New England farmers look for creative ways to grow
DEERFIELD, Mass. -- Atlas Farm is growing more than just food -- it is growing its business in ways that bring it more in touch with the everyday consumers it, and all New England farms, needs to survive.
Owner Gideon Porth, who has farmed 55 acres of land on the Connecticut River here since 2006, has bought 40 acres of cropland and a retail farm stand on Route 5 that he plans to open in May. The land and greenhouses on Route 5 will be vital, he said, since they are on the busiest road in his part of Franklin County, and because direct marketing is crucial not just for him, but for farmers all over New England.
"Our farm for the last five or six years has gotten more into wholesale production and sales," he said.
Wholesalers, those who buy produce and move it on to supermarkets, restaurants or to specialty retailers such as Whole Foods, have grown to about two-thirds of Porth's business, he said. Direct-to-consumer channels such as farm shares and farmers markets, as close as Northampton and as far away as Boston, are just a third of the business.
"But wholesale business is less stable," Porth said. "I feel like it is a lot less reliable in certain ways. You are competing in a global marketplace with fresh produce."
Global marketplace? In the organic vegetable business with its hippie ethos?
"Even in the organic world," Porth said. "There are big players in organics these days. If there is cheap organic lettuce coming out of California, we are subject to those pressures. And in California there are 5,000-acre lettuce farms."
He'll also bring the farm-share concept to the stand. Traditional farm shares allow people to pay upfront for a share of a farm's harvest. People get a box of vegetables every week or so.
The stand share will allow folks to pay up front for a selection of produce from the stand, Porth said.
That pressure to compete in a global marketplace with fresh, locally grown food is why more than 500 farmers and aspiring farmers from all six New England States gathered late last month in Sturbridge for the Harvest New England Agricultural Marketing Conference and Trade Show. Attendees ranged from farmers with hundreds of dairy cattle to a woman who raises vegetables on two vacant city lots in Providence, R.I.
It featured seminars and talks from people who have successfully marketed New England food both here and outside the region.
Massachusetts statistics show that there are 7,700 farms in the state. Most are small, averaging just 68 acres in size. Just 1,700 of those farms were big enough to require any hired labor. The total cash receipts from all 7,700 farms totaled $489 million in 2011.
Linda M. Paquette, of Hampden, bought a plot of land in two years ago. She calls it Scantic River Farm and hopes to grow herbs and vegetables. But so far most of her income comes from selling fresh eggs. A nurse by profession, she grew up in Springfield.
"I just always wanted to be a farmer," she said.
And there were plenty of vendors at the show willing to help out, ranging from Oesco, an orchard supply company in Conway with a selection of ladders and cider presses, to companies with seed trays. Then there was Jean McCarthy with North Woods Animal Treats of Keene, N.H., who was looking to wholesale doggy treats to farm store owners looking for impulse-buy items to stock near the cash register.
"All these people want to have retail operations," she said. "All these people might be looking for more things to sell at those retail operations. All the people who are interested in natural foods and would go to those farm retail operations might also be interested in natural pet treats. It is a natural fit."
The future of, and the possible undoing of, New England's farms is in the hands of those health-and-nature conscious customers, said Lorraine Stuart Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food.
"There is a great opportunity today to get people to eat fresh, local foods," she said. "It is not a fad. Once a person starts, they never go back."
But all those local customers also pose a threat. They like to buy houses, houses that take up land.
"This drives our high cost of land," she said during a roundtable forum with heads of the agriculture departments from all six New England States. "It is very expensive."
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said direct marketing can also bring culture clashes. He reminded the crowd of farmers that Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., was faced with death threats last year after word got out on social media that the college was going to put down an aged working ox and serve the beast in the dining hall.
"This is the mentality you are dealing with," he said to the snickers of a knowing audience. "People think their food magically appears at the grocery store."
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