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Chatham show brings farmers, foodies together

| Friday, March 12, 2010

For anyone who's interested in food how it's raised, where it's grown, preparation techniques the Local Food Showcase at Chatham University was the place to be.

The trade show-style event Thursday at the school's Pittsburgh campus in conjunction with the Penn State Extension for Allegheny County was essentially aimed at bringing farmers and foodies together in the name of promoting local and regional agriculture.

There were producers of tofu, sausage, breads, muffins and jams. Some of the products only can be bought directly from suppliers while others are available at outlets such as the East End Food Co-Op or through chain markets such as McGinnis Sisters and Whole Foods.

Some sellers came from destination shops selling baked goods, homemade woven products and pottery.

"For being out in the middle of nowhere, we have a lot of talent," said Beth Laughner of Mary Mac Bakehouse and Standing Chimney farms store, located three miles south of New Castle.

Others who participated are growing produce surprisingly close to home.

Grower Marshall Hart of Grow Pittsburgh said that organization is expanding its community gardening efforts in Braddock.

"We're trying to double our size. They demolished two buildings right across the street from our current site at Tenth and Braddock Avenue. We're going through the process now of working with the county and the borough and city council, just trying to get permission."

Hart said the point of having a community garden in Braddock is to bring fresh produce to the community.

"There's not great options down there. I don't think a lot of folks have transportation to get to other places to buy food," Hart said.

Teen interns work in the community gardens during the summer. Produce from the garden is sold weekly at a farmers market and is priced comparably to produce sold in supermarkets, he said.

"In my opinion, it's highly superior and it's going to cost you the same," he said of the locally grown goods.

Milestone Specialty Produce of Buena Vista also was at the event. Milestone has been operating a greenhouse along the Youghiogheny River Trail for the past three years that is staffed by people with disabilities and raises hydroponically grown greens year round that it sells to restaurants. The Big Burrito and Eat'n Park chains are among its customers.

"It's going very well," Milestone Development Director Kate Bayer said. She said the greenhouse is close to breaking even economically and that consumers can purchase its organic salad greens at the Green Grocer in McKeesport, McGinnis Sisters, Right by Nature and Whole Foods.

The mission of the greenhouse is to provide meaningful employment for the disabled.

But it wasn't all about greens and grains. There was no shortage of meat vendors hawking their products to carnivores.

Forbes Buffalo Farm of New Castle, Lawrence County, was promoting its primary product of what else• buffalo.

Naomi Costello of Friendship Farms said her business, based in Lycippus, Westmoreland County, sells dry-cured beef, as well as baked goods and native plants.

Steve Hasley, who has a small operation with his neighbor in the Ligonier Valley they call Hillsprings Farms, sells shares of grass-fed cattle to customers. Consumers can buy a half or a quarter of a beef cattle. Hasley said his cattle are free of hormones, steroids and antibiotics.

"I don't want to be the biggest beef producer in Western Pennsylvania. I don't want to raise more than I have now," said Hasley, who, consequently, only sells directly to his customers.

Penn State Extension's Heather Mikulas said the reason for holding the event the first one of its kind in conjunction with Chatham University, is simple.

"We want to do whatever we can to promote Pennsylvania's family farms and farm products so that they can find new marketing channels to basically increase business. We're just trying to bring the two sides of the food system together," she said.

The event also coincides with the introduction of Chatham's new Master of Food Studies program.

The two-year Master of Arts program is the inaugural program of the university's School of Sustainability and the Environment and is modeled on a program developed by New York University. The program will feature in-the-field lessons at Chatham's 388-acre Eden Hall farm campus near Gibsonia and offer internship opportunities and study abroad.

Dr. Alice Julier, director of the Food Studies program, said the goal is to teach students about the food system, food culture, scientific aspects, sustainable agriculture and culinary arts.

"I'd like to see people who graduate from here being able to get jobs in food service, non-profits, anti-hunger work and looking at how to make farms more sustainable here in the Pittsburgh area," she said.

Candice Mason, a culinary student at Bidwell Training Center, said she went to the event with her friends to network with suppliers in preparation for when she enters the workforce. She said restaurants and the people they serve are more educated about food now than they were in the past.

"Before it was like, 'Let's go to the supermarket.' People are more informed now," she said.

But Mason said she is still learning about food and its sources.

Until seeing a vendor advertising locally raised lamb that day at the event, Mason said, "I never even thought lamb could be produced in Pennsylvania. And I'm from here."

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