Connecting farmers, consumers troublesome

The concept was lofty — using the Hudson River to get upstate farm products to New York City — but t

The concept was lofty — using the Hudson River to get upstate farm products to New York City — but the devil was in the details.

A teeming resident population of 8 million, boosted daily by hoards of commuters and visitors, makes the city a tempting market. And many of those hungry mouths also want food that is farm-to-fork fresh.

But sending more of upstate’s bounty to the city via tractor-trailer would just add to road and air-quality woes. So why not create a Hudson River Foodway instead?

The idea was floated by the Lower Hudson-Long Island Resource Conservation & Development Council, a collection of county legislatures and conservation districts stretching from Kingston to the eastern tip of Long Island.

The project envisioned using river barges to connect Hudson Valley farmers with metro New York consumers, creating a new revenue stream for the former and satisfying a growing demand for more locally grown food by the latter.

But researchers soon came to regard Hudson Valley farms as too close to the city and too small in their output to test the barge strategy. So they drew the “catchment area” west to Rochester, capturing many more large farms that were farther away.

The Port of Albany and the Port of Coeymans were picked as potential points of origin; barges would travel downriver to either the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx — the country’s highest-volume produce market — or to the Red Hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn.

With that blueprint, the study sought to compare the costs of transporting apples, cabbage and winter squash — nonperishables available for most of the year and in high quantities — by road versus river.

The bottom line? Truck trumps barge, according to Roberta Weisbrod, a consultant involved in the study, which was completed last year. She discussed the findings at last week’s inaugural Port Industry Day, a kind of open house held at the Port of Albany.

While travel by barge avoided highway congestion in the city — some 16,000 trucks deliver daily to the Hunts Point market — the trip still included a road leg from farm to port that more than doubled the overall journey time.

Or, as the study pointed out, “For barge transport to be meaningful, clearly the distance to the port from the farm must be significantly shorter than the distance from the farm directly to the city.” The study also found that when the port lies “along the straight line between the [farm of] origin and New York City,” barge transport makes more sense.

That could provide food for thought at the Port of Albany.

“We’re going to look at it,” Tony Vasil, the port’s business development and marketing manager, told me this week as we discussed whether barge delivery might be viable for farms in northeastern New York.

“The concept is great,” he said, but price and time to market are key hurdles.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

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