Food system: what sustains us

  • Vegetable Ranch farmer Larry Pletcher walks past his high tunnel greenhouse in Warner on Thursday.  ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Larry Pletcher makes a great effort to get his certified organic produce into local homes through the Concord Food Co-op, farmers markets, and a CSA. He works with Concord Hospital and Hopkinton School district, though has a more difficult time collaborating with college campuses.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Cherry tomato plants grow in a Vegetable Ranch greenhouse Thursday. Many will go to Concord Hospital’s salad bar.  ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • A “freedom ranger” chicken wanders around in the sun at Vegetable Ranch in Warner Thursdsay.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/22/2016 1:41:59 AM

When people ask Tom Kelly what sustainability is all about, he asks them to think in return: What sustains us?

Our food system, he says, is one of those things.

It’s one of the four core focuses for Kelly, who founded the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute in the late 1990s.

“The food system is a structural piece of sustainability, not an optional piece,” Kelly said. As it is today, however, food that’s cheap, convenient and easy to access most often is not local, nutritious or in support of nearby land or farmers.

It is, in other words, not sustainable.

“I think people are becoming more and more aware that the dominant food system is in conflict with their values,” Kelly said.

Take the Vegetable Ranch, a Warner farm selling organic certified produce, meat and eggs. Owner Larry Pletcher sells his products to people who visit his farm and farmers markets, others who participate in community-supported agriculture programs, and those who shop at the Concord Food Co-op.

He goes out of his way to work with different institutions and has a “nice partnership” with Concord Hospital, where he sends vegetables for the salad bar.

Pletcher hasn’t had so much luck with college campuses.

“It’s hard to crack,” he said while standing in the door of his high tunnel greenhouse Thursday. Food service contracts and a requirement to go through a distributor, Pletcher added, “makes it really impossible for a farm like this to do much of anything.”

Those barriers are what the Sustainability Institute is trying to eradicate. In the beginning, Kelly said, it was simply acknowledging that agriculture was still important.

“There was a trend . . . that we were sort of post-agriculture,” he said. “Agriculture was starting to be talked about as an old-fashioned thing.”

Following symposiums, citizen panels, the formation of a certified organic dairy program at UNH and other new programs, Kelly said attitudes have changed dramatically.

“We’re seeing so many more people participating in the local food system,” he said. “It’s transformed over the last 15 years. People are making the connection now to health, quality of life, quality of food and community.”

The institute has helped usher along both those cultural and practical changes. It introduced the idea of getting local fruit and vegetables into school cafeterias, for instance, with its New Hampshire Farm to School Program beginning in 2004.

“It started with apples,” said project director Stacey Purslow. “It sounds so simple, and you cannot imagine how unsimple it was.”

She had to find the economic incentives for growers to allow their dropped apples to be diverted to schools and had to persuade schools to break out of their food service infrastructure and participate.

New Hampshire Farm to School now works with 320 schools and has diversified with local meat, fish and vegetables. Pletcher, for instance, provides some chard, kale, salad greens and various root vegetables to the Hopkinton School District each fall.

Next steps

While the Sustainability Institute has several different food-related programs in place – including a gleaning network that rescued 100,000 pounds of fresh food that growers and farmers couldn’t harvest in 2015 and sent it to food pantries, summer feeding programs and schools – they’re all working toward a common goal: making connections to create more functionality and sustainability in the food system.

The institute’s New Hampshire Food Alliance, a program created in 2012, is in the beginning stages of its first initiative: “Farm, Fish, & Food Enterprise Viability in New Hampshire.” Project coordinator Erin Allgood said the initiative takes advantage of opportunities for food providers and sellers to collaborate.

“There was all of this innovation going on in pockets all over our state,” Allgood said. “People were fragmented from one another.”

Brookford Farm in Canterbury, for instance – through Sea Grant, the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund and New Hampshire Community Seafood – started distributing community-supported fishery shares inland.

In addition to Brookford Farm gaining more visitors, Allgood said it has doubled CSF shares.

“Once you start connecting people, there are all sorts of things that happen spontaneously for good,” Kelly said.

The bigger aim, according to the “New England Food Vision” that Kelly helped write, is to get New Hampshire, which currently produces about 10 percent of its food supply, producing closer to 50 percent of everything we eat.

“It’s a big, juicy fun thing to work on,” Kelly said.

This vision – and the other core programs on climate, culture and biodiversity – appear to be embraced more and more by Granite Staters.

“There’s a growing sense of just how vulnerable our New England food system is – how dependent we are on far away places,” Kelly said. “Now they’re starting to see there’s an alternative to that.”

Pletcher at the Vegetable Ranch is among them. The vision of a single food system in New Hampshire where local, nutritious food is easily accessible and affordable is what it’s all about.

“It’d be great,” he said. “It makes sense.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

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