Area farmers await growing season

As the sun flushes the last of this long winter from the hills, area farmers are gearing up for the growing season. Whether hatching chicks or breaking soil, the coming year ahead holds hope for growth, and the satisfaction of putting food on the nation’s dinner tables.

Chautauqua County has the highest concentration of farm acreage in New York state, and one of the fastest- growing farmers’ market circuits in the state. This year, county advocates are looking to connect these numbers to another demographic Chautauqua County has in high concentration: low-income families on social assistance.

Millions of low-income families across the country benefit from EBT/SNAP, or food stamps. Such benefits are often spent at major supermarkets with limited selections of local goods, and headquarters out of state, funneling federal assistance dollars into major corporate coffers. This season, a push from area farmers is aimed at raising awareness that fresh meat and produce are eligible for purchase from registered direct marketers, i.e. the local grower.

“Farmers are discovering that if we push this, we could potentially double our customer base, while getting fresh, local food to area families who need it most,” said Margaret Bruegel, a poultry farmer out of Forestville who has helped significantly in registering farmers at the Fredonia Market to accept SNAP benefits. “I can’t speak for other farmers’ markets, but I can say that this initiative is a priority for the Fredonia Market. We saw too many young families unable to use their assistance benefits at the market because there were not enough vendors who accepted them. I am pleased to say that that situation will change this year.”

This effort coincides with the launch of another program that effectively doubles the value of federal benefits at farmers’ markets. The project is spearheaded by the regionally based Field & Fork Network, a non-profit advocacy group for WNY agriculture.

According to Lisa Tucker, executive director for the Field & Fork Network, the Double Up Food Bucks program was started in 2009 by the Michigan-based Fair Food Network. DUFB was developed as a way to encourage low-income consumers to use their EBT/SNAP benefits to purchase fresh, locally grown produce at farmers’ markets. They do this by matching up to $20 in SNAP funds spent per market visit with tokens that can be redeemed to purchase more locally grown fruits and vegetables. The benefit to participating vendors is an increase in overall sales at the market.

“Field & Fork Network has been working in partnership with Fair Food Network since early 2013 in an effort to bring the Double Up Food Bucks program to our region in 2014,” Tucker said.

“Currently restricted to select farmers’ markets in Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties, we anticipate strong results from this program, similar to Fair Food Network’s program success in Michigan. The goal is to redirect federal assistance dollars into our local economy.”

For a list of regional farmers’ markets, and more information on these programs, visit www.FreshLocalWNY.org.