Foodies, locavores, regional economic development advocates and fans of government entities doing what they were created to do: Unite. We have nothing to lose but our Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) dependencies. The University of New Hampshire is a land grant college and, as such, has the mission of guiding and educating New Hampshire’s agriculture community while researching new and improved agriculture techniques. The Thompson School of the University of New Hampshire plays a fundamental role in providing basic education, training and work skills to those in the fields of culinary arts & nutrition, horticulture technology, animal science, and forest technology. Durham with the USDA National Resources Conservation Service, Cooperative Extension, Agricultural Experiment Station, Thompson School and the University of New Hampshire is the intellectual agriculture capitol of New Hampshire and it should start acting that way.
I appreciate that the New Hampshire legislature is fairly narrow sighted in its view of the economic value created by an educated populace. This apparent stinginess has forced the University to seek alternative sources of revenues or face significantly curtailing various programs and perhaps even colleges. Most believe that education is the key component to long-term stability and success in the marketplace, that education and innovation and economic progress go hand in hand. While the economic future and ultimate viability of the University is being directed from behind the scenes another not so silent or invisible trend is gathering steam, namely gastronomy. Call it Slow Food, Eat Local, Locavore, whatever label you are comfortable with, but recognize that people are becoming more aware that they have absolutely no idea what they have been consuming or feeding to their children. This recent trend has already confronted cage breeding on the pig farm as Burger King plans to buy 20% of their pork from gestation crate-free producers by year’s end and has implemented a preference in their purchasing process for producers that do not confine breeding sows in gestation crates. Notably, Burger King has also implemented a purchasing preference for cage-free eggs thereby favoring producers that convert away from battery-cage confinement systems.
There is a good chance that our Federal Congress will reject GMO labeling requirements being proposed by a brave few. The fact that well over 50% of the US population wants GMO labeling really isn’t germane; apparently the best Congress that money can buy might reject the idea out of hand. Their logic does have merit after all; how smart can we be – we elected them? Only by knowing your farmer, your butcher, your baker, (you get it) will you ever have any confidence that you control what you are putting into your family’s body.
People in cities (other than Durham) are actually allowed to raise chickens in their backyards. People are attending informational sessions on rearing pigs, chickens, guinea hens, honey bees, etc. More and more libraries, churches, county extensions are offering home canning classes. Area restaurants have embraced buying fresh organic produce from a farmer that they know and from fields that they can inspect. Popper’s at the Mill in Newmarket offers snout to tail dining from locally raised pigs to accompany the locally grown produce. According to the owner, he is serving 2 pigs a week and he has just opened. School districts are embracing buying local produce as a way to ensure healthier options for their students. The University Dining Services has provided great leadership by engaging with local suppliers. They have implemented compostable plates and tableware and run a comprehensive composting operation on University land. This desire for food safety, security, to know how & where the food was raised has gone on too long to be a fad and is becoming too ingrained in the fabric of our society to be continually ignored by those funded and charged to be the State’s intellectual leaders of agriculture.
Attempting to salvage some of the budget, the University suggested Private Public Joint Ventures as a way to unlock some of the value in their underlying asset base. This led to a discussion suggesting moving of the Equine Center and elimination of the containment dairy farm and fields. In Durham, if you want to kill an idea dead in its track just start the whisper mill to work that a BIG BOX STORE is eyeing property in town. Granted the vast majority of Durham residents shop at Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s, BJs, Sam’s and even COSTCO, but God forbid that Durham’s elite would ever allow one in their backyard. The Town Council will talk about ‘green’ issues and ways to reduce our carbon footprint but look the other way as residents burn gas leaving town to go shopping. The real issue that the University must address is the number of outraged people rebelling at the thought of losing the equine center and a conversion of agriculture land to commercial retail operations, which was viewed as an abandonment of the land grant imperative. The Town has other opportunities to enhance the availability of retail shopping space within the classic downtown area so, unless the rumor mill is successful in derailing those options, there is no need to consume valuable agriculture land for non-agriculture purposes.
I have a few suggestions that should warm the hearts of agriculture supporters near and far, clearly support the land grant mission, have the potential to increase student enrollment and funding. Although these projects could be done by the University, I believe that Public Private Joint Ventures are more effective at building commercial mass and distribution, thereby achieving the initial commercial objectives in a much shorter timeframe that those managed solely by an educational institution. This approach would allow the University to focus on building out the educational opportunities that are a core part of the proposal.
First, build a USDA licensed abattoir that can serve the increasing population of pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens and geese being raised in southeastern New Hampshire, northeastern Massachusetts and southwestern Maine. Integrate these facilities with the Thompson School and create a charcuterie emphasis as part of the culinary program. Ensure that intern positions are available for those students wishing to pursue a career in butchery or abattoir management. Having USDA licensed processing will open the regional market for our farmers to area restaurants and retail stores.
Second, build a flour mill that can produce refined white flour in addition to whole grain. Integrate this operation with the University’s research program and work with the University of Vermont toward promoting the historic grains that flourished in northern New England before the advent of large-scale wheat farming in the Midwest. Educate the area grain farmers on the differences between feed grain and culinary grain. Introduce a baking emphasis as part of the Thompson School’s culinary program for those students wishing to focus on patisserie and boulangerie activities and working with these new grains develop effective recipes. Distribute these recipes and provide training sessions if needed to area bakeries, thereby creating markets for our local grain farmers that are effectively closed to them today.
Third, build a USDA licensed small-scale egg processor to expand the market reach of local free range poultry producers beyond the current market limitations of on farm sales and Farmers’ Markets. University Dining Services and local schools would be an immediate beneficiary closely followed by working families too busy to attend Farmers’ Markets or search out a farm stand and thereby must rely on the local grocery store for all of their needs. Local restaurants and independent grocery stores would quickly expand their offerings to accommodate these products.
It is time to step up and create the regional infrastructure necessary to leverage our dedicated, hard-working farmers and provide them a simpler, more efficient manner to access mainstream food distribution networks. Small scale agriculture processing and infrastructure would enable New Hampshire to begin down the path toward greater food security, creating local employment, enhancing the value of open spaces, preserving our rural character and life style all without creating a burden on local or State taxpayers. Small agriculture producers need fair, equitable and reliable access to markets. Let UNH know just how much you value knowing who handles the food on your table; support the abattoir, flour mill and small-scale egg processing proposals by writing to email@example.com . As my many southern friends say “You can’t hunt with the big dogs if you’re sleeping under the porch”.