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Introducing a New Farm and Food Vision for Newburgh

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Rendering by Ginny Maki/@ginnyeileen

A planned public market and food hub would help bolster sales for small farms and provide quality food to Hudson Valley residents who need it most.

When Chef Sisha Ortúzar arrived in Newburgh from Manhattan five years ago, he saw a city surrounded by farmland on a bluff overlooking the river. He was struck by the magnificent historic architecture — much of it vacant and affordable — and, walking the cobblestone streets, he was inspired by artists and chefs chatting about their visions in front of cafés and bars along Liberty Street.

The CIA grad came to the Hudson Valley following some wildly successful restaurant ventures in New York including, ‘Wichcraft, (with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio), Riverpark, and Riverpark Farm, but Newburgh inspired him: “My thinking evolved after being here for a few years and getting to know the community and the business landscape. I see a need for businesses that not only serve the community, but that also help to create economic activity in the city.”  

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Newburgh, despite its ever-increasing cool factor, is still entrenched with poverty: 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty threshold and five of the city’s census tracts are designated food deserts, low-income urban neighborhoods where more than 33 percent of people live more than a mile from a grocery store. Those without transportation are prone to get by on processed food from the corner bodega.

This dynamic is confounding in a region defined by its farmland. A farmer working on a vegetable farm just up the road could spend all day trimming voluptuous leaves of kale, walking between rows of sweet-smelling apple blossoms, or unearthing brilliant orange and purple carrots, and then return home to an empty fridge. ​

Farm owners and managers desperately want to get their produce into more hands. But small and mid-sized farms, which make up 60.4 percent of Hudson Valley agriculture, are struggling, too, because of difficulties with distribution, marketing, packaging, and certification.

Brian Farmer, an auditing and certification specialist and board member of the Roundout Valley Growers Association tells us, “Getting certified to sell to wholesale buyers and large retailers is time consuming and costly. The same goes for distribution and packaging. Big commercial farms pay someone to handle all of that, but smaller farms often don’t have the time or money.”

Even if smaller farms do have certifications, it can be hard for them to sell to large-scale buyers who don’t want to visit multiple farms to fill their orders. Farmer tells us food hubs are one possible solution to these issues. Food hubs are precisely what Ortúzar is interested in.

One key function of food hubs is to aggregate the produce of small, regional farms so it can be sold in larger quantities across a larger geographic area at a lower cost. Ortúzar points out, that, “in times of crises like COVID, being able to shift and mobilize the produce of smaller farms makes the whole food system more nimble.” Food hubs can help with distributing, storing, and packaging products; facilitate the certification process; establish closer relationships with farmers, large buyers, and consumers; and design marketing. But even with more products on the shelves of large grocery stores at a lower cost, Newburgh residents might still have trouble finding a ride to those supermarkets.

Ortúzar has partnered with Robert LaValva, the founder and executive director of NYC’s New Amsterdam Market and a driving force behind the redevelopment of Essex Market, who conceptualized both markets to benefit existing residents, the city, and the regional food ecosystem. Together, LaValva and Ortúzar have developed a concept for the Newburgh Public Market and Food Hub which would do the same for Newburgh. They envision a bustling public market in the urban center, where vendors will sell affordable, healthy, local meat and produce to Newburgh residents; a wholesale market where local farms can sell to large-scale buyers; and other related services.

LaValva says “We don’t just want to bring this to Newburgh, we want to insert it into the heart of Newburgh and see it become part of the city’s identity. I’ve seen how markets can create community. Existing businesses see more traffic, and new businesses emerge around the market.”

Both Ortúzar and LaValva envision new employment opportunities for those living in the surrounding neighborhoods and that the market would usher buyers toward farms that treat their animals, farmers, and land more humanely.

Ortúzar notes, ​“We believe that restaurateurs and retailers throughout the region are looking for something like this. Being at the intersection of I-84 and I-87 makes Newburgh very convenient for buyers from the surrounding areas, where demand for quality, affordable, local products is high.”

At press time, Ortúzar and LaValva were fundraising for an initial-needs assessment that will ultimately determine the design of the market. The pair also has a team of experts in food-systems infrastructure, agriculture, construction and site design, economic development, and project management. They have received support from the city manager, city council, the mayor, U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Scenic Hudson, Orange County Land Trust, and virtually every imaginable interested party in the area.

Even high-profile food world personalities (and alternative food systems advocates) Tom Colicchio and Alice Waters, who have collaborated with LaValva and Ortúzar on other projects, are excited. “This new infrastructure will help more Hudson Valley farms get their products to restaurants and make local food more accessible to institutions, such as public schools,” says Colicchio.

We’re excited, too. More produce and meat from our cherished, small and mid-sized farms may be finding their way into kitchens in the Hudson Valley and across the Northeast very soon.

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