Monday, June 30, 2008

New Web site connects consumers, farmers

By Mariana Stebbins
Special to the Register
A yummy array of healthful food grows in the state, but consumers need to look in the right places to find it.
Knowing where the right places are, however, is not always simple. That’s where CitySeed’s newest program can help.
Created in conjunction with the state Department of Agriculture and several other organizations, is a dynamic Web site that connects consumers with producers and retailers of locally grown and produced foods.
CitySeed, a private nonprofit organization, runs a popular group of farmers markets throughout New Haven. CitySeed also runs healthful eating programs for the city’s schools.
The project was born in 2007, initially funded by the Agriculture Department, but it was officially launched last week at the Farmers Market at Billings Forge in Hartford.
"We wanted to capture everyone’s enthusiasm with locally grown food," said Ben Gardner, project coordinator, "and we thought the beginning of the 2008 market season would be perfect for the debut."
There are two parts to the program. At the Web page, which was recently enhanced with new features such as specific crop searches and a mailing list, consumers can search for products sold at farms, stands, or even restaurants in a particular region of the state. The locations even show up on a state map for easy visual access.
Farmers can be listed for free or buy a membership that gives them access to the second part of the project, consisting of technical and marketing assistance so they can boost their business.
"Some of our large members, for example, are already successfully selling online," said Gardner. "But most small farmers don’t have the time, the money or the knowledge to do their marketing."
"They have helped me a lot with my design and logos," said Jiff Martin, owner of Mischief Bouquets, in Hartford. "Sometimes I don’t have all the time or the skills and they were always quick in helping me."
A $60,000 federal grant received last week will fund an expansion in resources and staff, making the project more effective in promoting farm viability.
"CitySeed has done an outstanding job in creating this new avenue," said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, who sowed support for the program in the federal level. "They are tireless advocates for Connecticut farmers."
Demand for local food has been on the rise nationwide, and there are plenty of reasons for that. Buying local helps reduce carbon emissions into the environment and also preserves Connecticut’s landscape. "We are number one in the country in the percentage of farm land lost to development every year," said Jennifer McTiernan, CitySeed’s executive director.
There also are more selfish reasons to buy local food: it can be fresher, more flavorful and last longer.
Also, "With the spinach, beef and now the recall, people want to know where their food comes from," McTiernan said. "They want to draw a straight line from the farm to their plate."
With the Buyctgrown Web site finding products and drawing that line becomes much easier. "Let’s say you want to pick berries with your family," said McTiernan. "The Web page will tell you where to find them and when they will be in season." And those who don’t feel like checking it often can subscribe to a mailing list that will e-mail them every time their crop or event of interest comes up.
"People can help preserve our landscape and the environment and boost the local economy, creating jobs. All while getting back delicious, fresh produce," said Kevin Sullivan, of Chestnut Hill Nursery, in Stafford Springs. In 18 months, he went from two to 14 employees, thank in part to Buy CT Grown. "We have seen an incredible response from people," he said. "It is clear to us people really want to get involved."
Mariana Stebbins is a New Haven Register intern.

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