Farm-To-Table

Massachusetts, New Hampshire Consumers Connected to Local Crops, Growers
Veggie Basket – Stronger Together

It's no surprise to farmers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that consumers here are more connected to locally grown food than in most states.

In fact, all six of the New England states are among the tops in the nation for residents buying locally grown, locally sourced foods.

Mary Stewart, farm stand manager at Smolak Farms in North Andover, said it makes perfect sense. 

"I think people have become more health conscious and they want to know they are getting something that's sustainably grown and local. They get to know the farm and the people who work here and support a local business." 

The devotion shown by Massachusetts and New Hampshire shoppers and consumers to local farms is highlighted in an annual Vermont-based report that gauges the impact agricultural has on local economies and dinner tables. It rates statistics such as the per-capita number of farm stands, farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), food hubs (co-ops or distribution centers), Farm-to-School programs and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Know Your Farmer – Know your Food grants. Residents of New Hampshire ranked No. 5 on the list, with Massachusetts coming in at No. 7. The top three spots were awarded to Vermont, Maine and Oregon. Rhode Island came in No. 9 and Connecticut weighed in at No. 13 in the nation.

That trend didn't just happen overnight, it was hard work, according Ed Davidian, the president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, who took over the reins of the state's agriculture group from Methuen's Rich Bonanno last year.

Co-owner of Davidian Brothers Farm in Northborough, Davidian said that bond between farmers and consumers is a long-standing tradition here in Massachusetts and all of New England.

"We've been working at it an extremely long time," he said. "We've done a lot of direct marketing from our farms right to the consumers. And we've been doing that for decades now. So the consumers are more in tune with the farmers because they've been coming to our establishments for years. It's not a new thing for us - it's an old thing for us - and that gives us a direct connection for us with the consumer going to the roadside stand, going to the farmer's store and farmers markets."

"Every agribusiness has spent a lot of time educating, trying to bring people up to speed as to what agriculture is, the benefits of it, the benefits of all the open space that's associated with it - and it's caught on here. People are really happy to visit our farm stands, they look forward to our foods," Davidian said.

Education of consumers is paramount if local agriculture is to thrive, he said.

"We communicate with them, we Facebook 'em, we do all kinds of things to keep them informed about agriculture," Davidian said. "They want to really know what's going on with agriculture, where their food comes from. In Massachusetts, we have some of the smartest consumers in the country. They are very aware of what they are buying, they demand the best and they are willing to pay a little extra for it."

Martin Langeveld, who researches and compiles the index for a non-profit food advocacy group called Strolling of the Hiefers, said one of the reasons New England states score so high on the rankings is the very nature of farming in the region. New England doesn't have the space for large "factory" farms.

"Large-scale commodity farming doesn't work in most of New England," Langeveld said, "we don't have farms with thousands of acres of the same crops as they have in the Midwest, South, or even parts of California. Our dairy farms are not very competitive with those in other parts of the country where they can operate at industrial scale. So, New England farming is more diversified with farmers growing multiple different crops or livestock, doing added value production like cheesemaking, and adding income through direct sales at farmers markets, farm stands and CSAs."

Smolak Farms in North Andover is a perfect example of what Langeveld cites.

"The retail operation here at Smolak Farms has been here since 1984. I actually grew up around the corner from the farm. It has always been here. Many of the other farms have disappeared, there are not too many left anymore. I feel that the local residents are very supportive of saving the farmland that is left. People are very very supportive locally in many ways," she said.

This year, Smolak Farms introduced a farm-to-table dinner series called "Whim - Garden to Gourmet" where each Wednesday a different celebrity chef from the Boston area comes up and prepares a meal using local ingredients for ticket-holders who dine in the comfort of an event tent in the farm's Pine Grove.

"It helps support the farm because, you know, many farmers can't survive just on their crops anymore so we have to do other things economically to make it viable as a business.," Stewart said.

At Smolak Farms, "the others things" includes an active CSA program with about 300 members who pick up vegetables and fruits weekly, a bustling farm stand, complete with a full-service bakery and a cafe serving breakfasts and lunches and its popular pick-your-own berry patches. The farm is known for its famous cider doughnuts and its ice cream stand is a favorite during the summer, she added.

"These are ways to support a local farm and be connected and know where your food is coming from," she said.

The business is always looking for ways to bring more customers to the farm during the summer months, she said.  Besides offering pick-year-own strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, the farm hosts birthday parties in its 100-year-old barn and hold weddings on-site as well, she said. Smolak Farms also offers picnics – where visitors can pick up a picnic basket filled with lunch, drinks, desserts and a quilt for an "old-fashioned" picnic on the farm. This past week, the farm served as the setting for a customer's plans to propose to his girlfriend during a picnic there, she said.

"The other aspect is festivals – that falls under agritourism," she said.

September and October account for approximately 80 percent of the farm's business with apple picking and sales, she said. The farm, owned by H. Michael Smolak, hosts a fall festival that brings in huge numbers of people from across the region, she said. 

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"Recently, we started doing a lot more of our fruit festivals. We just had a strawberry festival a couple of weeks ago that was very successful. People come to pick their own strawberries and we have a little festival – areas for the children with games, crafts and strawberry related things. And almost everything in the farm stand is strawberry – strawberry treats, strawberry shortcake, strawberry lemonade. Everything you can think of, with strawberries in it," Stewart said.

Smolak Farms has plans for a raspberry festival in July and then a blueberry festival following that. 

"That helps to sustain us during some of the slower periods. I think a lot of people think of Smolak Farms as an apple farm and they don't realize we have all these other crops as well."

Even with generation after generation of families buying from the farm, Stewart said she's seeing that farm-to-consumer connection growing more and more each year.

"I think people are looking for connections since everything has become texting and social media. I think people like that local connection more and more."

Other reasons Langeveld said that New England states score so high in the index are the region's concentration of colleges and university with more young, entrepreneurial people getting into farming and the food "sectors."

"The actual number of farms and people involved in farming has been growing throughout the country but particularly in New England. Much of this entrepreneurial activity involves direct sales to consumers rather than commodity production," he said.

In the region, more and more folks are trying urban agriculture, rooftop or indoor gardening and greenhouses "most of which are aimed at supplying local markets," he said. And as awareness of local foods grows, it encourages more production for local markets, Langeveld said.

While some grocery chains – such as Market Basket  and Whole Foods – have begun stocking locally grown foods and crops, Davidian said it's a tougher row to hoe for small farmers than direct sales. 

"What happened was people started going to local grocery stores and demanding locally grown stuff. To this day, they're still doing that. It's tough for farmers to get their foot in the door of grocery chains," he said.

"A lot of people start working with grocery stores but they start killing us on prices. They don't want to pay us what you'd have to get for it so it becomes a problem on a pricing side. We can't make enough money with the grocery stores so that's why we went into the CSAs and roadside stands and farm markets so we can do more direct sales. Yes, we're cutting out the middle man who is devaluing our product by bringing in stuff in from Mexico, or Central America."

10 reasons to buy local foods

Support: Buying local food keeps local farms healthy and creates jobs at farms, food processing and distribution centers.

Economy: Food dollars spent at local farms and producers stays local, creating more jobs.

Less travel: Local food travels much less to market than grocery store foods, uses less fuel and generates less greenhouse gases.

Less waste: Less food is wasted in distribution, warehousing and merchandising.

Fresher: Local food is fresher, healthier and tastes better, because it spends less time in transit.

Variety: Consumers discover interesting new foods, new recipes for different seasonal crops.

Genetics and soil: Encourages diversification of local agriculture which preserves genetic diversity and soil health.

Agritourism: Farmers markets, farm tours and local food producers help draw tourists.

Open space: Buying local food helps farms survive and thrive, keeps land from being redeveloped into suburban sprawl.

Connection: Local foods connect consumer with the farmers and food producers

by Joel Barrett [email protected]

July 10, 2016

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