By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor    

You drive down lake roads this time of year and I know what you're thinking. The sunflowers appear to be slumped over, bowing their heads and mourning the death of summer. It's important to remember that they're only weighed down by seeds.

New life. Harvest is here.

Perhaps you've attended a harvest dinner before, but I'd guess you've never attended a harvest dinner that pairs locally grown food with a full flight of… beer? Yes, beer, for the entire evening.

"Beer fanatics are already excited about this one," says Liz Karabinakis, the community food educator who has been working with Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County to plan a series of diverse havest dinners. "They'll be pouring specialty brews, and even though I'm a wine lover, it got my attention!"

That's the idea behind the Healthy Food For All harvest dinner series. Each event costs $75 per person, and Karabinakis says the organizers have tried to vary the themes. "There's so much food, wine and beer to showcase that we wanted to give people a chance to attend multiple farms and not feel like it's the same thing at each event."

The beer-themed harvest dinner will be hosted by West Haven Farm in Ithaca on November 8. But while beer gets the spotlight for one night, local wines are appearing more often at these events, with wines from Bet the Farm and Hosmer on future menus.

"Vine Dining" trend gains steam

There is something purely invigorating about dining al fresco, surrounded by vines and chickens and rows of vegetables just waiting to be harvested. On Sunday night we were part of a sold-out harvest dinner at Sweet Land Farm in Trumansburg, where Vinny and Kim Aliperti of Atwater Estate Vineyards and Billsboro Winery poured some of their best. And with no cloud cover to offer a blanket of insulation, the first whispers of fall only added to the elysian ambiance.

"Vine dining is building in popularity over the past several years," Karabinakis says. "In fact, we model some of our events directly from the Atwater event that they host. If we can sit outside among the vines, we love to do it. And while not every farm has vines, the concept stays true when we're dining just a few steps from where the food was harvested literally that morning."

The menu was thoughtful, the wine refreshing. I was surprised to find that my favorite was the chicken liver toast with fig jam, though I also loved the celario-apple salad that accompanied the local roast pork.

Tours add value


We joined Evangeline Sarat for a farm tour — and, as you can see in the picture on the right, she demonstrated just how fresh the food for that evening was. While I enjoyed seeing her rip food straight from the earth, my wife marveled at the backpack that carried her budding farmer baby.

Most harvest dinners will include optional tours, and Karabinakis says guests will have a chance to see more than just the farms. She points out that for the upcoming October 11 dinner at Stick and Stone Farm in Ithaca, guests can tour Regional Access right next door. Regional Access has built a distribution system that allows local chefs to use more local food. 

Focus on CSAs

With many farms participating in community supported agriculture (CSA), guests have a chance to learn about what it means to buy into a CSA. At Sweet Land Farm, members operate on an honor system when they come to pick up food. A sign instructs members to "take only what you need," and they're also free to pick fruits on their own.

The Healthy Food For All series of dinners has three events remaining this season, with the first coming this Sunday. Karabinakis says that while past events have sold out, there is some ticket availability. But you're better off calling to inquire as early as possible to make sure you're not shut out.

Other farms and wineries are holding events on their own. It's a time of year to remember: There is life in the fields. Harvest is here, and local farmers are joining winemakers and brewmasters to share their stories.