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The 800 pound butter sculpture of a scene off the farm (seen here on the World Dairy Business Blog) is usually the headliner at the Dairy Building of the New York State Fair.But people wait in a long line for another hot item being used to promote New York’s dairy industry: a cup of milk that costs a quarter at the dairy bar.That includes a young James Moore, who says "It’s the best chocolate milk and white milk I’ve ever tasted in my life." "The Chocolate is more chocolaty and it’s nice and cold."The milk is all whole milk, which probably helps. Chocolate milk rules overall. The milk bar serves five cups of chocolate for every cup of plain milk.Mary Ellen Chesbro, agricultural manager for the fair says the total cups served goes up every year. This year, she's hoping the milk bar will top 400,000 cups of milk out this year.The whole operation is run by a task force of volunteers from the dairy industry, from farmers to distributors. The goal is to promote New York dairy – the state’s biggest agricultural product.Seventeen-year old Dale Durant, who serves milk to fairgoers says it can get pretty busy at the counter."Really nice days there’s a lot of people here. Weekends we get really busy."So to get a taste, go when it’s raining.And keep an eye out for the other smart entrepreneurial move in the Dairy building - the Syracuse bakery selling cookies next to the milk bar.

Urban farming becomes a family affair

As urban farms become a familiar feature of many large cities, they’re also presenting a challenge for zoning laws and regulators. This is the story behind Buffalo’s second urban farm, as the east side of the city looks at how to handle more farms in the future.

Newlyweds Daniel and Alex Ash live in an old two story house on Gittere Street located on the east side of Buffalo where they lease six acres. It’s the first year running their own urban farm.

“The land was owned by the rail road company for about a hundred years. Somebody at some point, we think about 40 to 50 years ago planted about 25 apples trees, a couple pear trees, and three or four cherries, but they haven’t been maintained for at least a decade if not more, so we’re looking to bring those back into production,” says Ash.

Alex Ash came to Buffalo with her parents Mark and Janice Stevens five years ago from rural Wyoming County. The Stevens family, own the other urban farm on the East Side a few blocks away on Wilson Street. Alex and Daniel attribute all of their farming knowledge to their parents.

“Another important thing that has been successfully passed down is that they feel they can do these things, they can do whatever they want to,” said Janice Stevens.

Mark Stevens says she started farming, because she didn’t want to grocery shop for things they could grow themselves. They also used farming to teach their children life lessons.

“I always use the example of potatoes from the littlest kid who was spacing out the potatoes with their feet to the ones who were tamping it over, and then when it came to harvest time we all did that together. We dug up the potatoes, we sorted them, we stored them in the basement, and they would feed us all winter long. They knew that they were an intricate part of that process,” said Stevens.

Daniel Ash talks about why soil is usually a big concern for urban farmers as the younger Stevens children dig holes for bean plants as part of their summer project.

“If the area that you’re growing has been historically residential then you’re more likely to have issues with soil fertility and low levels of organic matter. When they demolish houses they bring in loose fill that’s low quality and you basically have to start from scratch in terms of building your soil,” said Ash.

Ash says he and his wife got lucky with their soil, because the land they lease has never been developed. The city location has other benefits, says Mark Stevens.

“We lived in a large dairy farming community and we were the only organic people surrounded by large farmers, so we were constantly worrying about the chemicals they were spraying, what our well water was bringing up, because of those chemicals were leaching down in, airplanes flying over to spray the corn. So we don’t worry about that here,” said Stevens.

Alex Ash says that’s not the only difference between rural and urban farming.

“There’s a lot of positive feedback, people are like whoa, this is a great thing you’re doing, but other people are like a farm in the city? No. Farms belong in the country.”

Mark Stevens say they also made the move so they could share their love of farming with others, and they’re working with a localco-op called Farmer Pirates.

“So were sharing equipment, we have a tractor that we have access to, we have various tillers that we share, lawn mowers, we share knowledge. The cooperative now owns some land that is leased to its members.”

Composting is another business sideline for the co-op. Daniel and Alex pick up ingredients from the local equestrian center, neighbors, and other businesses.

Buffalo has been suffering from a declining population leaving most home and lots on its east side vacant and run down. City Common Council member David Franczyk says that’s why he’s supported the two urban farms in his district.

“You’re not going to build house on every lot. At one point some developer said well, we might want to build. Well, we got plenty of streets of plenty of streets with a lot of empty lots where you can build, because this is a great experiment and I think it’s been a great success,” says Franczyk.

Alex Ash says she and Daniel plan to bring chickens, roosters, and maybe even goats to their urban farm in the future.

“I would love to have animals. We want to start working with the city on that soon.”

Council member Franczyk says right now goats aren’t allowed, but he’d be open to the idea if it’s done properly.

“We’re a city, were not a farm, but it’s a city that has emptied out more than half of its population and on the east side more than that. So if there’s ways to do it in a way of a high standard then it’s something that we can look at, because we do allow chickens.”

Mark and Janice Stevens say the future looks good for their city farm and others like it.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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