CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire farms are less productive and profitable than those in Maine or Vermont but do a good job selling directly to an affluent, engaged population, according to a new report.
With interest in local food rising, the state Department of Agriculture had researchers at the University of New Hampshire analyze the economic impact of the New Hampshire food system, which includes about 81,000 people in farming, manufacturing, distribution or retail jobs.
Those four sectors of the food system account for 15 percent of the state’s nongovernment workers and together contribute 5.7 percent of the state’s economy, the report found.
The report cites several strengths and opportunities, including a wealthy population with a strong interest in the “buy local” movement. Residents generally are interested in preserving open space, and institutions such as hospitals and hotels show strong interest in supporting local food, researchers said.
New Hampshire farmers also are much more likely than farmers elsewhere to sell food directly to consumers at farm stands, farmers markets or “pick your own” operations. That direct marketing accounts for 12 percent of New Hampshire’s farm food sales, compared to just half a percent nationally, 3 percent in Maine and 4 percent in Vermont.
The flip side to those statistics, however, is that New Hampshire farms are less likely to have contracts with stores or restaurants that would bring in more money.
In 2007, only 30 percent of New Hampshire farms had positive net income, much lower than the U.S. average of 47 percent. Forty percent of Maine farms and 44 percent in Vermont turned a profit that year. New Hampshire’s economy would get a $70 million boost if its farms performed as well as Vermont’s, researchers said.
The report also analyzed local food production as a percentage of total food demand and found that just 6 percent of New Hampshire’s population could be supported by its current level of food production, compared to close to 40 percent in Maine and Vermont.
It recommended the state create a New Hampshire food council to establish a target for local food production and create partnerships among farms, manufacturers and retailers. And it listed more than a dozen activities that could increase local food production, including creating a business incubator to help new entrepreneurs in agriculture and food manufacturing and linking farms to hospitals, large employers and schools.
The report also recommends extending both the geographic scope and season of farmers markets, most of which run from June to September, and focusing on heirloom crops or high-margin specialty fruits and vegetables.
In Warner, Larry Pletcher of Vegetable Ranch already has implemented many of the recommendations and has seen them pay off. He said his organic vegetable were once a tough sell but now he has trouble keeping up with the demand. He supplies produce to several natural food markets, community-supported agriculture programs that run in both winter and summer and the Concord farmers market. He also is looking into supplying restaurants and schools.
Maine and Vermont have a much stronger agricultural infrastructure, he said, acknowledging that he gets many of his seeds, fertilizer and compost from those two states. But he also doesn’t face as much competition in New Hampshire and has managed to thrive.
“I sort of feel like I’m in the perfect situation. I’ve been here for a long time. We’re growing produce in a pocket where not that many people are growing produce where there’s a huge demand,” he said. “It’s good for us, but it is a difficulty for new people to get into it.”