Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 2
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
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Is Local the New ‘Organic’? Library Talk Points to the Pros and Cons of Slow Food

Matthew Hersh

At last week’s Princeton Environmental Film Festival a handful of local farmers and retailers offered some insights into an industry that has slowly taken viable form in recent years. At the same time, they suggested that while “local” and “organic” or positives from a goodwill standpoint, business savvy still needs to be factored in.

The panelists at the Princeton Public Library event, all household names in the Princeton slow foods movement, discussed why local campaigns are important for the local economy, while emphasizing that although consumer involvement is important, the business relationship between local farmers and retailers is also crucial.

“When this started years ago, a lot of the businesses that we were buying from were not reciprocating,” said Raoul Momo, a principal of TerraMomo, whose restaurants include Mediterra and Teresa's Café. “That part was hard, and we’ve learned that we need ongoing discussions — almost contracts — with the local farmers, to really make this work successfully.

“We have to say ‘this is your responsibility and this is our responsibility’, and you can’t deviate from that,” Mr. Momo said.

Inherent in all of that, however, “is trust,” said Gab Carbone, co-owner of Bent Spoon Ice Cream in downtown Princeton. Ms. Carbone, who opened the shop three years ago with her husband, not only uses products from local farms and markets, but also cross markets her product on the dessert menus in other restaurants. She agreed with Mr. Momo’s analysis of the hardship of business, “but when it works out, it’s really a beautiful thing. I hear it all the time. It’s elegant to hear people start to have a sense of place when it comes to their food and what something is made from,” Ms. Carbone said.

The Whole Earth Center’s Fran McManus, who moderated the panel, pointed to a successful example of cross marketing in the Bent Spoon ice cream project for the in-district school gardens, where area farmers like Terhune Orchards, donate their own products, and the Bent Spoon donates pints of ice cream to Whole Earth, which then sells the products, with all proceeds going toward funding the gardens at the district’s four elementary schools: “That’s been a really wonderful way to connect us to a bigger market. “This is about building relationships,” Ms. McManus said. The number of miles to market also has a significant impact on food choices, Ms. McManus said, pointing to a rise in the number of Community Supported Agriculture farms in the U.S., including the prevalence of the Pennington-based Honey Brook Organic Farm. The business part of the 60-acre farm is owned by Sheri Dudas and her husband Jim Kimsel, and they provide the largest CSA program in the nation, supplying seasonal produce to an estimated 3,000 people a year. The program is expanding with an additional 40-acre farm, and while Ms. Dudas pointed to the farm’s long-term growth and success, she said pricing was a difficult obstacle to overcome. “It’s a great cause, but people don’t want to pay $10 for ground beef,” she said.

Access to land has also been a challenge, Ms. Dudas said. Honey Brook had rented land from the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, but quickly “outgrew” those accommodations. “We attempted to contact many land owners, including the municipalities and the county, and we were lucky if we even got a response,” she said, pointing to hardships posed by landowners leasing to a farm for commodity production, like soybeans and corn.

The Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space “finally” agreed to work with Honey Brook on a 14-acre piece of land. “They actually returned our phone calls!” Ms. Dudas quipped.

But despite the hardship, as long as the marketplace allows for a viable local food system, thinking creatively can lead to continued success in local farming, explained Terhune proprietor Pam Mount: “You can never give up — that’s sort of how our lives have been.”

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