While national interest in agriculture has declined over the past five years, the US Department of Agriculture reports a five percent increase in New Hampshire farms.
And those farmers who open roadside farmstands reap the benefits of the local food movement. But this traditional venture has become a point of contention—and an item on the Town Meeting ballot—for the town of Canterbury.
What Makes A Farmstand A Farmstand?
The question Canterbury residents will wrestle with Tuesday might sound odd to an outsider. It’s an ordinance change that boils down to: What’s the difference between a roadside farmstand and a convenience store? While it might seem obvious—you don’t buy Slurpees at farmstands or sweet corn at 7-Eleven—in Canterbury, it isn’t clear. That’s according to selectman and planning board representative Tyson Miller.
“One of the first problems with it is that it no longer really, is consistent with the state regulations. We require, for example, that a majority of the product sold at the farmstand be grown on the owner’s property. A majority has been taken as 50 percent or more," Miller says. "The state RSA, which is trying to be easy on farmers, says that 35 percent need to be grown on the farmer’s property.”
He says that makes the 50 percent rule unenforceable, since state law trumps town ordinance. But the big question for the town--the convenience store question--has to do with the rest of what’s for sale at a farm stand. Right now, Canterbury takes a purist line, saying the other half of farmstand inventory has to be locally grown. Miller says that leaves out a lot— like country craft and gift items.
“The argument that well then the state law doesn’t really talk about what the rest of it can be, well, I don’t think anyone wants the rest of it to be anything," he says with a chuckle. "The purpose is to allow a farmstand in a zoning area that doesn’t normally allow commercial sales, such as convenience stores. We want to maintain a definition that doesn’t allow convenience stores or other types of product sales in a zoning area where residents don’t want it.”
So the Town Planning Board decided to put the issue before voters. Cribbing from the state’s Handbook for Sustainable Development, the proposed ordinance says the remaining 65 percent of farmstand inventory should be “agriculturally related.” And they provide a list of examples—cheeses, baked goods, country crafts, gardening tools.
Although he shies away from words like “divisive,” Miller admits there are some strong opinions among farmers in town. And it’s a touchy issue. Some farmers are concerned they’ll have to open their books to zoning enforcers—they won’t. Or that the list just muddies things. After all, why fix what isn’t broken?
“The vast, vast majority are almost one hundred percent locally grown. So it isn’t a question," he says. "There was one case in particular that I think the zoning board could’ve had more direction on what a farmstand is, versus a commercial retail outlet."
That case, he says, was Running Fox Farm.
Violations and Vagaries
Dave Conway co-owns it with his wife, Claudia.
Since buying the farm in 2007, Conway and his wife have been steadily building their business. They focus on growing day lilies, with a sideline in supplying organic fruits and vegetables to a local restaurant and nearby food co-op. The year after moving in, they opened their farmstand. The Conways were anxious to diversify, and they figured converting their old barn was a good place to start. They started by carrying flowers, tomato plants, and homemade food.
“Then we got involved in bringing in other local farmers’ products. Because we don’t have enough maple trees trees to be able to do the maple syrup here, so we’ve got some maple syrups, locally, and then we dealt with some of the people that deal with garlic in the town," Conway says. "So we kind of wanted to co-market products and things like that. That was the beginning, you know, of everything.”
Eventually, the stand came to the attention of the Planning Board.
“I would say going back…there were a few gift-type items that I guess they didn’t want us to sell, that type of thing,” he says.
Conway says they were asked to file a home business application with the planning board--which was rejected. For three years, he says he struggled with getting a clear definition of what was allowed. Eventually, he got so frustrated he closed the farmstand altogether for the 2012 season.
“Because at other farmstands that I visited all across the state, in New England, on the East Coast, the ones that are the most successful are the ones that are the most diversified. By far. And they have to bring products from other local sources to make that work. Because you just can’t do everything yourselves," he says.
Frustrated with the planning board, Conway took his concerns to the Town Planner and the Selectmen. And after a public hearing and a unanimous vote from the planning board, the issue wound up on the March 11 ballot.
Although Conway thinks the term “agriculturally related” is still a bit vague, he plans on voting for it.
An Issue Bigger Than Town Meeting
Joan O’Connor sits on the board of directors for the Northeast Organic Farming Association in New Hampshire. She farms, directs farmers' markets, and has run a farmstand herself. And she says farmstand rules can vary widely from town to town. O’Connor supports Canterbury laying out clearer regulations, especially as more Granite Staters go into farming. But whether it’s agri-tourism, farmstands, or farmers' markets, O'Connor says making the area farm friendly takes more than town votes.
“The state really has to firm up some of these--the wording of these things. I mean, those lawyers pull out one or two words out of the reg, and you know, make things challenging for all of us,” she says.
Questions about farmstands aren’t confined to Canterbury. Pembroke voters will also take up the issue Tuesday. Right now, the town requires a farmer selling produce out of the back of a truck or a cart to have a special vendor’s license. A proposal would remove that requirement. And in Francestown in Hillsborough County, a warrant article up for vote would zone farmstands as a permitted use, “instead of a use by special exception.”