The Lucky Dog Food Hub
INterview + images / Heather Phelps-Lipton
A Chat with Richard Giles
I’m Richard Giles and I operate Lucky Dog Organic Farm in Hamden, New York. We’re in the center of the Western Catskills, which is a beautiful place to be.
Are the catskills a good place to farm?
RG: It’s a place where you want to be very in tune with the seasons. We’re in a valley, right on the west branch of the Delaware River. We take pride in keeping the New York City water clean. It puts us in a pretty cool climate. We’re surrounded by mountains, which is an advantage for growing great sweet vegetables, but we do have a long winter.
What is the food hub?
RG: The food hub is a group of farms in this area that work together selling, transporting, storing, and making good local food. In a sense, the hub is the aggregation and transportation business that goes from here in the Western Catskills down to New York City. There are stops along the way and there are local markets too.
To me the larger, more important thing is that there’s a growing group of very small farms here that form a kind of central need for a hub.
Did you create the hub?
RG: No, not alone. I sell in the New York City Green Markets and go to New York every week anyway. Other farms would ask me occasionally to take a pig to a butcher in New York. I started doing some of that.
Together with support of some really good local agencies, The Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepeneurship (CADE) and the Watershed Council are ones I would mention primarily, and also the local economic development department of the county as well as other organizations that look either toward economic development or help develop sustainable farms like us.
I started transporting a little stuff and then just formalized it over the years. We got help, especially from CADE, and had a consultant who worked for them help us create a business plan to develop that business, The Hub Transports, from our farm.
The transportation’s now done by a young man with trucks who is not me (the old man with trucks). That part of the system is challenging, trucking loads, getting enough load to justify the travel, making deliveries in a big busy city, and finding qualified drivers. All those things are always challenging. It’s one of the essential parts of this farm system called the hub.
is the NYC market primarily restaurants + community-supported agriculture (CSA)s?
RG: It has been for our hub; maybe it’s because that’s where I focused. From the start, small restaurants seemed to fit our model and almost became a parallel enterprise to our group of farms up here, but they aren’t all small restaurants.
We’ve sold to some of the bigger restaurants too and we’ve sold to retail stores. But small restaurants that want really good really local high quality food and are in most cases willing to pay a little premium for that compared to large commercial delivery services continue to be a major portion of our traffic.
How many farms are participating right now?
RG: Oh boy, that’s a good question. We have run from 20 to 30 farms. Right now we have fewer than 20. Winter time it’s going to be slow.
One of the things that Tiana (at 607 CSA) has done, is to add items to their CSA, a few dozen eggs here and a few chickens there and a few other meat products and milk. If you counted every one of those additions as a participating farm, that’s quite a number.
I think that may be the most important farm growth aspect because a very small farm, a start up farm say, can latch onto the hub and also to the CSA as it pulls in more sales that don’t require a farmer to go and sit all day at a market.
Often start up farms need time to be on the farm, might not have a truck or don’t have the time or the efficiency to take a truck down once a week or twice a week.
How has the hub affected the economic health of local farms and farmers and the possibility of farming?
RG: I would say almost all of the farms that have shipped through the hub locally have been able to grow their own businesses.
To me that’s most important thing. They have this one channel for getting their farm product out for distribution, which supplies some income, so they can invest.
They can have some confidence that they’re going to be able to grow and move their product. I see farms growing in size and in product diversity and in product quality. Because of the hub, our own farm has been able to grow.
I bought this farm in 2000 and had a crop that year. We’ve grown every year a little bit. Growth isn’t everything, but it’s a necessity to survive, to have enough volume so that we can pay our wages, so that we can make repairs, so we can grow our crop. Over the years, I’ve had great fortune of developing a really great crew here. I think that’s one of the loveliest things on all of these small farms here — there’s a large number of people who want to work, who enjoy farm work.
I believe farming should be seen as the jobs program in the Catskills. It should be the economic opportunity to help developing small farms thrive. Small diverse farms are more resilient to change and I think there’s a lot of possibility in that.