New York State's Agriculture Department is moving forward with an initiative that aims to increase consumer confidence in foods grown within the Empire State. The program officially recruited its first local supermarket partner on Wednesday.
New York State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball joined representatives of local farms and executives of Tops Markets to announce that the supermarket chain has joined the "New York State Grown and Certified" initiative by selling produce grown by qualified farms within the Empire State.
Ball says the program will foster consumer confidence in foods grown within New York State in three ways. First, it will encourage shoppers to support local farms and keep their dollars in the local economy.
"Second, it's going to tell the consumer that this is a farm that has a good agricultural practices program in place on their farm," Ball said. "That means food safety is being paid very close attention to. As a matter of fact, it's audited annually to make sure that the good practices exist all the way from the farm field right here to the store.'
To qualify as "Grown and Certified," growers must also participate in the state's Agricultural Environment Management program, or AEM. The AEM program, which is voluntary, works with farms to identify and document environmental stewardship while also determining where improvements could be made.
"Just like any business, from a dairy operation to a vegetable operation, they have completely different areas of interest," said Mark Gaston, field manager with the Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District, which oversees AEM locally. "There's potential pollution sources that, on any of the operations, can be identified."
New York's growers compete with farms in other states and from outside the U.S. Participants see the New York State Grown and Certified program as an opportunity to sell not only the idea of supporting local farms but convincing consumers they are getting the freshest food available.
"Our product is often picked in the morning, then out to our customers in the afternoon or the next following day," said David Walczak of Eden Valley Growers, a regional farm cooperative. "Our turnover is very quick. We'll cool a product down as soon as it comes out of the field, and it gets shipped right away. We can trace back right to where something was grown, which grower grew it. Everything is in place to make sure everything is optimal for the consumer."
Even with the steps that may be required to help farms qualify for the program, Walczak says local growers have been able to keep their prices competitive.
Tops is one of several local supermarket companies. Their competitors include Wegmans, Dash's Market and Budwey's. Commissioner Ball expressed his belief at Wednesday's ceremony that other retailers will soon sign on for "Grown and Certified."
In a written message to WBFO, a spokesperson for Wegmans stated that while that company is not currently affiliated with the state's initiative, they have been using similar guidelines for many years.