Foodstuffs: Local Food Website Shuts Down, Then Gets Rescued
In a plant-filled apartment in Lebanon during the heat wave this week, Helen Brody drank iced tea and recalled the rise and fall of the New Hampshire Farms Network (NHFN). She launched the website in 2008, to nurture local food culture at a time when “local food” was barely a thing.
For the past decade, the NHFN website had been a source of in-depth profiles on New Hampshire farmers and their families. This April, it closed down, although the New Hampshire Historical Society recently made plans to acquire the profiles.
“I thought. . .if a customer knew more about the farm, they would become more loyal to the farm,” explains Brody. Farms naturally have good years and bad years, and loyal customers keep farms afloat through those bad years.
Especially, Brody says, “if the customer had become so involved with the farm and its background, and the family, and the house, and what they grew. . . if something should happen to that farm, that customer would work very hard to prevent that farm from folding."
To foster that relationship, Brody encouraged her writers to get up close—to capture life on local farms in full detail. Martha Lorden, a culinary historian and food writer, wrote a profile of Many Summers Farm in Cornish, in which she detailed the living quarters of the farm's owners: “Entering this open-concept living space above the milking parlor and cheese kitchen, one encounters an old boot jack and a barrage of boots lined up in the stairwell: muck boots and wellies, leather work boots, and riding boots. They paint a portrait of hard-working folks, and the rustic kitchen area houses further evidence. Potted seedlings readied for spring planting are everywhere. Jarred preserves sit in open cupboards.”
The website grew rapidly. More and more farmers wrote to Brody asking to be profiled. Brody always insisted on paying her writers. She was writing a lot of the profiles herself, too. “Oh, don’t even talk to me about how many hours a day this was… I was up all hours of the night trying to get these profiles written, trying to get them up there.”
The site ran on grant funding, and money was tight. Potential sponsors, and even her own grant writers, weren’t always convinced that profiling a farm produced a real increase in revenue for that farm. Brody admits they didn’t have any way to prove the financial benefit of online publicity.
Funding dried up, and Brody couldn’t keep paying her writers. By April of this year, she dissolved the nonprofit.
“It is a shame that I’m hearing of them closing," says Heather Gallagher, who runs Many Summers Farm with her husband. She says the profile gave her farm exposure it didn’t have before--neighbors and customers noticed it. And, she says, closing down the site will have consequences for the farming community. “I think it will make a huge difference for educating the general public as to what farms are in this day and age.”
Brody worried these profiles would languish on the internet. So she reached out to the New Hampshire Historical Society, and they agreed to preserve the profiles in their public archive.
Brody is retiring now, but she hopes somebody, someday will continue writing about farmers. “New Hampshire’s an agricultural state, a rural state, and always will be…I think people will always be interested in farms.”
The Historical Society does not plan to commission any new profiles, but it will make all of the existing profiles publicly available online. For NHPR, I’m Ben Henry.