You Asked, We Answered: What's Going On With The Farm-To-Table Movement In N.H.?

Dec 22, 2017

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It was the mid nineteen nineties. Gail McWilliam Jellie had a new job. She just started working for the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, and part of her job was to meet with farmers and find out what challenges they were facing and how the state might be able to help.

"I was new here, and talking with farmers about what they would like to see in the marketing end of things," she says. "I heard a lot from farmers that they would love to be able to sell to restaurants."

That was a new idea then. Restaurants were not buying food from local farms, they were having it shipped in through big, efficient national distributors.

Sure, New Hampshire has lots of little farms, and even a few bigger operations, but it’s not the Midwest. You couldn’t go to a restaurant and get a salad with New Hampshire greens.

"And so we attempted to have sort of a matchmaking meeting, if you will. We invited restaurants to come and farmers to come. And we got a lot of farmers to com e and not a whole lot of restaurants, at that point in time."

Tomatoes at a farmers market in Mason
Credit Elaine Grant for NHPR

Farmers had a pretty clear reason to come to the table. They wanted more ways to put their food on people’s plates, and if it could stay right here in the state, all the better. So, why weren’t restaurants biting at the opportunity?

"It’s hard to say," Gail explains. "Obviously the producer end of it was looking for that opportunity, and maybe the demand wasn’t out there yet from the consumer looking for the local experience. For whatever reason, the restaurants weren’t looking for that and ready for that."

Twenty years later, take a walk around Manchester, or Nashua, or Portsmouth, and you’ll be dodging sidewalk chalkboards hawking local ciders, squashes and cheeses - and throwing around the hard-to-define term “farm to table” on menus and ads.

So what changed?

As part of our continuing series Only in New Hampshire, in which we answer questions posed by listeners, we decided to tackle this one:

"What’s going on with the Farm to Table movement in New Hampshire? How can you tell what’s just advertising flair, and what’s real, local food?”

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

The first step to getting the answer was to talk to Gail McWilliam Jellie. Back in the early 2000s, she was part of a small group of people that sort of built the foundation for local food in New Hampshire.

That group was called the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection, and it started around 2004.

"There was a group of us having a meeting and talking about what we could do to further opportunities for farmers, particularly with restaurants," Gail says.

The group of a dozen or so people included farmers, chefs, dietitians, local food advocates, all people who wanted, for various reasons, to improve the food that the rest of us were eating.

So, how did they start doing that?

"Because of the early failures to bring people together in a meeting, we felt that illustrating the value of local foods was the way to go. We decided on a concept we called growers dinners."

Nationwide, the idea of local food was catching on. And now someone in New Hampshire had proven that it could work here.

NHPR partnered with The Farmers Dinner for a local food celebration of the station's 35th anniversary.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

But when it comes down to actually shopping for food, figuring out what "farm to table" means is complicated. Especially when big food corporations started ad campaigns that seemed to be sending mixed messages.

A New Hampshire law defines the term “local food” as being food from within the borders of New Hampshire. But it was written before the phrase “farm to table” was popular. 

So, fast food chains and big agriculture can throw around from using the same language and imagery in their ads, without many restrictions. to help market and sell their products.

To be clear, this isn’t totally new, food packaging has been adorned with smiling farmers and green pastures for ages, and companies always play to whatever health trend is popular at the moment. Farm to table is just the latest idea to be ingested into the mainstream.

Still, this changed the meaning of the term "farm to table." If it wasn’t a buzzword already, now it is.Even with small restaurants, distinguishing marketing gimmicks from authentic food is a problem. A place might bill itself as farm to table, but does that mean that one of the ingredients on your plate came from a nearby farm, or all of them? And how close does that farm have to be to be local?

If a company really wants to lie to you, or just bend the truth, it probably can.

Watch: Just how "farm to table" can a big mayo brand be?

Gail and the others over at the Farm to Restaurant Connection realized this was a problem, and they had an idea. They thought, let’s be the referee. Let’s go to restaurants that say they’re local, ask them about what they serve, and grade them on how much they’re actually supporting local farms.

Rachelle Lyons was still in college at Plymouth State when the Farm to Restaurant Connection asked her to design a system to do this. She’s now a professor at Plymouth.

"The term "local" or "farm to table" can really be used in ways that are really subjective. And we wanted to create some objective criteria that would define for the consumer, what does it really mean to visit this restaurant that’s certified as a local restaurant?"

Here’s what they came up with: They made a point system. You got local produce? You get some points. Specifically, anywhere from two to ten points, depending on how much and how often you have it.

Got local meat? Another two to ten points for you.

Seafood, dairy, maple, honey, beer… all these things can net you some points with Rachelle. Restaurants that have lots of variety in their local products, and can offer them consistently, they wind up with a lot of points.

This was a totally voluntary process. Rachelle and company were not showing up like a SWAT team and shaming restaurants that didn’t buy local.

In fact so far, only 15 restaurants have volunteered to be certified. So it’s not some kind of statewide directory.

At the end of the day, if you got enough points, you get a window sticker, and you get to say that you passed the test. You also get a listing on the NH Farm to Restaurant website.

But The Farm to Restaurant Connection can only do so much. And they’re no longer doing things like the Growers Dinners, events to promote local food and raise awareness.

A when Rachelle is asked to grade her own grading system, she acknowledges it's not perfect.

"A seven out of ten."

Do you have a question about New Hampshire or your Granite State community? Submit it at our Only in NH project page, and we could answer it in a future story!