost them.”
In response to criticisms of the university’s decision, St. Lawrence administrative workers such as Director of Dining and Conference Services Cindy Atkins, and Coordinator of Sustainability Projects Louise Gava, have reiterated the university’s commitment to sustainability and supporting local farmers, and echoed that this affirmation to purchase local will continue. As of now, all of the maple syrup, apples, applesauce, and milk products at Dana Dining Hall are bought locally, as well as many root vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips and radishes. While more goods could be bought locally, this would subsequently cost more for Dining Services to purchase, and since St. Lawrence is a private institution, more for students’ families.
“The University requires all its departments to manage costs so the funds paid by our students’ families can be used in the most responsible way,” said St. Lawrence University Director of Media Relations Ryan Deuel as reported by the Watertown Daily Times last fall.
Regardless of the reasoning behind St. Lawrence’s decision to pull back its purchasing from the NCGC, it is undeniable that the decision had a drastic impact on residents like Rau committed to distributing locally grown food throughout St. Lawrence County.
“We were selling to large institution customers,” said Rau, “and it was probably not a really good business plan because if you lose one customer, then you lose a lot of money.” As NCGC struggles to survive, other local farming projects in St. Lawrence County such as a regional cooperative which sells food to New York City are also struggling to endure through this economic climate. To acclimate to their new position, NCGC will likely have to use volunteers to move produce to local businesses in the future.
“We’re struggling, and I think it shows how hard it is for small agriculture to exist,” said Rau. These new events come in perfect timing with St. Lawrence University’s biannual Food Week, which is set to take place April 19th through the 26th. This event, which includes panel discussions, film showings and lectures, attempts to bring visibility to issues of sustainability on campus and the environmental and economic benefits of buying locally.
“Food sustainability is important,” said Meredith Wolpe ‘17, “because it connects you to place. It shows how connected we all are.” As Ann Bennett of Bittersweet Farms said to The Hill last semester, “It can’t just be 12 students from the organizations; there is serious pressure needed. This means seven to ten percent of the student body saying that (local food) is what they want.”