the ultimate food high
Editor’s note: This is part 3 of 3 for our “Made in Syracuse” series highlighting game-changers in the local food scene.
Neil Miller is sitting in his glass-bound office on Burnet Street, shaking his head as he tries to recall a passage by Thomas Jefferson.
He leans farther, farther forward in his olive green desk chair, hand pressed against his forehead. Over his shoulder, you can glimpse the unspackled wooden walls and unstained floors surrounding his office space.
“I’m getting the quote wrong, which is surprising, because I’ve taught it for years,” he says, brow wrinkling. “It’s something like ‘the peculiar…’ Shit, just look it up.”
Miller is an early American history professor by trade. But he’s shifted his focus from coursework to agriculture, which he says is equally as Jeffersonian as the Declaration of Independence. For the last year, Miller has devoted himself to a passion project grounded in the soil: Farmshed Harvest Food Hub.
Tucked in an unfinished corner of the Cab Fab building, just a few miles east of Syracuse past Erie Boulevard, the hub is assembled by three key items: a loading dock with a van to accompany it, a walk-in cooler, and the glassed-in office where Miller sits.
“If you study early American history, you can’t help but learn a little bit about farming and agriculture. Thomas Jefferson didn’t just articulate the founding ideal of the country, this ideal that all men are created equal,” he says. “He also articulated a vision of the country that people should be small producers. They should be independent.”
Miller began Farmshed Harvest to help maximize local farmers’ businesses by distributing fresh produce to restaurants and other retailers across the state. Miller has connected 18 CNY growers to markets running from Buffalo and Ithaca to New York City. And in just a year, he’s nearly tripled his reach. After beginning with 30 outposts, Miller has now captured more than 80 buyers for the farmers.
Living in 23 places since he left for college at age 17, Miller decided in his mid-forties that it was time to settle. He gravitated towards an unconventional draw in Central New York: Riesling wine, famous in the Finger Lakes. And along the way, he became captivated by the local produce.
“I would drive out to the Finger Lakes all the time to go to the wineries, and I’d pass these farms in Skaneateles. I’d see signs that would say, ‘Farmer’s Market, Thursday, 10 to 2.’ I’d be driving on a Wednesday,” he says. “How would you know unless you were driving past?”
After working in both academia and with local growers’ organizations, Miller made a move to help farmers pump out their goods. He began organizing weekly drop-offs and pickups of produce, complete with a leased trucking company, at farms for delivery to local restaurants, markets, and stores.
“It’s all very DIY,” Miller says. He was a punk rocker in the 80s, surrounding himself with independent magazines and record labels, while he made a business printing and selling band tees. Like the rock scene, Farmshed Food Hub is a makeshift movement, handstitched and created with hard work and a little ingenuity.
“I don’t have your orders for you yet,” Miller says into his cell phone. “I’ll need until noon.” He clicks it off. That was David, an Amish grower who can only call out from his community’s phone. While he’s difficult to reach, Miller says he’s dedicated to making the livelihoods of farmers like David more sustainable.
“I know a lot of people who want to farm full-time. But they’re struggling,” he says. Farmers will spend a day boxing vegetables, tend to customers at one market, and return home with just $200. Some work three jobs in addition to farming to stay afloat. That’s why he’s created his business dedicating 80 to 100 hours weekly to the hub, insisting on high prices for artisanal produce, and returning 75 percent of the profits back to his growers. He believes in them. And he wants to help.
The quote that Miller was looking for is a snippet from Thomas Jefferson’s Query XIX: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people.”
Somehow between Jefferson, the punk rock movement of the 80s, and the local food movement of the last decade, there became something uniquely American about small-scale producers, small groups of individuals coming together to work for what they believe in. There’s integrity in striking out on your own, an integrity in committing to your craft. It courses like a river through our American history, soaked into our soil like rainwater. It settles in the ground, slips in our roots and swells our plants. It’s logged between the rings of our trees.
Miller is dedicated to that integrity: finding that integrity, preserving that integrity, helping us return to that integrity. It’s pulsing in the lines of Jefferson’s writings, in the throbbing notes of a punk rock song, in the juices of a locally-grown vegetable. It’s the spirit of America, winding through our history. ●
—Gabriela Riccardi, co-editor in chief at Baked. Follow Gabby on Twitter @_griccardi.
This story was originally featured in Baked’s Fall 2014 issue. To read more, click here.