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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Farm-to-restaurant gets a symbolic boost from state lawmakers

People like buying local food at farm stands and farmers markets, so why not at restaurants?

That’s the thought behind the small but growing farm-to-plate movement, in which eateries prominently feature the local places that provided their meat, eggs, veggies and fruits. It’s a big hit, both for the resulting quality of food and for the success doing what the industry calls “selling the story” to diners. ...

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People like buying local food at farm stands and farmers markets, so why not at restaurants?

That’s the thought behind the small but growing farm-to-plate movement, in which eateries prominently feature the local places that provided their meat, eggs, veggies and fruits. It’s a big hit, both for the resulting quality of food and for the success doing what the industry calls “selling the story” to diners.

“We absolutely have people come in for the idea of using the local providers,” said Aimee Paradise, a chef at MT’s Local Kitchen in Nashua.

MT’s is the only restaurant in Greater Nashua certified by New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection for the extent and consistency of its use of local foods, although many restaurants in the region feature some locally grown produce. They usually aren’t shy about trumpeting that fact, which can be a selling point.

“People are willing to pay more for local food,” said Charlie Burke, president of that group. “People coming up from New Jersey don’t want to go to a restaurant in New Hampshire and get the same food that comes off a truck in New Jersey.”

Policy backing

Farm-to-plate got a symbolic boost from the Legislature this year in Concord.

Lawmakers enthusiastically passed a bill titled “An act establishing the Granite State farm to plate program” but didn’t give it much substance.

The new law praises the concept for its health, environmental and economic benefits to the state and urges “to the extent possible, local governments shall consider the policy and principles of this section when adopting local law, or when enforcing existing law and regulation.” However, it changes no regulations, nor does it provide staff or money to bolster the idea.

The big benefit of the new law, said UNH professor John Carroll, a longtime supporter of local food, is that it gives farmers support when facing obstacles, such as planning regulations or other state agencies that have control over land use, or even court cases.

“It says that it’s official state policy that they be supported and encouraged. It becomes an important tool, in that sense,” Carroll said. “There’s nothing else in state governance that says it’s official state policy to do that, so this is new.”

Still, it falls short of Vermont’s farm-to-plate program, established in 2009, which provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in support within a detailed, decade-long strategic plan.

Keith Mayson Sarasin, creator of the Farmers Dinner series, thinks the New Hampshire law could help by providing an official stamp of approval.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not a big deal yet, but it certainly helps small farms. It encourages restaurants to source directly from local farms.”

The Farmers Dinner program works with about 30 New Hampshire farms to create special nights at restaurants celebrating local produce and meat. The next one will be held Sunday at XO on Elm, in Manchester.

“It’s kind of like a wine dinner,” he said.

One of the advantages to farmers, he added, is that it helps them with sales.

The Farmers Dinner program started in 2012 with an event at Nashua’s Saffron Bistro and has held 13 dinners so far. “Every one of them has been sold out,” Mayson Sarasin said.

Lots of farms

Hillsborough County has one of the nation’s highest rates of per-capita farms, although most are part-time or hobby farms, while farm stands and farmers markets have gone from being a novelty to being so prevalent that they figure in economic development planning. There’s no data about farm-to-table sales in New Hampshire, although it remains a small part of the local-food movement.

As a result, restaurants can find it hard to get enough of the right kind of food at the right time to meet local-food standards.

Burke pointed to Cotton, a Manchester restaurant that his group certifies. It specializes in dishes that require special cuts of meat, only a few of which are available on each cow.

“Can Cotton, serving a couple hundred people over the weekend, get all their meat from New Hampshire? Certainly not,” he said. “Fifty steers would have to be killed in New Hampshire each weekend to satisfy that.”

Due to a shortage in U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed slaughterhouses, New Hampshire doesn’t produce anywhere near enough beef cattle to supply such a need.

Three new USDA-licensed slaughterhouses have opened in New Hampshire in the past year, so this situation may change as herds are developed. But there remains a shortage of federal poultry slaughterhouses. Several portable chicken and turkey slaughterhouses exist, but they are limited in the number of birds they can legally process.

“It’s not as easy as backing up the truck … and getting lettuce to lightbulbs delivered by Sysco,” said Burke, referring to the huge food distributor.

Careful consumers

A lot of things aren’t easy, or at least straightforward, about local food production. Regulations and laws are still evolving, trying to balance the need for food safety with the desire for local food. In certain areas – notably raw milk – the debate can get contentious.

“It’s such a good thing, but these are fraught with difficulties,” said Heidi Peek, the city’s environmental health officer.

Peek said that as a descendant of farmers, she’s a big fan of locally grown food – but as a public health official, she’s a big worrier about contamination, especially with a product like chicken.

“Poultry is highest in the bacteria load,” she said. “How do you know the carcass wasn’t sitting out there at room temperature and salmonella was growing there like crazy? That’s the role of public health, to try and ensure that doesn’t happen.”

Even innocuous-sounding foods can sometimes be an issue. Raw sprouts, for example, are one of the most common sources of bacteria contamination involved in food recalls.

In general, any homegrown fruits and vegetables can be sold at farm stands and farmers markets in New Hampshire without any inspection or licensing.

“To a certain extent, this movement does require the consumer to be aware, to make sure they wash off the vegetables, cook the chicken well,” said Michael Dumond, chief of public health protection for New Hampshire, which includes food protection. “We want to give people an opportunity to get directly from a farm, but the particular risk you have with food is often microscopic, so you need to follow safe handling practices, safe preparation practices when you get it into your home.”

In New Hampshire, thanks to changes in legislation this year, you can now raise up to 1,000 rabbits a year for restaurants, and can peddle as much $20,000 worth of “non-potentially hazardous food” annually that you’ve made in your own kitchen – although Nashua, which unlike most places in New Hampshire does its own food inspections instead of depending on the state, limits it to temporary events like farmer’s markets.

This “homestead food” exemption was created by the state in 2012.

Nashua also limits sales of homegrown fruits and vegetables to whole, unprocessed plants. Once you start cutting them up, contamination is more likely, and a permit is needed.

As for selling raw dairy or eggs, let alone any meat, things get more complicated. This has long been one of the limitations to the local farm movement, because animal products usually provide the highest profit and income for agriculture; it’s more difficult to support a family on a farm that just sells plant-based foods.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).