Highlights from the Network: An Interview with Kearsarge Food Hub
The Kearsarge Food Hub in Bradford, NH, is a nonprofit organization working to build “a restorative food system,” as they call it, to rejuvenate the Kearsarge community by strengthening the local food system and it’s contributors. Their endeavors toward achieving this goal include operating the Sweet Beet Farm Stand and Sweet Beet Market, organic farming, forming partnerships with other organizations within the community, hosting educational events, and serving the local food pantries. The NH Food Alliance recently caught up with the owners to find out more about their unique business model and goals for the future.
A Cooperative Business Model
Through the Sweet Beet Farm Stand, the Kearsarge Food Hub is striving to organize and coordinate all the producers in their area, working with local farmers big and small to maintain quality, quantity and diversity in the market that is open 6 days a week in the summer. Their vision is to shrink the gap between consumers and their food sources by making it easy for producers to access the community and easy for the community to access the farmer. “We are trying to use the market to allow greater access to local food by having a market that is comprehensive...that has all kinds of food…that is a really good access point.”
The business is owned and managed by Garret Bauer, Pierre Hahn, France Hahn, and Hanna Koby, all NH natives, and Lauren Howard, who is originally from Maine. They come from varied backgrounds: Garret had an education in community and environmental planning and ecogastronomy, and Lauren has a biology and neuroscience background, which enhances their composting and soil building efforts. Kathleen Bigford, chairman of the board, is heading up the process of applying to become 501c3, which they anticipate will happen within the coming year. They are already registered as a non-profit in the state of NH.
The team spent a year researching and planning, and came up with the idea of a farm stand, which allowed them to explore the local food market with low investment and little regulatory conditions. They wanted to avoid taking out loans, which led to a more organic, community-support focused business model.
Sweet Beet Farm Stand opened on July 4, 2015, featuring goods from over 30 local producers within a 30-mile radius. In addition to including goods from established farmers, they also accepted produce from any gardener who had excess produce to share, in an effort to reduce food waste and increase community participation. Sweet Beet Market opened when the farm stand closed for the 2015 season, to offer continuous access to local goods during the off-season. Their first year was a huge success, grossing around $75,000 in its first season of operation. The team is currently not paying themselves a salary—any profit is used as capital to grow the business for the following year. Sweet Beet Farm Stand will be opening for its second season in Spring 2016.
The farm stand was a jumping off point to developing a more consistent, year-round local market somewhere down the road, eventually adding aggregation, storage and food processing to the operation.
Building Relationships Within the Community
Kearsarge Food Hub has received a great deal of support from members of the community who share their vision for improving access to local food. Notably, they have not had to pay for any of the land they use. They received access to three plots of land from like-minded community members who believe in their project. One member allowed them to set up the farm stand in his backyard, neighbors on either side allowed access for parking, and another local couple gave them property to farm up the street.
Recently, two community members (“Mike and Mike”) bought a historic inn in downtown Bradford, and have given it to the food hub to develop. They did this because they “just want to see it come alive again,” according to France. The inn has three floors, and the group envisions using the space to start a shared-use commercial kitchen and learning center, operate an incubator program for food-related business development, rent out space for functions, and renovate the top floor into apartments that could someday be used as housing for agritourism.
Garret is on the town planning board, and works closely with the town to further the connection between agriculture and consumers. The team wants to start an Agricultural Commission, which would allow them to have a voice in the local government. They understand that “If we are going to have any success not even on a local level, but on a global level, we need to systematically understand the problems.”
The team began building their relationships with local farmers when they opened the farm stand. They established loose agreements with a few farms and placed ads and hosted events to attract other local growers. Their relationships differ with different types of producers—they have informal commitments with some, partnerships with others, and sell on consignment or barter with others. At first, they were cautious about the types of agreements they entered into, but now that they have a better understanding of consumers’ needs and producers’ capabilities, they hope to establish more regular contracts and standardizing the process of exchanging goods (e.g., buying all of their cucumbers from one grower).
They have also worked on building their relationship with local institutions, like Colby-Sawyer College. Last year, they sold to Colby-Sawyer for their childcare program, providing access to locally produced snack foods. They are now in the beginning stages of working to incorporate local food into a small dining hall on campus. This will take time to develop, but helping local food move into institutions, like schools and hospitals, is going to be a main focus for the hub moving forward.
Farming for the Future
Currently, Kearsarge Food Hub farms approximately 2 of their 50 acres of land. Farming plays a large part in their future plans—“We don’t ever not want to be farmers,” Garret says. “I like processing food. I like to cook.” They follow organic practices, although they are not yet certified. They are trying to incorporate a permaculture perspective into their farming, engaging in on-farm experimentation with different techniques relating to things like soil building, composting, green manure and companion cropping. They have a particular interest in helping new crops and growing operations emerge to fill the market needs they observe by operating the farm stand, including growing foods not usually seen in the local markets (such as hazelnuts), grafting from their existing fruit trees, and utilizing wild plants like raspberries. He says, “It’s one of those no brainers that if you can grow them locally then you can find a market for them.”
Education is also an important component of the food hub’s mission. They have worked with a local first grade class, educating them about farming and seeds by helping them plant their own seeds and letting them grow on a plot at the farm stand. They hope to grow their relationship with Colby-Sawyer College, continuing to accept students for workdays on the farm and interns for summer-long positions at the Hub. They provide education at the farm stand and market by encouraging visitors to explore the gardens, participate in the process, and ask questions about the where the food comes from, how it’s grown, and who grows it. They will continue to build upon the educational component of their activities as they grow.