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March 25. 2013 8:59PM

North Country co-op marks five years in farm-fresh style

WHITEFIELD - Colebrook's Julie Moran, now CEO and president of North Country Farmers Co-op, said five years ago she got a small distribution system up and running, "and so it began."

The co-op started with seven farms and eight customers. It now has two bakers and 21 farmers, supplying farm fresh products to restaurants and institutions from Pittsburg to North Conway.

On Sunday, the network was officially incorporated as the North Country Farmers Co-op at the Mountain View Grand Resort and Spa with an event that brought together customers, sponsors and partners, as well as the farmers and bakers, who turned in their membership agreements and share fees.

The co-op takes care of sales, marketing and delivery services, and other support services so that the members can devote their energy to producing fruits, vegetables, berries, bakery products, honey, meat and more.

On Sunday, the difference farm freshness makes was evident in the bite-sized potato cakes, liver pate, pickled vegetables, beef sliders with caramelized BBQ shallots and cheese, and other items served at the event.

The ingredients, according to Adam Parker, Mountain View executive chef, were 95 percent local. The beef in the sliders was from grass-fed cattle, the eggs and feta cheese for the quiche were from co-op members, and farmers supplied the winter squash and the potatoes for bite-sized cakes and potato au gratin. Parker, who was one of the first approached by Moran to buy local, said that the farm contributions for the event made for a fun challenge for him and his crew.

"What they had," Parker noted of the farmers, "they gave to us."

New Hampshire Department of Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill said the cooperative started when she was first commissioner. She called it one of the most inspiring projects in her first few months.

Merrill noted that agricultural cooperatives "are a very special concept, here and all over New England," with "people figuring out together what they can do."

Though many have given time and energy to the co-op - the Mountain View and Kheops International of Colebrook are the corporate and gold sponsors, and the Northern Community Investment Corp, North Country RC &D Area Council, USDA Rural Development, and Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund are co-op sponsors - most speakers at the event praised Moran's passion and drive.

State Sen. Jeff Woodburn of Dalton said he'd met Moran five years ago when he wrote for a local paper. He recounted that District 1 Executive Councilor Ray Burton gave him some advice on how to handle Moran's request.

"Just do it," he quoted Burton. "It's easier."

Chuck Henderson, who brought congratulations from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, said of Moran: "She's quite a force to be reckoned with."

State Rep. Larry Rappaport of Colebrook also noted the personal commitment to community exhibited in the North Country. We have, he noted, "a lot of people who are intensively motivated."

"I had no idea how extensive the network is," said state Rep. Ed Butler of Hart's Location, who also owns and operates the Notchland Inn and restaurant with his husband, Les Schoof.

"Our goal is to add more farmers in Grafton and Carroll counties," Moran said.

This year, the wholesale circuit includes the Valley Originals, the non-franchise owner-operated restaurants in Mount Washington Valley.

"That'll be huge," Moran said. "The numbers are just continuing to grow."

She said not only does the co-op bring fresh food to customers, it also helps "build the economy from the ground up."

Most of the producers also participate in northern New Hampshire's farmer markets, from Pittsburg to Tamworth.

syoungknox@newstote.com

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