Farm to Market: An interview with Martin Butts

Martin ButtsMartin ButtsFor the second installment in our series of interviews with experts who will speak at this Sunday's Farm to Market Conference in Liberty, we talked with Martin Butts, a Syracuse-based local food advocate and consultant for small food producers who also represents his own line of local food products, Small Potatoes. Butts is the author of a manifesto that has been making the rounds in foodie circles -- it calls for all participants in the food chain to pledge to collaborate to make fresh local food available to all.

Watershed Post. What’s going to be your main message at the conference?

Martin Butts: I do workshops on starting a food business and marketing a food business. Speaking specifically to those kind of people, the first thing we identify is: What do you want to get out of this? Is it a hobby business, or are you trying to make a living at it? If they want to make a living selling food, and want to make that food in upstate New York, they have to sell that food in New York City. They don't have to do it immediately, but they have to be prepared for the fact that that's the direction that they have to go.

WP: As a buyer who sells to consumers in the city, what is your biggest challenge?

MB: The first year that I was going down to New York City, the hardest part was getting the guys in grocery stores to even recognize that I existed. The first sales trip I made to NYC, I went for five days. I went to 55 shops. It ended up being 100 visits. I made two sales, at my first shop and my last shop. The 100 in between said “See ya.” For most of them, it was as if I wasn't even there. They'd never heard of my products; all they knew was that it was hard to work with small producers. This [most recent time I went to NYC], I made friends with the Brooklyn Salsa Company guys, who are buying all their veggies from the Catskills. They use heirloom tomatoes, hot peppers; they make one with eggplant and curry. I've never had salsa like this. I connected with these guys, and we traded store lists -- they got a list of my 20 best stores upstate, and I got a list of their best stores in the city. They got a bunch of sales out of it, and so did I. It had to be that I made friends down there before anybody would take me seriously.

Now, my biggest issue is distribution: actually getting products to them without using UPS. Some stores will not buy from you if you don't come in the back of somebody’s truck. You have to convince people that it's worth it to do something more. That’s been a struggle. It mostly doesn't bother me, because I've been a retailer so long, unless they're one of these companies who puts all over the place “We buy local food.” I'm very much in the vein of keeping it positive, but there's a lot of people out there who are not walking the walk. It's really frustrating, especially when you're trying to do something different.

WP. What do you need from other participants in the food supply chain? What can producers and consumers do to help you?

MB: The biggest thing is collaboration. That's something that we are pitching a lot around here right now. [I’ve written an] open letter to Central New York, calling for everybody to collaborate with each other. We have started a series of networking events to have a directed conversation about what's happening in our food system, and we've already started to see businesses collaborating with each other, restaurants collaborating with each other. So the biggest thing is really collaboration and understanding -- trying to understand where producers and retailers come from, what they need, how you can help them.