Mary Macdonald, president of the Belknap Food Shed, started 2019 with big plans. She had been working for two years toward the goal of rejuvenating the Laconia State School property and making it home base for the Belknap Food Shed, a business designed to support and promote local food production. Macdonald envisioned an “agricultural maker-space,” a campus filled with agriculture, food processing, classrooms, restaurants and stores.
“That was the big picture. We’d been working toward acquiring that property and moving that forward, but then COVID-19 hit,” said Macdonald, who is also the co-owner of Genuine Local, a food production accelerator based in Meredith.
With the Belknap Food Shed, Macdonald had always planned to establish a hub at the former state school, and then work backwards to deliver food into the community. When the pandemic happened, that plan was flipped on its head: with a sudden need and desire for locally-sourced food, Macdonald realized it was the perfect time to launch the Belknap Food Shed, which until then had just been a concept.
“COVID-19 taught us how wrong we were,” to focus on the hub rather than distribution first, Macdonald said.
In a hurry, she got the Belknap Food Shed registered and up and running by April. The business now offers an online farmer’s market, where customers from the lakes region and beyond can order locally produced foods. The service started with 12 producers, but now has 25 producers selling more than 300 products.
“We’re super fortunate that everyone was willing to take a gamble and saw this was a new opportunity,” Macdonald said.
Customers can order online for curbside pickup or home delivery from a few different locations in Meredith, Laconia and Loudon. Business has been coming in waves during the summer — it was strong until the end of school, but popular vacation weeks like the Fourth of July were very slow. Macdonald anticipates that business will pick up again in the fall, when more families return to a set schedule, even if schooling is remote.
Through Genuine Local, Macdonald was already connected to the local community and food producers.
“We were able to leverage those five years of community connections into launching the food shed,” she said.
The food shed has also strengthened those connections. Macdonald drives to Kingston twice a week to deliver produce to the south of the state, and on the way home she picks up produce from various producers. With the constant exchanges, she’s even more ingrained with New Hampshire food producers, she said.
Although the pandemic turned Macdonald’s business plan on its head, the mission of the Belknap Food Shed remains unchanged.
“The goal of the food shed overall was always to be a hub and provide the range of services that farmers and producers needed to grow their business,” she said.
Initially, the plan was to offer market access through a physical location at the former state school. Now, the business is connecting producers and consumers through the food shed’s digital platform. This has been particularly important for producers of artisan foods who normally rely on restaurant businesses and now-cancelled trade shows for sales.
“We’re providing for small businesses that otherwise might have had to go out of business,” Macdonald said. “Being part food shed gives them a whole new market access.”
Eventually, Macdonald would still like to realize her dream of transforming the state school property into an hub for supporting local food production from “dirt to dinner.” For now, however, she’s happy with how the Belknap Food Shed got its start.
“The pandemic just made us take three giant steps back and realize there’s no perfect order,” she said.
This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.