By Jake Gehrung for the NH Food Alliance
“People are so disconnected from their food, that they don’t have any idea where it comes from, and how it gets there. Food system transparency has been lost.”
That’s Joanne Ducas, the owner of Mountain Heartbeet Farm in Effingham, NH, and vice president of The Mount Washington Valley Eaters & Growers (MWVEG). A collaborative organization of farmers and food advocates, MWVEG supports food producers in the Washington Valley region through a variety of communication and engagement efforts. Their market development work has helped consumers establish relationships with their local farmers, community, and environment, which has driven appreciation and demand for local food options.
Since her days as a student at UNH, Joanne has had a passion for food advocacy and ensuring healthy options for community members. Joanne apprenticed at a farm in Maine for a year, then helped manage a farm on the Seacoast for three years. Since then, she’s spent six years as the owner and primary farmer at Mountain Heartbeet.
“I wanted to be here,” she says, “I’m from New Hampshire, and I spent a lot of time in the Whites. Pre-farming career, I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club and before that I grew up hiking in the whites and wanted to be closer to the mountains.”
Through MWVEG, Joanne collaborates with other farmers and food advocates in the Mount Washington Valley to build connections between themselves and with consumers.
She explains that “We’re really hoping to push the needle. MWVEG’s role is to make farms and farming more visible in the region so that people know we’re here, know to ask for it and can actually see that there’s a difference in local food.”
To develop demand and awareness for local food, MWVEG has used a variety of communication tools. Using Facebook and a newly launched website with an interactive map, they have been able to reach consumers everywhere and deliver valuable updates from partner farmers and organizations. Most recently, the group has created awareness of local food options that remain available while many supermarket shelves are left empty. Thanks to their efforts, people can stay informed on community-supported agriculture (CSA) options and local food businesses that continue to supply food despite the challenges of COVID-19.
Additionally, MWVEG continues to find ways of connecting with consumers through local publications. They publish quarterly articles in the Mount Washington Valley VIBE, a lifestyle publication distributed at 170 locations. The group also publishes their own farm guide that features local farms and businesses. Individuals can pick up the guide at area farm stands, markets, and even real estate offices in the area, or can find it online.
Olivia Saunders, who works for UNH Cooperative Extension and is also a member of MWVEG, has heard from farmers about how this publication has been helpful.
“One of our poultry producers, like two weeks ago said, ‘Hey, someone came to the farm because they saw my name in the farm book!’” Olivia says.
Olivia was also able to explain how MWVEG has created a more personal eater-grower connection by hosting a variety of events and activities that allow community members to see all that local agriculture has to offer. Fields on the Saco, a fundraising event for the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust, is one key example. In October, the event hosts community members and serves food entirely sourced from nearby farms. It is a great opportunity to learn about local food options and get a taste for what options are available. Similarly, for the past 3 years MWVEG participated in the North Conway Chili Cook Off, which regularly attracts thousands of visitors. Over bowls of 100% locally-grown chili, farmers and other community members get to unite outside of the busy growing season. They even won “Best Vegetarian Chili” in 2017!
MWVEG is able to go the extra mile by giving consumers different opportunities to meet local farmers face-to-face and try their products.
As Olivia puts it, “I think on the farmer/grower end, they just appreciate having an organization around that can address their needs and create a community where they maybe didn’t feel like they had it before.”
Olivia says that MWVEG would benefit from getting more eaters into the group for a different perspective and improved communication channels. She also recognizes that, while this work is important year round, farmers within the MWVEG group have limited time and energy to devote to the group while running their own businesses.
“We’re just limited by capacity during the growing season, and we’re all doing a million things,” she acknowledges, “By design, we are a collaboration between eaters and growers. Only 1.3% of Americans are farmers, but everybody eats. We need support from our community to be able to offer the healthy and sustainable food and landscapes they are looking for.”
What we eat and drink every day has a significant effect on our health and livelihood, more than most of the products we purchase. By knowing our farmers, we can feel more confident in our food choices and trust the quality of the foods we buy.
As a farmer, Joanne understands the value of establishing quality relationships between eaters and growers. She says, “All of the smiles and hugs that I get every time I encounter someone in my community that I’m feeding…they are customers, but they’re my farm family. They’re my community.”
Photography by Emily Vaughn for the NH Food Alliance