Generally speaking, New Hampshire is a little behind the curve when it comes to organic farming.
Compared with Vermont and Maine, Granite State organic growers are fewer and farther between. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Integrity Database shows 147 operations in New Hampshire have been certified since 2002, when national certification began.
Vermont, a state with less than half the population of New Hampshire, boasts 724 certified organic farms. Maine, which is more comparable to New Hampshire in population but larger in size, has 545 certified organic farms.
Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire (NOFA-NH) staffer Monica Rico said that’s changing, albeit slowly.
“I think we have a growing movement with organic farming in New Hampshire,” she said. The data would seem to support that: There’s been a spike in certifications the past two years, on top of steady growth for over a decade.
In 2013, Rico’s Contoocook farm, Terra Organics, was added to the list.
The Henniker resident said she was slowly working up the corporate ladder when, five years ago, she had enough.
“At the time I was sort of working an office job and just didn’t want to continue,” she said. So she and her mother, Denise – who owned her own landscaping business – decided to start a small farm.
“(My mom) realized there was more value in growing food maybe than just focusing on aesthetic landscaping,” Rico said. “I quit my office job and we started farming together.”
The pair run an 11-acre organic vegetable, fruit and herb growing operation that sells produce at farmers markets and through CSA shares. Rico said she and her mother aimed for organic certification from the start.
“We feel it’s important for the health of the land and the health of consumers, to not use synthetic pesticides,” she said.
A few roadblocks
Rico said Terra Organics received its organic certification relatively quickly, due to their land being free of synthetic pesticides. On previously farmed soils, organic operations have to wait three years before they are eligible for USDA certification.
Even then, Rico said some farms that use organic practices don’t get the official certification.
“There’s definitely some controversy,” she said.
The root of the controversy is what the National Organics Standards Board allows and doesn’t allow to be considered organic, according to a November article in Food Safety News.
A parade of tractors in Vermont last October, for instance, protested the inclusion of hydroponics and aquaponics – plants not grown in soil – as eligible for organic certification.
“There are many growers that grow organically and responsibly and are not certified,” Rico said. “I think what’s most important is getting to know your farmer, and developing an understanding of where your food comes from.”
She added, “I think that’s the beauty of a local food system, and I also think that’s the responsibility of the consumer.”
Rico said she feels the organic movement suffers from the misconception that it’s more expensive. She added that she’s seen local, certified organic vegetables going for a lower price at the farmers market than the same item at the grocery store.
A 2015 Consumer Reports study found that organic food items averaged 47 percent more expensive, though there was a wide range. In some cases, like with honey, the organic product was cheaper.
Rico said items like organic meat might be more pricey, but even then, it’s worth it. “The food is fresh and therefore more nutritious,” she said. “Your dollars stay in the local economy, and it’s better for the environment – you’re not trucking the food thousands of miles.”
Accessing that sort of food isn’t always easy, though. Outside of the dozens of small farmers markets popping up all over the state, Rico said the broader population could be more directly connected to local, organic food.
“I think that breaking into larger markets is a challenge for our region right now,” she said. A report from Farm to Institution New England shows that just between 5 and 17 percent of the food budgets for hospitals, colleges and schools are spent on local food.
In addition, Food Solutions New England 2010 report showed just 6 percent of New Hampshire’s food supply is grown locally.
“What I think is needed is collaboration between farms, and not competition, to build a stronger regional food system,” Rico said.
One measure for increasing that collaboration is NOFA-NH’s annual Winter Conference, which is tomorrow, Saturday, at Rundlett Middle School in Concord. The daylong event offers workshops for organic farmers and gardeners and features keynote speaker Joel Salatin.
Among the workshops is a session about agriculture policy issues on the federal level and what the USDA, now under the Trump administration, could be like in the future.
“I personally am concerned,” Rico said. “There’s federally funded programs that affect local farmers. We’re at least looking to talk about those issues.”
Salatin’s keynote address will be offered as a model for what to do in the future. The Virginia farmer has a unique family farm where he uses no chemicals, raises animals and plants, and feeds more than 6,000 people in the area.
His methods are promoted as healing for the environment, for the local economy and for people.
“It’s a really great opportunity to network with others in the community,” Rico said. “Just spreading ideas and knowledge among farmers and gardeners and homesteaders.”
The members of Sweet Beet Farmstand in Bradford, for instance, will be there. They are building the regional Kearsarge Food Hub by working with more than 30 other farms and creating a distribution network with local institutions.
Rico said that in organic farming, connection – to each others, to our food, to the soil and ultimately, to the earth – is the central idea.
“Before I started farming, I was not necessarily in tune with the weather,” she said. “As soon as you have crops in the field, you are keenly in tune with the weather forecast of your natural environment in a way that I think is critical to human wellness.”
She added, “I think a lot of disease and unhappiness in our culture stems from a lack of connection with the natural world. So putting your hands in the soil is pretty therapeutic.”