Big Banana brings fresh, local produce to Messer Street storefront

LACONIA — Without the grinning gorilla, the Big Banana, the popular fruit and vegetable stand that was a landmark at McIntyre Circle for years, has been reincarnated by Joanne McNulty, who recently opened an urban farmstand on Messer Street.

McNulty,, who farms some two-and-a-half acres on Gunstock Hill Road in Gilford remaining from the Rowe Farm — among the oldest in town — said that her daughter Patrice, now 29, started the business as a child. "She wanted a pony," McNulty recalled, "and we told her she would have to work for it. She began growing zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers," she continued. "Then she hitched the dog to her wagon and sold the vegetables to the neighbors." Patrice, who is pursuing her doctoral degree at the University of Maryland, not only got her pony, but paid a share of her college expenses.

Meanwhile, McNulty embarked on "community supported agriculture" (CSA), by which subscribers purchase shares of the anticipated harvest then collect their portions as the crops ripen. At the same time, she sold jams and jellies at area farmstands. She said that the CSA model proved very successful, but she was prohibited from operating a farmstand by the town zoning ordinance and the volume of traffic became something of a nuisance. "We just got too busy," she said. "We outgrew it."

The trade name Big Banana expired in 2003 and McNulty registered it with the New Hampshire Secretary of State in 2009, since when her CSA operation has gone that name. She said that the name will soon appear on sign marking the store.

On the eve of this year's harvest, McNulty rented space at 229 Messer St. where she intends to offer locally grown fruits and vegetables, along with fresh baked bread and pastries, jams and jellies as well as maple products, honey and coffee. She said that when she decided to open the store she posted a message on the New Hampshire Farm Bureau website that she was looking "for all kinds of stuff, including as much organic produce as I can get."

McNulty said that she was encouraged by the immediate response, which together with the produce from her farm, enabled her to offer a wide range of fruit and vegetables as well as breads, pies, maple syrup, soft drinks, coffee beans and honey, most grown and produced within a 35-mile radius of the shop. She said that she is seeking to make arrangements with a local butcher to provide a range of fresh, locally raised meats.

McNulty plans to remain open throughout the year with easy-to-store produce like potatoes, onions and squash along with carrots, parsnips, beets and turnips, which can be grown under hay and dug in the winter. She said she may also have vegetables raised in greenhouses.

"It's her business," said McNulty's husband Don, who is retired after a career as a financial executive with Catholic Medical Center in Manchester. "I just keep the books and manage the website," he said. "She's the boss."

CAPTION: Joanne McNulty hefts an ear of sweet corn and ripe tomato, just two of an array of fresh vegetables and fruits available at the Big Banana, the city's first urban farmstand. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/MIchael Kitch).