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Pandemic Shows Importance of Local Food

Published Wednesday Apr 29, 2020

Author Meghan Pierce, Granite State News Collaborative

TomDepartment of Agriculture Commissioner Shawn N. Jasper says farms relying too much on restaurant and school sales are hurting right now, citing as an example a local farm that was exclusively supplying a now closed combination conference center and hotel.

“We hold out some hope that this is actually going to get people thinking about their food supplies and get them more interested in visiting their farmers’ markets and farm stands,” Jasper says. “We’re encouraging the farmers’ markets to stay open and practice social distancing.”

The current crisis is opening up opportunities for some farms while creating problems for others, he says. “There are just huge disruptions in the food supply around the whole nation. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve got to start getting back to normal as soon as we can or we're going to see more issues than we thought of.”

While some farmers scramble to keep up with demand, others are trying to pivot away from restaurant and school vendors, who are not buying right now because of the Stay-at-Home order.

“Our CSA shares right now are about one and half times what they were over last summer,” says Kelsey MacDonald, CSA and farmers’ market manager of Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton. “For example in the last two days, we have gotten about 20 more shares.”

March and April is typically a slow time of year in terms of new members to sign up for a share of the upcoming season, she says. But locals are “locking down their food source for the season,” she says. Heron Pond Farm was founded in 1998, but has offered CSA shares since 2010.

Last year at this time, the CSA had sold 275 shares.

“Right now we just hit 500. We are going to cap it at around 600 and we have about 100 already signed up for our winter season,” MacDonald says. “Last year for the whole season we only hit 360. … This is our highest enrollment ever. We’ve never gone beyond 360, it’s great to see a lot of people turning to buy local.”

Heron Pond Farm’s restaurant business has dropped significantly, MacDonald says. “Wholesale is down.”

But the farm is not hurting from the loss of those sales because it just means it can comfortably make room for more CSA members and sell more in the Heron Pond’s farm stand store and at the area farmers' markets.

“It’s just a redistribution basically,” she says. “And if we have a demand for over 600 we’ll just talk about that, but we’re going to 600 right now.”

Craig Carpenter, Heron Pond’s farm stand manager, says he is seeing a lot of new faces. Right now he is limiting the number of shoppers to two at a time to accommodate social distancing inside the stand.

“A lot of new faces,” he says. “A lot of people are telling me they don’t want to go to the big stores. But they seem happy to be able to come to a small place.”

Conrad and Ellen Dumas raise sheep for wool and meat on their Greenfield farm. They also help run the Peterborough Farmers’ Market. Gov. Chris Sununu listed farmers’ markets with the other essential services “right out of the gate” when he made the Stay-at-Home order, Conrad Dumas says.

“Farmer’s markets are part of the essential services period,” he says. “That was good.”

Ellen Dumas says demand at the farmers’ market is high.

“All the vendors are doing really well and we’re seeing people that we’ve never seen before,” Dumas says. “The only person who is going to touch the product you are going to buy is the vendor who grew it. And with all the distribution chains that are being disrupted nationally, and even internationally, this is what we need to do to create food security and to produce food locally and get that train rolling.”

The outside market means there is plenty of room for patrons and farmers to keep an appropriate distance from each other, she says.

The couple says they mostly raise sheep for wool, but they also sell some for meat for which they use an FDA approved plant in Goffstown. They suspect the closing of large meat processing plants in other parts of the country, at least four, might eventually be felt in NH.

“South Dakota has a huge pork-producing plant, it’s closed, over half the employees are COVID-19 positive and they can’t work so they can’t process the pork. … So there’s a concern there is going to be a shortage of meat somewhere down the line,” Concord Dumas says. “There is always meat in storage or in inventory. But the United States might possibly have some problems.”

NH only produces about 8 percent of the food the state consumes, the couple says. And farming is typically a side business for the small farmers at the market, they say.

Ellen Dumas says the demand for locally grown food is changing and some farmers are not even coming to market because consumers are coming to them.

“We had an egg guy, this is an example, we had somebody that was willing to come every week and bring eggs to our market and he came the first week and he brought eggs. He is also a maple producer so he brought syrup. And he came the first week and he sold out. Well, the next week he called and says, ‘I don’t have enough eggs for the market because people are coming straight to my farm.’ … So he’s probably not going to come back after [Since] people are coming straight to him,” she says.

Ellen Dumas also says she’s heard from at least one nearby farm that sells meat and eggs that can’t take any more customers because they are “at max.”

“We wish there were more growing to feed more local people,” she says. “The demand is increasing and the question is ‘Can we make the supply?’”

Tom Mitchell who runs Ledge Top Farm in Wilton says he is still taking CSA members.

“It seems like more people who are not regular CSA people,” he says. “People are probably interested in more secure sources of food and are more willing to put out more money.” He added he offers a lot of extra services with his CSA.

Bruce Townsend is the 8th generation of his family to work on Tomapo Farm in Lebanon, now owned and run by his daughter. Tomapo Farm sells firewood -- retail and wholesale – as well as maple syrup products, including syrup, candy, cream and sugar. Wood sales are strong as well as syrup sales. Apparently, when there was a run on the supermarkets back in March people not only stocked up on toilet paper but on maple syrup as well, he says.

“The syrup sales are still really strong in the supermarkets. … Syrup is considered to be comfort food,” he says. “We made a good crop of syrup this year. It is good syrup and plenty of it this year.”

While the Stay-at-Home order is not affecting the farm directly, Townsend says, he knows it is affecting other types of farms in different ways such as dairy farms. He is also concerned about the impact on Main Street, the small local businesses and wonders if some shuttered stores will stay closed.

“I feel sorry for these small businesses out on Main Street that have had to shut down,” he says, adding he expects some will go bankrupt. “We’ll weather the storm. We’re going to come out of it and hopefully be strong in the end.”

In Loudon, Sales and Marketing Manager of Léf Farms Donald Grandmaison says the farm’s automated state-of-the-art, 100 percent hydroponic system grows greens with little human contact. “It dramatically reduces the probability of foodborne illness,” he says. The farm uses a European system unique in New Hampshire, Grandmaison says.  The farm sells its greens in retail outlets across New England in stores such as Hannafords, Whole Foods, and Shaws. Because the farm does not have a restaurant or school customers the farm has not been impacted, in fact, business is up, he says. And there has been a public demand for curbside pickup, which they recently started.

“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of requests for curbside,” Grandmaison says. “We can have your order ready and put it right in your trunk.”

He says people can find out more about the curbside pickup at the farm on léf Farms’ Facebook page.

“I think people want to come to Léf because they perceive it to be a lot safer,” he says. “They want to limit their exposure and they see our farm as a way to do that.”

Jamie Robinson at Contoocook Creamery on Bohanan Farm in Contoocook says while farm stand business is booming, he predicts many dairy farms won’t survive the shutdown. Robinson says he’s worried about his farm, noting dairy farmers still have to continue to feed, care for and milk their cows and pay staff despite the fact that the milk market has crashed. Milking cows cannot be shut on and off, he says.

“It looked like 2020 was going to be a profitable year for dairy. This is just disastrous. … It’s just this perfect storm of disaster that is hitting us and I don’t think people quite understand,” Robinson says. “It’s just a disaster. Nation-wide they are dumping 11,000 tractor-trailers full of milk a day because of restaurants being closed and the schools being closed and the export market for dairy products is gone.”

Robinson says 80 percent of the dairy farm’s milk is sold through Agri-Mark Dairy, a 100-year-old dairy farm cooperative that produces the Cabot Creamery brand. Contoocook Creamery also has its own brand that it sells in New Hampshire stores. However, they had to make the quick transition from glass bottles to plastic in order to continue selling their own brand.

“Our biggest retail outlets stopped taking glass bottles back,” he says. “The COVID-19 kind of forced our hand on the plastic line, something that we were contemplating adding to our line.”

The dairy farm is also moving fast to transition more of its milk to its own line and away from the dairy co-op, which is selling poorly if at all.

“In order for us to stay in business, we’ve got to move. We’ve got to increase the sale of our name brand by about four times in the next 60 days and we can’t go while we are social distancing,” he says.

He applied for a loan through the Small Business Administration, but he missed out on funding.

“The PPP money ran out before most people got accepted,” he says.

Robinson says hopefully more funds will be approved and then his loan will be approved.

“We need at least the guarantee of some federal aid coming down the pike to keep our cows fed and our staff paid and get our crops in the ground. We need some serious aid fast,” he says.

Robinson says farm sales and name brand sales are up, but if the farm cannot redirect more of its milk to its name-brand quickly enough it’s in deep trouble.

“I’m very, very concerned that this is going to put an end to dairy in New England. That COVID-19 is going to wipe out dairy in New England,” Robinson says. And if that happens the next time there is a crisis like this the milk shelves in the supermarkets will not be restocked as quickly as they were this time, he says.

“We’ve taken our food system for granted and not paid attention to what happened to it,” Robinson says. “Eggs have gone from a $1.09 today they are $3.40.”

In the 1950s there were more chickens per square mile in Hillsborough Country than anywhere else in the world, he says.

Now aside from Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs in Monroe, there are no major poultry farmers in New Hampshire, Robinson says.

“It’s really important to keep a local food supply and not just somebody with three chickens,” Robinson says. “You look at how fast that dairy cooler filled up in again and that is something that happened because there are still 90 dairy farms in New Hampshire and a processing plant in Concord and you need to look at how much that is worth.”

“New England and New Hampshire still have a commodity dairy industry left,” Robinson says. “But I can’t emphasize enough how fragile that industry is at the moment.”

This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit Photos by Meghan Pierce.

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