Supplying Your Local Food, From Seed to Plate

The local food movement has taken the country – and the state of New York – by storm. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local food sales in the U.S. increased from $4.8 billion in 2008 to $11.7 billion in 2014. Much of those sales can be attributed to the increase in the number of farmers’ markets across the country. In 2014, there were over 8,200 farmers’ markets in operation – up 180% since 2006. It’s clear that more and more Americans want to know where their food comes from, as well as enjoy the many benefits of locally-grown produce.

Why are people buying local? Local food is often fresher and more nutritious, traveling shorter distances to reach final consumers. Not only is it often better tasting and better for you, but buying local both strengthens local economies as well as brings communities together – and nowhere is this truer than right here in New York. With an incredible selection of homegrown products, our state produces some of the best food in the word. The recent explosion in local food sales has spurred various programs and initiatives such as Governor Cuomo’s Taste NY, which encourages New Yorkers and visitors alike to try our state’s local foods and support New York’s thriving agriculture industry.

In addition to the local food trend, sustainable farming practices are steadily increasing with a greater focus being placed on farming techniques that protect the environment. In many cases, locally grown food and sustainable farming go hand in hand. Farm products grown on smaller, sustainable family farms are often transported shorter distances and sold directly to consumers. With so many health, environmental, community, economic, and social benefits, it’s easy to understand why the local food movement has made such an impact on people in the United States and, specifically, New York State.

As part of Tompkins Cortland Community College’s Farm to Bistro concept, students are gaining hands-on, real-world experience in every aspect of the food production system, including planning, growing, marketing, distributing, preparing, and presenting. The program is comprised of two key components: the TC3 Organic Farm and the Coltivare Culinary Center. Located adjacent to the college’s Dryden campus, the TC3 farm supplies fresh, certified organic produce to the college’s culinary center Coltivare, a restaurant/bistro in downtown Ithaca. Together, the farm and bistro are providing students with the opportunity to learn the skills they need to be competitive in today’s marketplace.

The Origin of the Farm to Bistro Concept

TC3’s Farm to Bistro concept was inspired by a need for trained agriculture and culinary professionals in the Ithaca area as well as greater New York. In order to succeed, many local businesses require educated, professional individuals who are prepared to enter New York’s thriving food industry. TC3’s program is unique to the region, addressing this need for qualified workers in organic farming, culinary arts, hospitality, and food and wine marketing. Additionally, TC3 is set up in a great location to fulfill the needs of a variety of local businesses and provide students with a skill set that can take them anywhere in the country. The Farm to Bistro initiative supports four degree programs at the college: Culinary Arts, Sustainable Farming and Food Systems, Wine Marketing, and Hotel and Restaurant Management. However, the TC3 farm and Coltivare offer classes for students in all programs at the college. Local agriculture and related retail continue to grow – and SUNY students will lead the way.

"The food will be grown to provide for the bistro, the dining hall, and maybe a small CSA working with other restaurants in the community."

Functioning as a dynamic field lab and classroom, the TC3 farm provides the ideal opportunity for students to experience food production at a human-scaled, local level. On the farm, produce is grown organically through a small orchard, providing fruits and vegetables for the Coltivare bistro and TC3 campus dining halls. In the future, the TC3 farm has the potential to work with other restaurants in the Ithaca community. In addition to supporting four of the college’s degree programs, the farm also enriches the curriculum in agriculture, biology, environmental studies, and many other classes.

Additionally, members of the TC3 community have the opportunity to join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in conjunction with the farm. A growing local food movement, CSA is a partnership between a farmer and members of the local community in which members purchase a share of produce from a regional farmer. This alternative food distribution model allows community members to have direct access to fresh, high-quality, locally-grown produce, while supporting local farmers and, consequently, strengthening the local economy. CSA brings communities together by connecting farmers to the people who eat the food they grow. Members of the TC3 Farm CSA will have the opportunity to support the college’s new organic farm while gaining a greater connection to where their food is coming from.

Sustainability is the focus of the TC3 farm, as students experience cultivating the land and working in hoop houses on a farm run free of the commercial energy grid through the use of wind, solar, and geothermal technology. “The ultimate goal is to have the farm have as much renewable energy as possible,” says Todd McClane, the TC3 Farm Director. This will be achieved by the use of windmills, solar panels, and other methods of generating renewable energy. In addition, the farm will be certified organic after having gone through a transition period and that includes a greenhouse and three hoop houses for year-round growing, as well as an orchard and other exciting agricultural opportunities still in development.

Cultivating Learning and Land to Farm-Fresh Dining

On the TC3 organic, production-level farm, students are experiencing cultivating the land using sustainable farming practices – and are providing locally-grown produce to the Coltivare Culinary Center. Located in downtown Ithaca, Coltivare includes a full-service restaurant, culinary labs, an amphitheater, a wine cellar, and a special event space. The bistro’s seasonal restaurant menu features fresh ingredients from the TC3 Farm and other local sources combined with global flavors for a true “Farm to Bistro” experience. Coltivare – which means “cultivate” in Italian – facilitates cultivating learning and cultivating the land, transforming it into local, farm-fresh dining.

The 17,000 square-foot culinary center also functions as a dynamic teaching lab and classroom where TC3 students can take classes and gain experience on the tail end of the food production system. This including learning to prepare fresh, hand-crafted foods as well as learning all aspects of a team-driven restaurant enterprise – meal planning and preparation, professional service techniques, and food and wine pairing expertise. In separate, state-of-the-art teaching labs, students will practice and perfect food preparation techniques. By partaking in workforce training and joining demonstration courses, they will have the opportunity to learn service industry techniques from expert professionals. Finally, students will have the unique education experience of learning about wine styles, wine pairings, and the wine business while immersed in a culinary setting.

With the Farm to Bistro concept, TC3 is offering education for industries that no other community college is currently providing. SUNY's work with our local communities and agriculture is playing an important role in providing quality education, economic growth, and a future in food.

Written by Serah Shahar.

Published September 2015