Published Date Written by Adam DrapchoLACONIA — When chef Kevin Halligan opened the Local Eatery in downtown Laconia, he centered his fine dining establishment around the concept of sourcing as many of the ingredients from producers as local as possible. His first few menus — they change every couple of weeks — set the standard by using ingredients that were about 80 percent local, produced in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont or, less frequently, Massachusetts.
Four out of every five ingredients produced locally set the Local Eatery apart. However, that was in August, prime harvest season for New England farmers. How would he be able to feed his diners come February?
Rocket from the greenhouse
Dilys Morris has been growing vegetables on her Alexandria homestead farm, Bear Mountain Farm, for two decades. For most of that time, the produce she cultivated was just enough to feed her household. Two years ago, though, she began to have surplus vegetables, and set about finding ways to market her organic produce. On one of her delivery runs to the Sunflower Health Food Store in Laconia, she noticed the sign for the Local Eatery while passing the old train station. Thinking the chef there might be interested in her mixed greens, she stopped in.
She was right. "He says he'll buy everything I grow," said Morris. Fortunately for both her and Halligan, Morris had spent the winter of 2011-2012 experimenting with cold growing, planting assorted greens in one of her small greenhouses. This winter, she was ready to transition to a recently built 30 feet by 60 feet greenhouse, which is currently yielding between 10 and 12 pounds of mixed salad greens each week. She grows lettuce, spinach, kale, a few Asian greens as well as arugula, a green also known as "rocket."
Morris expects the yield to rise as the days lengthen in the coming weeks, and next year she is planning to triple or quadruple her winter gardening.
For Morris, growing vegetables in the winter is something of a prayer answered. The greenhouses are kept warm only through passive solar heat, and since they already justify their own existence by housing lucrative crops such as tomatoes and melons in the warmer months, the only required investment for winter greens is her labor, something she is glad to provide.
"I feel so closed in in the winter. I love gardening, the smell of the earth, being in a warm, moist space." Going into her greenhouses every day is like transporting herself to a comfortable July day, she said, and it comes with the benefit of providing a revenue source during a period when she would otherwise have none. With an established relationship with the Local Eatery, she has the courage to plant more. "It's great, it gives me a market in the winter," she said, adding that she'll consult with Halligan as to which greens he would like her to plant. "It's really nice that way."
There are times when inspiration appears during periods of adversity, and such was the case with Eric Milligan. For the early part of his adult life, Milligan worked for periods as a laborer, getting work when and where he could get it, and saving his pay to fund backpacking trips abroad. Then he broke his leg, putting himself in position where he could neither work nor travel. Once he was healed enough to begin rehabilitation, he started taking walks in the woods, looking for wild mushrooms he could harvest and sell to restaurants. When he could find a healthy patch, it would be as profitable as stumbling upon a pile of gold. However, it was sporadic; sometimes he would get as much as his bag would carry, most times it was far less, though.
Milligan soon was well enough to hold a job as a boat cleaner at Melvin Village Marina, where he found himself working alongside Dennis Chesley, another seasoned mushroom forager. The two cultivated an idea that, seven years later and with the addition of six other investors, culminated last year in the formation of the New Hampshire Mushroom Company. During the summer, the company sought out and harvested wild mushrooms, but in the fall began the highly technical process of producing gourmet mushrooms in an indoor facility in Tamworth.
King oyster mushrooms, chestnut mushrooms, the exotic bear's head mushrooms, these aren't supermarket-grade white buttons. "It's very easy to grow mushrooms, it's very difficult to grow them correctly," he said. It's also very risky — they seek to create ideal circumstances for fungi to grow, but if the wrong fungus takes over, they've lost a week's worth of product. Which is probably why there's no other similar producer in northern New England, at least not on the same scale that the New Hampshire Mushroom company does business.
Currently, the facility turns out about 500 pounds of mushrooms each week. That rate will double within the next six months, and there's plenty of room to grow from there without needing to expand the facility. They sell to a few retailers, such as the Concord Food Co-op, the Local Grocer in North Conway and Heath's Market in Center Harbor. They also sell at farmer's market, such as the winter market in Tilton, where customers gladly pay $12 to $14 per pound for the fresh, pristine mushrooms. They also sell to many restaurants, such as the Halligan's Local Eatery in Laconia.
Despite the price premium — common button mushrooms sell for about $1 per pound on the wholesale market — the New Hampshire Mushroom Company is able to sell every pound of mushrooms it produces. Consistency and quality are jealously guarded, of course. But, said Chesley, "The locally-grown piece is one of the most important parts of the equation."
Halligan took a leap of faith when he opened the Local Eatery. He was banking the fortunes of his restaurant on the ability of local producers to provide his ingredients. While the current menu includes some extravagances that aren't locally available — artichokes, poblano peppers, walnuts — his ratio of four local ingredients to one out-of-towner has kept constant.
In the final quarter of 2012, Halligan estimates, he spent $65,000 with upwards of 50 producers based in northern New England, many of them quite close to home. Even in February, he's got product that is either greenhouse-grown, frozen or pulled out of root cellars. Cheeses, meats and seafood are of course available year-round. And, while he thinks he spent about 20 percent more on food than he would have if he purchased through conventional distributors, there's no doubt in his mind that the quality and freshness exceeds the price premium.
"The mixed greens that are available in the middle of winter, they're so beautiful," Halligan said. "The mushrooms, that's a great score." There have been some items that have proven frustrating. Duck, for example, he has to order from Canada, though he's trying to talk local growers into raising the birds for him.
Halligan's restaurant opened just in time to ride the cresting wave of small, local producers who are coming on the scene. The bar of his restaurant, for example, features the Sap House Meadery, White Birch Brewing Company, Hermit Woods Winery, Stone Gate Vineyards, all of which are New Hampshire producers which are still new on the scene.
Said Halligan, "I'm ecstatic about what we've been able to do. I can only see it getting better, to be honest. Every time I turn around, I see something else. Every day, it's getting better and better."
CAPTION for MUSHROOM in AA:
Eric Milligan, one of the owners of the New Hampshire Mushroom Company in Tamworth, displays a bear's head mushroom ready for harvest. The mushroom producer is one of dozens of local growers keeping the Local Eatery in Laconia supplied with ingredients. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)