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'Farm to Plate' program being cautiously embraced by NH agriculture supporters

Sunday News Correspondent

August 16. 2014 6:30PM
Owens Truck Farm in Ashland overflows recently with an abundance of produce grown on the 2-acre parcel off Route 175. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

TILTON - Although it is unfunded and additional legislation has yet to follow it, the state's newly-created "Farm to Plate" program is nonetheless earning cautionary praise as a first step to promote and expand agriculture in New Hampshire.

On Aug. 8, Gov. Maggie Hassan signed Senate Bill 141 which declares that the state will "encourage and support local food producers, farming and fisheries, including businesses engaged in agriculture, the raising and care of livestock, dairy, fishing, foraging, and aquaculture, agritourism, horticulture, orchard management, maple syrup production and the associated local and regional businesses that process, purchase, distribute, and sell such food."

The law talks about how demand has grown for "locally grown and produced food" and how that food and support of its producers is "vital to the public health of our residents and to the viability and livability of our communities."

Good for farmers, state

The legislation that created the FTP program speaks of increasing access to healthy foods and removing "obstacles and excessive financial burdens to farms and associated businesses, including farmers' markets, cooperatives, food hubs, fisheries and processing centers."

Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of the Division of Agricultural Development at the NH Dept. of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said FTP "is really more of a policy statement that says the state is going to support and encourage agriculture and food production because local food is beneficial to the health of our citizens and agriculture is an important component to our economy."

The hope, she said, "is that with this policy in place as a base, future legislation could build off of it to create opportunities for agriculture to grow and strengthen."

Joan O'Connor, founder of the Concord Winter Farmers Market, as well as the Tilton Farmers Market and a member of the board of directors of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire, said FTP is a good first step, but not a panacea.

O'Connor, Henniker resident who helped start that community's farmers market, said it's not always easy being a farmer in the Granite State.

Aggressive selling

Some of her vendors at the Tilton market attend as many as five other markets during a week, in addition to harvesting and preparing items for sale.

Most produce is perishable and to make a living, farmers "have to find hundreds or thousands of customers," said O'Connor. "You have to bring in thousands of people because not everybody is going to buy."

Farmers markets have to be "destinations" and be able to offer one-stop shopping for a complete meal from appetizers to dessert, O'Connor said.

To offer that kind of selection, a farmers market requires 20 to 30 vendors. While New Hampshire now boasts about 70 summer farmers markets, there's a shortage of vendors, she said.

Farmers also have to offer a wide selection of products and, depending on their customer, a lot of product, too. Restaurants, for example, need produce by the case, not by the bag or bunch, O'Connor said.

So farmers have to invest money to grow more crops and have to prepare and store it.

Farm stands and farmers markets also have to do a better job of marketing to and accommodating customers who rely on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, and to be able to process their electronic benefit transfers (EBT), as well as debit and credit cards, said O'Connor.

Maynard Thomson of Freedom, who helped launch the "Raise the Bar" program earlier this year to increase earnings and opportunities for the "Carroll County food chain," said on his group's website that SB 141 could be used "to push back against laws and regulations that frustrate the state policy."

"Let's see if the people voting for SB 141 really mean it," said Thomson, "or if it's another exercise in empty rhetoric."

Needed leverage

O'Connor said SB 141 gives agriculture supporters leverage with lawmakers.

"It's a start," she said. "But again, people say there's no money or a mandate behind it, but at least we got the dialogue going."

Chris Owens, who is the "farmer" behind the Owens Truck Farm on Route 175 in Ashland, said he welcomes anything that helps him bring in more customers.

He doesn't have the ability to accept electronic payments - everything is cash - and the farm stand is open 24/7 so customers doing business after hours are on the honor system to leave the right amount of money and take the correct change.

Owens has farmed the two acres owned by his mother, Monica, for about a quarter century. He and several employees start working around April 1 and finish - with no breaks in between - about seven months later.

The farm supplies a mesclun salad mix, topped with colorful nasturtiums, to a local restaurant chain and also counts several health-food stores as regular customers.

Three years ago, on a lark, Owens hung up a shingle saying "marijuana" - which he does not sell - and watched with bemused interest as his business became a tourist attraction.

Sales gimmick

The "marijuana" sign, which still elicits inquiries, increased business by about 20 percent, but it's not always a given that it will produce that same yield on a consistent basis, Owens said.

Farming is not always a precise science and there are many variables, including weather.

The start of the 2014 growing season was "the worst ever," said Owens. "Nothing grew for a month and then it got warm and it's turning into the best season for growing ever."

There will always be customers for locally grown produce, because "they want something that tastes good," Owens said. "In the supermarket, it looks great year-round but nothing has any taste."

Owens said he wasn't familiar with SB 141 but said, "anything that helps local farmers is good."

Yet even in the middle of summer, when peaches, corn, tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables are brimming with flavor at his farm stand, many potential customers will still go to a grocery store because of the convenience of "one-stop shopping," he said.

At Owens Truck Farm - the name comes from the family's origins in New Jersey where the family grew fruits and vegetables and "trucked" them up to New York City to sell on the weekends - there are many loyal customers, but "we just could use more of them."

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