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Meet Charlie Burke of New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection

Today we’d like to introduce you to Charlie Burke.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My wife and I retired to Sanbornton, NH in 2000. We had a lot of lands and began growing organically for personal use at Weather Hill Farm. In 2001 a farmers market was organized and I volunteered to help manage it. Shortly thereafter, Gail McWilliam Jellie approached our group suggesting that we organize the NH Farmers Market Association, which later came under the umbrella of NH Made. www.nhmade.com

Markets grew from 30 to nearly 100, and winter farmers markets soon followed in large numbers. This was significant because farmer then grew storage crops and greens for the winter, making local food available year round in New Hampshire. About the same time, we began selling to restaurants and understood the challenges of dealing with chefs and restaurant owners. I was also writing a weekly food/recipe column for theheartofnewengland.com, a free e-magazine.

Gail then approached me to put together an organization to promote local agricultural products to the public, retailers, schools, and restaurants. We met with interested farmers and a few Chefs, including Jeff Paige of the restaurant Cotton in Manchester. He and Gail had started a similar effort in the mid 90 s, but there was no real interest from chefs or retailers. The local food movement was gaining traction so we were able to identify chefs and farmers who were working together. We organized a board of directors and officers and registered with the Secretary of State as the NH Farm to Restaurant Connection and also became part of NH Made. We decided to focus initially on restaurants, believing that we could best promote awareness and interest in local farms through them.

Initially, we held Growers Dinners at restaurants interested in sourcing locally. These were rather high profile events, and we held them in different parts of the state for several years. We also promoted farmers markets at hospitals, held educational sessions for chefs and farmers at Farm and Forest Exposition, the largest yearly event for the agricultural community in NH. We gave talks for local groups such as Rotary Club and chambers of commerce. Matchmaking events for farmers and food producers and chefs, retailers, schools and hospitals were also successful

As interest in local food grew, chefs emulated our grower’s dinners, and these events became commonplace. At that time we began hearing chefs say that they bought local food when possible. We knew some were just saying this because it sounded good, and nobody wanted to say that they were still backing up the trucks from the large national distributors.

We then decided upon a certification program with a scoring system which was transparent and flexible enough to apply to various restaurants. Rachelle Lyons, then our intern and now our Vice `president, and I developed a scoring tool and tested it at a large, high volume restaurant, Cotton, a smaller bistro with a daily changing menu, a hotel conference center and a locally owned chain. We received feedback from these venues and made several modifications to the system and then invited application for Certified Local status. We incorporated our logo into certified local logos at four levels, Certified, and Certified at Silver, Gold and Platinum Levels and have certified nearly twenty restaurants. We have recently updated our website with an interactive map showing farms throughout the state as our certified restaurants.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Smooth has never been applicable to our efforts. We are a small not for profit in a state with neither an income or sales tax. For several years the goal of our legislators is to cut programs and budgets, and this has negatively impacted the NH Department of Agriculture, Foods and Markets, our primary partner and source of support. Much less funding for organizations such as ours is available than in our neighboring states.

Chefs and farmers are strongly opinionated and independent while working in two of the highest risk businesses. Farmers are very good at what they do on the farm, but marketing and distribution are challenges to most. We have worked to educate chefs and farmers to increase understanding. Chefs have learned seasonality, so they do not ask for strawberries and asparagus in October or request a farmer to plant specific crops when they have already bought seed and planned the season. Farmers now know not to walk into a restaurant with a basket of peppers at five thirty on a Friday when the chef and staff are facing a busy night They realize communication with chefs is vital, and they should give notice which crops are going to be available, how to package and deliver and to realize the challenges facing chefs.

Please tell us about New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection.
We are essential agents for the farmers and that agricultural community. You could say that we are best known for our relationships with the ag community and restaurants, schools, hospitals and retailers. We frequently get calls from growers or folks with value-added products seeking advice re where best to sell their product. We also frequently get requests from chefs, schools, etc for sources of product.

We are most proud of our advocacy of great New Hampshire farm products and being able to help hardworking farmers market their product. We feel we have increased awareness and demand for these products.

What sets apart is that we are an all-volunteer, not for profit, and do not charge for our services other than a small fee for an application for certification.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
I think we should have focused earlier on funding. In New Hampshire, many not for profit organization seek funding from the same limited sources, and grant application requires a skill set that I, as a retired physician, do not possess. Having a part-time paid position would have made a huge difference.

Contact Info:


Image Credit:

Jeff Paige ad

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