It doesn’t get quite as much ink as Cleveland or Detroit, but the post-industrial urban agriculture and farm-to-fork landscape of Buffalo is thriving. New York’s second-largest city is steering itself toward culinary prominence, thanks to efforts from dedicated land pirates and farmer advocates like Christa Glennie Seychew, who produces local culinary events, most notably forays into farm country. A Seattle native, Seychew took roots as a Buffalo booster in 1992, when her parents moved home to be closer to aging relatives. Recently she chatted with The Atlantic Cities about what makes Buffalo's food scene different from other cities.
Was the move from Seattle to Buffalo a culture shock?
I had moved from a very progressive, very modern, very politically correct and very arts-oriented city to a place where I had a really hard time finding a job because of my nose-piercing. I was so young I didn’t even know how different I was.
How did you get into the Buffalo food scene?
I went to culinary school, although I didn’t exactly excel. I also wondered how easy it would be for a woman to move up in the kitchen, so I worked front of house. After I had my kids, I was looking for part-time work and just happened to meet the founder of an online publication dedicated to local issues – very forward thinking for that time. I told him I knew a chef who was working hard to use only local ingredients and suggested he write a story on him. He countered I should write the story. And so I did my PTA-mom-best, worked really hard and wrote the best story I could. Then he started assigning me more Buffalo food stories.
How did you get mixed up with the farmers?
My friend kept telling me I should write about the food terminal, where the grocers buy their produce. I resisted, since I was a restaurant person. Finally, I gave in and got up at three o’clock and went to this essentially abandoned industrial food area of Buffalo. At first, the farmers were very suspicious of us, but we met some really key farmers – fourth and fifth generation farmers with great insight.
When we left I had an epiphany. I realized this was the very same "farmers market" that my grandmother went to for her produce. I got shivers down my spine. It was a big "aha" moment for me. The next thing that happened is I got angry because I saw all the farmers there in the morning and nobody was there to buy from them. I realized we’d lost what my grandmother’s generation knew.
How did you get Buffalo chefs interested?
Not long after that, I was looking for work again and I thought well, I’m out of work but at least I can be of some use, so I started putting chefs on buses and taking them out to farms. The first trip was in 2008 and we had about 35 chefs. Some of them were hungover and not too excited about being up first thing in the morning but, by the time we got to lunch, they were fine. It was so successful and people were so impressed that I had to set one up for the public.
What else did you have to do to keep farmers and chefs communicating?
The chefs were ordering in cases and the farmers were, like, "How many bushels is that?" A chef would say: "I don’t need that anymore, since I ‘86’d’ it from the menu." Farmers were at a loss, so we gave them a glossary since they didn’t know how to talk to each other or even what time of the day to try to reach each other. Some chefs also didn’t initially understand seasonality, so we had to give them a chart.
But mostly it’s about getting everybody to know each other. Once three farmers think you’re okay, all the farmers think you’re okay.
Do you think Buffalo has it easier than some places when it comes to good, local food?
When industry got up and left Buffalo, the city declined massively in population. Most people talk about this as though it was the dark days. I didn’t live here at the time, so I look at is it more like a cloche was put down over our region. Not even the chains wanted to be here. So, in the end, we were preserved. The downtown is locally owned and we never had the experience of having all our agricultural land turned into tract housing.
Does Buffalo have an edge on re-invention, too?
Buffalo is very capable of reinventing itself. It has in the past with the Roycroft Arts and Crafts community and now we see similar things happening in the tremendous arts community and urban agriculture movements, where the most diverse people come together and just make it work.
But the one thing that differentiates us is that change does not typically come from our local elected officials but from a really grassroots level. We’re very DIY. In Buffalo, we say that everyone has two jobs, it’s just that one usually isn’t paid.
Top image: A sign marks the gardens of the urban farm run by the non-profit group the Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)