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Study to look at feasibility of Boscawen-based community kitchen

A space for farmers to can their vegetables for sale, or a kitchen with a convection oven to bake and package pies filled with locally grown fruit.

The definition of a community kitchen depends largely on the people using the space. In Boscawen, a feasibility study will look at the prospect of a community kitchen to serve farmers, bakers and agricultural entrepreneurs in Merrimack County and the Kearsarge region. The Capital Regional Development Council is soliciting proposals for the grant-funded study, which should be completed in six months. It will look at the demand for a food processing space, potential costs and potential sources for financing and sustainability.

“We’re trying to offer a service that would help local agriculture become more economically viable,” said John Keegan, chairman of Boscawen’s Agricultural Commission. “A lot of local farmers do a good job of producing and coming up with product for summer sales and farmers markets, but if you have three bushels of corn and you can’t sell them at the market and you don’t have wholesale, the value falls pretty quickly.”

The study follows a 2012 Colby-Sawyer College report that looked at 63 farms in a 12-mile radius around Mount Kearsarge. The study found, in part, that a recurring barrier for farmers was a lack of a processing plant. The “food hub” would have space for food processing and storage. According to the report, community kitchens are usually made up of businesses and organizations that support each other in the agricultural committee.

Having a kitchen would eliminate the steep overhead costs of kitchen equipment for farmers or bakers selling products on a small scale, said Boscawen Land Use Coordinator Alan Hardy.

“If you were raising cucumbers and you wanted to become the pickle man of Boscawen, this would allow you a commercial kitchen to process the raw cucumber into a pickle,” he said. “That’s what this study is about: Is it practical? There’s still a fair amount of work that has to be done to see if the concept is viable.”

Questions will likely outweigh answers until the study’s completion, Hardy said. Possible locations, as well as who would pay to build something new or retrofit an existing space, will be determined later. Aside from costs, finding anchor tenants to rent the space on a steady basis is critical to making a sustainable operation, Keegan said.

“We’re not looking at a public subsidy for this. If it’s going to operate, it’s going to operate as a viable entity,” Keegan said.

For an example of a successful community kitchen model, look to the multi-use Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, Vt. The nonprofit offers three fully licensed commercial kitchens, packing services and processing assistance. The 15,000-square-foot space has hot and cold storage, a packaging facility and a bakery.

The prospect of a community kitchen is something many farmers would support, said Larry Pletcher, owner of the Vegetable Ranch in Warner. Pletcher grows spinach, squash, peppers and other vegetables on more than 125 acres. He built a walk-in cooler to keep his crops longer, but cost and space can be prohibitive.

“If we have 75 pounds of excess green beans, we can take them to a commercial kitchen with a flash freeze unit and freeze them for the winter. It’s a good opportunity for farmers,” he said.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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