The HVADC Cultivator
FFFA Peer Follow-Up:
Atina Foods Looks to Expand Holistically
Atina Foods in Catskill impressed everyone as a member of the most recent graduating class of HVADC’s Farm and Food Funding Accelerator (FFFA) in 2020. But it wasn’t just the Hudson Valley that took notice of Suresh Pillai and Carrie Dashow’s unique line of Ayurvedic condiments made with traditional Indian techniques and local ingredients. Earlier this year Atina Foods won a prestigious Good Food Award from the Good Food Foundation.
The Good Food Foundation’s mission is to “celebrate, connect, empower and leverage the passionate and engaged, yet often overlooked, players in the food system who are driving towards tasty, authentic and responsible food in order to humanize and reform our American food culture.” With that ethos in mind, it’s no wonder Atina’s outstanding Fermented Garlic Scape Pickles won the national prize.
“It was cool to be recognized,” said Dashow. “The part that effects us the most is that it was national. Now we have people calling us for orders from across the U.S. It’s great to see that our taste is appreciated.”
At the conclusion of the FFFA program, the couple had decided to open Atina Food Home Store seasonally on their property in Catskill which had previously been used to host a minimal number of pop up sales and event. Opening in summer 2020, the store features all the Atina condiments, and weekly meal specials, and is augmented by online fermentation workshops and cooking events. They also continue to sell at a limited number of markets.
Atina has been experimenting with new distribution options including on the Schooner Apollonia which makes multiple stops running down the Hudson River to New York City Dashow said moving product by sailboat isn’t going to increase business much but they were excited to help support the organization’s mission to draw attention to food supply chain dysfunction. While distribution is an issue Atina is addressing, Dashow says stabilizing their production methods is a more pressing concern before they can grow the business in any significant way. The positive press and enthusiastic word of mouth has driven demand for Atina Foods products skyward but the husband and wife team behind the brand are finding it hard to grow their supply while staying true to their mission to support a holistic food system.
“Sales have really gone up in the past year without spending much time on marketing,” said Pillai, “Our three biggest products use a lot of garlic. Now we are focusing on how we grow our own and process our own garlic. We want to be a major player.”
The Hudson Valley is great for growing hardneck garlic - which produces the scapes Atina pickles with award-winning success. Unfortunately garlic isn’t grown or processed at the scale Atina needs anywhere closer than California. Also, in the industrial scale production of garlic, the scapes are thrown away as waste. So if Atina could increase their garlic production in the Hudson Valley, they say it would not only increase local agribusiness but also mitigate food waste and grow Atina’s business in a more locally advantageous way.
“We see local foods as being more beneficial to a local economy. But, it’s hard to balance that with seasonality,” Dashaw said. “We are growing but the question is, ‘do we go to outside vendors, or scale up ourselves?’”
Ayurvedic practices are all about pulling the healthful benefits from the food grown in your own area. So while some of Atina’s seasonings are imported to impart traditional Indian flavors, Pillai says the more ingredients they can grow and source locally, the truer they are adhering to the intent of their philosophy. Besides, the couple stressed, the Hudson Valley is a great region to farm their ingredients, so why should they have to ship in garlic from California?
“Ayurveda is about finding the food medicine in the habitat where you live,” Pillai said, “I chose to live here. Eating food from your locality is also a very important solution to climate change and food scarcity.”
The supply and infrastructure issues faced by Atina (and any company looking to grow in a locally holistic way) reinforce what HVADC and its partners in the Agricultural Viability Alliance are trying to alleviate when it comes to reinventing the way government supplies funding to farms and agriculture supported businesses. Using federal stimulus money, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, to fund Business Technical Assistance programs, will provide the needed capital and support for a business like Atina Foods to find the solutions they need.
“Atina Foods is ready to grow but they are being held back because the existing system won’t allow them to scale in a way that is of the most benefit to the Hudson Valley. We need to fix the system,” said Todd Erling, HVADC Executive Director. “There’s no one solution and it’s not going to be fixed over night but HVADC is inspired by the hard work Atina is doing. Like Carrie and Suresh, we look forward to a day when our regional food system supports and feeds itself in a healthy and holistic way.”