Monadnock Region Snapshot: A Growing Local Food Movement Doesn’t Translate To Prosperity

Amanda Loder / StateImpact New Hampshire

The local food movement is gaining popularity, especially in the Monadnock region. But that doesn't necessarily mean big money for small farmers.

Tomorrow morning on NHPR, we’ll introduce you to Tracie Smith, a farmer in the Monadnock Region. Tracie’s story is Part Two of our series “Getting By, Getting Ahead,” examining how people across New Hampshire’s seven regions are navigating a recovering economy.

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Farming has long been crucial to New Hampshire’s Monadnock region, where rows of vegetable and fruit crops pock a hilly landscape of hearty green forests. But lately, there’s a new economic opportunity for area farmers: The growing popularity of something called “community supported agriculture.”

The concept is simple. Some consumers are fed up with the produce they find at supermarkets because so much of it is grown far away from home. They want locally grown produce because it’s fresher and it supports the local economy. Under the community supported agriculture model (CSA for short), consumers pay a farmer a few hundred dollars for a share of his or her crop. As the season progresses, the farmer harvests the produce and divides it out for the customers, who either come to the farm to pick it up or have it delivered.

It’s impossible to know how many CSAs exist in the Monadnock area; many don’t advertise their shares because they’re already sold out. Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Markets and Food, says about 50 CSAs have registered for the state directory.  The national group Local Harvest, meanwhile, has counted 90 CSAs serving the state.  And according to Local Harvest, about one-third of them are located in the Monadnock region.  The movement has also taken off in other parts of the state.

“I think the Monadnock area, the Upper Valley, the Seacoast and increasingly, parts of the Merrimack Valley as well are becoming hotspots of buying local and local food enthusiasm,” Merrill says.

Farming is a growth industry in the Monadnock region. When the federal government conducted its last Census of Agriculture, it found that the number of farms in Cheshire County increased by 30 percent between 2002 and 2007.  Hillsborough County saw 28 percent growth over the same period.  At least some of that growth, Merrill says, can be attributed to CSAs and the increasing popularity of locally sourced food in the Monadnock region.

But the CSA path isn’t replacing other business models for farmers. According to Merrill, most farms that employ this model aren’t strictly CSAs.  Rather, it’s one of several mechanisms local farmers use to bring their products to customers, along with farm stands, farmers’ markets, and restaurant sales.

None of this is putting supermarkets out of business: According to the Census of Agriculture, direct-to-consumer sales in New Hampshire represented only eight percent of all the food bought in the state. That may not be much, but as a portion of peoples’ diets, that was enough to rank New Hampshire first in the country.

While Monadnock farmers are pleased with the growing demand for their crops, popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to prosperity. Compared to the rest of the country, New England’s land costs are extremely high.  Labor is also much more expensive.

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“Labor’s such a big concern for farms,” says Amanda Costello, District Manager for the Cheshire County Conservation District. “Both the accessibility of qualified and eager labor to work on the farm, as well as — once they have those qualified folks — being able to keep them.”

Right now, Costello says, many local farms, including CSAs, are struggling to provide workers with living wages and health insurance benefits.  And that’s created both a labor shortage and a high turnover rate.  ”I think businesses would agree that when you have that consistent turnover, it’s not a good thing for productivity,” Costello says.  ”I’ve heard it from a lot of people…it’s just an ongoing frustration for farms to have good trained labor, and then to be able to afford to keep them.”

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