Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD) received funds from Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) to conduct an assessment of agricultural infrastructure needs and potentially underutilized infrastructure currently in Merrimack County that farmers could use. This potentially underutilized infrastructure may include commercial kitchens, community food storage and processing resources. The goal was to catalog the needs and the resources followed by a practical plan for what needs to happen next to increase availability of local foods throughout the year, especially in winter, throughout the Capital Area of New Hampshire.
In the course of this project, the District developed two surveys—a needs assessment for farmers and a community resource inventory for facility owners; developed a database of county farmers and their agricultural infrastructure needs and a corresponding database of potential food storage and processing resources within the county; held a facilitated agricultural round table discussion to brainstorm needs and solutions to infrastructural issues; conducted in-depth follow-up interviews with selected farm survey respondents; held a “mixer” event that brought together farmers and potential institutional and business customers; compiled and distributed throughout the county (18,000 copies in 2010 and 33,000 copies in 2011) of a popular Capital Area Local Food Guide with information about year-round availability of local foods and their sources within the county; created a map and chart of county farms with needs and facilities with resources; published project findings on the District’s website and developed a Next Steps plan for continuing support of farmers, institutions and consumers in Merrimack County via the local foods movement. Some of these Next Steps are already in the beginning stages.
The objectives/ performance targets for this project were as follows:
A. Infrastructure Inventory
Community facilities were surveyed with a list of current facilities that are available for use by farms. Along with this inventory, CAFCC has been working with bringing farms with underutilized infrastructure together with those who need it. Currently, two farms are working in collaboration.
B. Fifty Farmer Interviews
Through this process, 40 farmer interviews were completed and 30 farmers were interviewed during the round table discussion.
C. Meeting Attendance
Approximately 50 people attended the round table discussion, 20 people attended the "mixer" and several smaller meetings were attended by many to collaborate on and discuss agricultural infrastructure needs.
D. Next Steps Planning Guide
The Final Report discussed many of the Next Steps. As this grant progressed, many of the Next Steps became current action steps, making this project dynamic and ever-changing. As ideas and needs were assessed, different projects began. In particular, the work to establish an agricultural cooperative in central NH with several farms pledging the use of existing infrastructure to meet the quantity, quality, and timing needs of institutional buyers.
Merrimack County Conservation District, through its Capital Area Farm and Community Connection (CAFCC) program, designed this project to increase off-season availability of local foods. Prior to this project, CAFCC identified the dearth of local foods in the winter as one of the biggest barriers to eating locally produced foods in New Hampshire’s Merrimack County.
Local citizens and businesses seeking to incorporate local foods into their winter menus find them largely unavailable in the Capital area. Conversely, farmers wishing to expand their offerings beyond the growing season lack accessibility to storage and processing facilities, do not know where available facilities are located, or are unable to gain access to them. Another addressed need was a community location to sell local foods year round.
The goal of this project was to identify and eliminate barriers to year-round availability of locally produced food. The project addressed this by taking steps to lay a foundation for connecting the farming community with Capital area resources and consumers.
Building new facilities, especially in the current economy, is beyond the means of most farmers. Identifying existing facilities that can be used for community benefit is a win-win situation and was a project priority, as was the corresponding objectives of learning which producers have the greatest needs for these types of facilities, at what time of year and at what capacity.
Capital Area Farm and Community Connection is about just that—building connections. Accordingly, one major project objective was to take an inventory of commercial kitchens in area churches and schools and to identify which, if any, might be interested in donating or renting their facilities to local food producers. This would not only help farmers, but might defray some taxpayer costs via rental fees for school kitchens unused during summer and school vacations. The environmental and economic benefits of avoiding new construction are also significant.
Another project objective was to facilitate connections among farmers. For example, one Merrimack County orchard has cold storage capacity lying fallow since the crash of the New England apple market. The owner is willing to share it, but it will need to be upgraded and refurbished due to prolonged disuse.
A third objective was to commence the process of creating ongoing connections between local producers and potential customers. Farmers made it clear early in the project that their priority is figuring out how to create viable institutional, business and wholesale customers. CAFCC set its project priorities accordingly.
A final objective was to help local consumers locate local producers. The local foods movement is relatively new in our county and consumers are often bewildered by the task of locating convenient sources for locally produced foods.
The first step in this project was to invite over fifty local farmers and agricultural service providers to a moderated round-table discussion. The discussion was strategically designed to foster connection among attending farmers and listening by providers; both groups expressed appreciation for this approach. This was followed by a catered networking lunch to allow for farmers and agricultural service providers to continue the discussion.
Following this kick-off activity and the information derived from it, MCCD staff and consultant Ruth Smith, M.Ed., developed two surveys: one for farmers, designed to assess their on– and off-farm growing, processing and marketing needs and the other to identify possible available storage and processing resources held by community schools, churches and other organizations.
MCCD staff then interviewed 40 area farmers via mailed surveys, a matching online survey, phone and personal interviews at nearly every farmers’ market in the county. Staff also conducted in-depth follow-up interviews with selected respondents.
Concurrently, MCCD inventoried Merrimack County schools and churches via mail and phone to establish a baseline data bank of existing community facilities usable for storage and processing.
Results of both surveys were compiled in separate databases, the contents of which were used to create a map and chart to provide a comprehensive picture of county farms with storage and processing needs and facilities with corresponding resources. The results of these surveys can be found in the Appendices.
In addition to the surveys, MCCD collaborated with The Concord Monitor, the county’s largest newspaper to compile and distribute two editions of a popular Capital Area Local Food Guide throughout the county. The Guide provided general information about the benefits of shopping locally, along with specific information about various locally produced foods and where to get them. The second edition expanded the focus to include more information about year-round availability of local foods.
A “mixer” event conducted by the CAFCC co-coordinator brought together about 12 farmers and potential institutional and business customers to explore possibilities for doing business with one another.
Throughout the project District staff met with and provided material support to local consumer food groups such as Kearsarge Eat Local (KEAL) and producer groups such as Kearsarge Beekeepers’ Association.
Results of the project were shared with food producers, consumers and the general community via publication of a final report, which is posted on the District’s website www.merrimackccd.org and available in hard copy from the District office.
Finally, the District developed a Next Steps plan to continue support of local food production and consumption. The plan addresses the expressed needs of farmers, processors of locally produced foods, businesses, institutions and consumers in Merrimack County.
MCCD plans to continue its activities in creating a network of facilities available to farmers to encourage increase in production of crops that can benefit from storage and processing and to maintain the established database of facilities and farms.
Infrastructure Round table Discussion
On December 7, 2010, CAFCC held a facilitated round table discussion for 30 farmers and 20 agricultural service providers. There were considerable agricultural needs discussed. These include the following highlights:
• Need for institutional (wholesale) customers;
• Need for more (and better) USDA slaughterhouses, preferably small ones every 30-50 miles;
• A larger pool of customers who want to buy local foods;
• Education of consumers on how to select and cook local foods, especially "the stuff they’re not buying" (i.e. lesser known crops);
• Legal issues, such as local zoning and increasing rules and regulations regarding production and processing of agricultural products;
• Taxation (towns want to tax high tunnels, which are temporary structures; removal of land from current use when animal housing or storage buildings are added;
• High initial financial investment required to get into farming;
• High cost of land;
• Lack of health care;
• Need for a centralized location for up-to-date agricultural information (events, RFPs, technical service providers, grant deadlines, etc);
• Training on how to sell their products, such as website design, social media, web commerce, etc.;
• Need for skilled labor;
• Use of shared agricultural equipment, such as a no-till seed drill.
A detail of the round table discussion can be found in Appendix I of the Final Report.
Farm Infrastructure Needs Survey Results
Of the 40 farms surveyed, all needed some sort of infrastructure added to their farms to increase productivity. The most needed were commercial kitchens (43%), cold storage (35%), and other (50%). This is keeping in mind that the survey allowed for farmers to choose multiple infrastructure needs. Farmers needed this additional infrastructure the most from June-September with 30% of participants requiring it year round as well. Financial factors were the leading cause preventing farmers from adding new infrastructure; 73% of farmers listed this reason. The second highest cause (40%) had to do with regulations and zoning issues. About 68% of farmers stated they had no underutilized infrastructure and 70% of them said they would work cooperatively with other farmers to utilize equipment and space.
WHAT ARE YOUR INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDS TO HELP INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY?
COMMERCIAL KITCHEN 17
COLD STORAGE 14
MEAT PROCESSING FIXED 5
MEAT PROCESSING MOBILE 5
FLASH FREEZE MOBILE 5
PACKAGING PLANT 4
MILK PROCESSING 3
FLASH FREEZE FIXED 1
WHEN DO YOU NEED/WOULD USE ADDITIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE THE MOST?
YEAR ROUND 12
WHAT’S PREVENTING YOU FROM ADDING NEW INFRASTRUCTURE?
DO YOU HAVE UNDERUTILIZED INFRASTRUCTURE?
WOULD YOU BE WILLING TO WORK COOPERATIVELY WITH ANOTHER FARM TO UTILIZE EQUIPMENT/SPACE?
A more detailed look at the survey results can be found in Appendix III of the Final Report (see attached document below).
Community Facilities Survey
Numerous Merrimack County community facilities with potentially underutilized infrastructure were contacted in the spring of 2010. Eighty-eight (88) schools were contacted via the internet or by direct mail. Of those, fourteen (14) schools responded with five (5) to seven (7) schools saying they could possibly to they definitely will lease out their infrastructure (e.g. cold storage or commercial kitchen) to local farmers or those making value added products. Eighty-nine (89) churches were contacted via email or by direct mail. Of those, six churches responded but with only two churches stating that they were capable of sharing their resources. Summer camps and soup kitchens were also contacted, but no return information came back from the camps.
In the farmer interviews, underutilized cold storage was identified. Some of this underutilized cold storage has, within this past year, become shared equipment among two or more farmers. Some farms that assisted with this project also participated in an energy efficiency program; some of the cold storage from these farms is slated to become shared equipment.
A synopsis of the community facilities survey can be found in Appendix IV along with the applications for use provided by the schools.
Producer/ Buyer “Mixer” Meeting in April 2011
In April, 2011, CAFCC held a “mixer” gathering for agricultural producers and potential buyers. The meeting had two goals: gather information on what needs to be done to bring producers and local buyers together and as a neutral meeting space for these two entities to connect.
This meeting was attended by one school, one hospital, one conference center chef, one cafe and two restaurants on the buyer side. For agricultural producers, this meeting was represented by one dairy farm, one beef farm, one organic vegetable farm, and one diversified farm.
The following are results from this meeting.
• Clear desires – Farmers recognize that restaurants and institutions know exactly what they are looking for and produce this need.
• Timing specific – During the discussion, buyers realized that purchasing from local farms required advanced planning and notice to the farms. For example, if a buyer needed tomatoes in August, they would have to let the producers know ahead of time to have time to grow the specific type and quantity needed.
• Farmers were excited to see that institutions care about buying locally.
• Institutions were excited to see that they could buy in bulk from farmers as long as there was clear communication about needs and timing.
• Possible creation of “RSA’s” – Restaurant Supported Agriculture.
• With today’s economy, prices are going up because of fuel and other costs.
• Advanced Planning – Farmers need to know in advance how much produce/meat the institution will need so they can plan accordingly.
• Early communication between the producer and buyer.
• “Food with a Face” – The idea is that when restaurants or institutions use local foods, that they should have pictures of the farm, family, or animals that the product came from, e.g. have a picture of one of the local cows from a local milk producer.
• Bulk Quantity- It is difficult for institutions to buy locally because of the quantity needed. Buyers need to be assured that bulk quantity is available.
• Price Stability- Buyers stated that prices among farms vary drastically. In order for more buyers to buy from farms, there needs to be some price stability and consistency among farms.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
MCCD did substantial outreach for this project, including newsletter articles, press releases, and listings on agricultural websites and listservs. Included in this section is our Final Report, available to anyone wishing a copy; this will also be placed on our new website, which is slated to go live in the Fall of 2011.
Throughout this project, we have achieved the following:
1. Identified some of the agricultural infrastructure needs of Merrimack County.
2. Identified some of the underutilized infrastructure that may be used by some farmers.
3. Assisted in the connection between farms and underutilized infrastructure.
4. Build new partnerships and have collaborated on new projects to reduce barriers to sharing equipment and facilities.
5. Identified equipment that the Conservation District or non-profits could purchase and rent in order to achieve conservation objectives, increased productivity, and extended season.
6. Brought community organizations and businesses together with local agricultural producers.
7. Identified next steps to address the gaps in needed agricultural infrastructure.
8. Identified and established plans for the social infrastructural” gaps, such as trainings on social networking, on-line commerce, and other strategies to sell more product.
Current Action Steps/ Activities
1. Creating a list of farms that would be interested in sharing agricultural equipment that would also benefit conservation initiatives, such as no-till seed drills, mulchers, stone pickers, and more. MCCD is developing a plan to purchase and rent this equipment to farms in Central New Hampshire. MCCD is also looking into buying a plastics baler in order to begin an agricultural plastics recycling program in NH.
2. CAFCC has sought and received grant funds to begin a Capital Area Local Foods website to further promote local foods in Merrimack County.
3. CAFCC has been working with local college students to create a Capital Area Local Foods phone application to promote local foods from Concord, NH, to Boston, MA. As people rely more on their phones for up-to-date information, this step is seen as experimental but potentially vital to bring new customers to Capital Area farms.
4. CAFCC has been working with the Southern NH Resource Conservation and Development Area Council to provide technical assistance to a fledgling agricultural cooperative in Central NH.
5. CAFCC will host a forum for all of New Hampshire’s local foods groups to see what other areas are doing that address the infrastructure and other needs to promote local foods in New Hampshire.
6. CAFCC is working with several farms to upgrade their cold storage through energy audits, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services Conservation Innovation Grant, and other programs. One apple orchard has opened up its cold storage for another farm currently bottling its own milk. We are looking at other programs to expand this cold storage.
Future Action Steps
1. Infrastructure Training
The surveys and round table discussion showed a strong need for training in marketing, business training, web development, social media, and other means to market their goods. CAFCC is working with partner organizations to develop workshops in 2012 that would address this need.
2. Consumer Education
Many farms wanted consumers to be educated about the costs of producing foods locally. One desire was to outreach to the public about the benefits of buying locally and for consumers to gain some knowledge about how their food is produced. CAFCC intends to create a series of workshops in under-served areas concerning nutrition, using local foods, gardening, food storage, and farm experience days. Along with CAFCC’s own projects, this will be done in collaboration with programs such as Agriculture in the Classroom and by promoting other local foods programs such as Kearsarge Area Eat Local and farm days such as those run by Miles Smith Farm in Loudon.
3. Further Collaboration
As some of the findings in this report CAFCC cannot do, such as lobbying for changes in law and regulation, this project helped assist in building partnerships, share ideas, and work on addressing all of the issues identified. This process allowed CAFCC, agricultural entities, agricultural service providers, volunteers, and others to collaborate and work on common goals- a process that will be continued past the Northeast SARE grant.
4. More "mixer" programs
The "mixer" program held by CAFCC to introduce buyers and producers needs to be replicated to bring more entities together. Many buyers are interested in buying local, but do not know who to buy from and are not communicating early enough to get the supplies they need. In 2012, it is anticipated that CAFCC will hold more of these "mixers" to promote institutional buying in Merrimack County.