MEREDITH — The Belknap Foodshed was supposed to come last in Mary Macdonald’s plan. First they were going to acquire a portion of land at the former Laconia State School property, then they were going to open it for agriculture, then food processing, then sales, and lastly for aggregation and distribution of products grown elsewhere. Then the pandemic hit and that plan went into a deep freeze, so Macdonald and her family-run business decided to skip to the last part.
The Belknap Foodshed, operated by Genuine Local, a food processing business owned by Gavin and Mary Macdonald, is an online marketplace for local farmers and other producers. It opened this spring, said Clarissa Macdonald, director of opportunities for Genuine Local.
“Right now we’re selling a range of items, we’re adding more vendors each week, trying to support as many small businesses as possible,” Clarissa said. “It’s been about a month and a half now, we’re just starting to gain some serious traction now.”
The Belknap Foodshed opened at a time when many local farmers markets weren’t operating due to the additional measures that would have to be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, Mary noted, consumers are more interested in knowing where their food is coming from. But the coronavirus also halted any progress that Genuine Local was making toward its plan of establishing a local food hub on the State School land. A planning commission is currently analyzing different uses for the state-owned land, and a bill was going before the legislature this session to convert that commission into a development authority, which would have the ability to negotiate with interested tenants and expend funds to address environmental contamination. When the legislature ceased meeting earlier this year, that transition fell into limbo. So, Mary said, they decided to bring forward a market that would give consumers the ability to access products from many local producers in one location.
“It’s kind of like an online farmers market,” Mary said. Currently, there are baked goods and condiments, meats, lettuce greens, cheese, yogurt, soap, cocktail mixers, coffee and prepared meals. There will also be a few commodity items to complement the locally produced offerings, such as a bag of tortilla chips to go with salsas. “We’re adding more and more fresh things as more and more fresh things become available.”
Shoppers can go to genuinelocal.org/BelknapFoodshed/ to select and pay for their items, then select one of three places to pick up their order during a given time window: Genuine Local in Meredith from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Fridays; in the parking lot behind Wayfarer Coffee Roasters in Laconia from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Fridays, or at Purely Wholesome Farm in Loudon from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Alternatively, shoppers in Laconia or Meredith can elect to have Mr. C’s Taxi deliver their order to them for a modest charge.
How much potential is there for such a model? A lot, considering what Three Rivers Farmers Alliance has seen.
Three Rivers Farmers Alliance was founded by three Seacoast area farms who noticed that they were all delivering to the same restaurants. Rather than compete against each other – and as a way to minimize their collective time away from their farms – they came together to create a separate company that could market and deliver local farm products.
The Alliance was originally aimed at restaurants and other institutional customers. When the coronavirus shut down farmers markets, they updated their website to allow individual consumers to shop online and have their purchases delivered to their front door.
“We went to the home delivery system, to maintain our presence in the market, and the response was overwhelming,” said Andre Cantelmo, one of the owners of Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton, and an owner of the Alliance.
Home delivery service has more than replaced the volume lost when farmers markets closed – it’s exceeded it, Cantelmo said. They deliver to as far south as Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts, as far north as southern Maine, and as far west as Manchester and Concord.
Three Rivers Farmers Alliance has now grown to employ 25 people, Cantelmo said, many of those were furloughed restaurant workers. They have assembled boxes of orders for as many as 1,200 people per week.
The home delivery model provides multiple advantages. It replaces a marketplace that local farmers lost, but it also means that farmers don’t have to attend in-person markets or maintain a farmstand if they don’t want to. He suspected this would be especially helpful for small farms with just one or two people working, and for producers who want to specialize in just one product.
“There’s always a place for farmers markets,” Cantelmo said, but he added that the home deliveries will continue even after the markets are opened again. “We’ve decided to stick to home delivery going forward.”
The Belknap Foodshed is in its infancy compared to Three Rivers, but Clarissa at Genuine Local said the early results are promising.
“Getting to see so many local businesses grow and get new customers is great to see,” Clarissa said.