MANCHESTER, NH — After years of sitting idle, an abandoned building on Spruce Street is about to get a “Fresh Start.” A partnership between Neighborworks Southern New Hampshire and Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success (ORIS) is transforming the long-empty building into a production hub for Fresh Start Farms.
Fresh Start Farms is a program run by ORIS that provides plots of land for refugee farmers. They own a large farm in Dunbarton where refugee farmers living in Manchester grow fresh produce to sell at farmers markets. They run a second program for refugees living in Concord on land at St. Paul’s School. Last year they launched the Fresh Start Food Cart mobile market program which brings direct sales of fresh produce to underserved areas by truck. That program is expected to expand to Concord this year.
According to program director Jameson Small, for several years the Fresh Start Program has been looking into building a center of operations where farmers could wash, package, and store their produce. Currently there is no refrigeration available to the farmers and it poses a real problem for them. “Right now anything they can’t sell on a given day at the farmers market has to be thrown out, so a lot of good food goes to waste.” Small said.
The new Fresh Start Farms Hub will provide short term storage for the growing season, but also long-term storage for items like carrots, squash and other crops that can be stored and sold throughout the winter. “Right now our farmers make most of their income during an 18-week window. With this new facility they could stretch that to 50 weeks,” Small said.
The building will also house classroom space and a kitchen. During the off-season classes are held for the farmers on topics ranging from setting up a farm stand to filing tax returns. These will now be held in the Hub.
Small noted that many of the farmers grow specialty foods that are specific to the regions of Africa where they were born. One particular type of eggplant is such a hot commodity that New Hampshire farmers pack them up and send them to Somalis living in Arizona. Another woman grows a variety of African corn that she would like to dry and grind into cornmeal and sell as a packaged product. This facility will give her that opportunity.
The new Hub will also serve as a staging program for the mobile market and the Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. Individuals purchase shares in the CSA and receive a box of fresh produce every week during the season. Fresh Start offers home delivery or members will be able to pick up their share at the Hub.
According to Small the coronavirus has spurred an increase in CSA memberships. Last week sign-ups exceeded the number of people who signed up during the entire month of April in 2019. He is unsure how much of the increase is due to the COVID-19 outbreak and how much is related to people discovering an appreciation for locally-produced food. If the new signups are generated by anxiety over the virus, he fears people may drop out when the crisis is over. “Our plan is to wow them with great food, so we can retain them,” he said.
Even with the increase in members, they are not concerned about having enough food. The community of small farmers in the state is pretty close and they believe they will be able to supplement their own production with vegetables from other farmers. They might have to cap the home delivery service at 200 farm shares for logistical reasons.
Small also wanted to point out the CSA shares can be paid for with SNAP benefits and participants can double their buying power through the Granite State Market Match program. Interested people, who are struggling during the COVID-19 induced financial crisis, should sign up on the website and note in the comment section that they will need financial help to pay for their share.
The building renovation itself was a project of Neighborworks Southern New Hampshire. According to Neighborworks Neighborhood Development Director Jennifer Vadney, they had been trying to buy the building for years. They own and rent 98 apartments in the immediate area and wanted to ensure that whatever happened with the building would be a benefit to the neighborhood.
The building had tax liens, but circumstances made it impossible for the city to take possession of it. Finally, in June of 2019 Neighborworks was able to buy the building at auction for $74,000.
“At the time, we weren’t even sure what we were going to do with it,” said Vadney.
Then onea day while attending a Fresh Start Farm event to launch the mobile market, she and the Neighborworks team happened to realize that this could be a really great fit, so they approached Jameson Small and asked him if Fresh Start Farms would be interested.
The fact that Neighborworks was willing to take on the renovation, combined with the fact that many of Fresh Start Farms farmers live in that neighborhood, made it easy for them to say yes.
Last week the lease was signed and the former Tickler’s TV Lab at 150 Spruce St. got a new lease on life.
Sandra Almonte, who owns Don Quijote Restaurant around the corner on Union Street, is looking forward to the opening of the Hub. She sees it as a way of making the diverse groups of people in the neighborhood feel more at home. “Most of us that immigrate to the US are raised having fresh and organic fruits and vegetables right in our backyard. Having ORIS right here is just outstanding,” she said.
She also sees this as an important step toward revitalizing the neighborhood. ”As soon as our city gets back into a normalcy mode, I am looking to find collaborators to beautify our neighborhood and Spruce, Cedar, and Union Streets. It will be my first priority,” she added.
The Fresh Start Farms Hub plans to be open when the farm share season begins on June 3. It includes a 400 square foot retail area that will be open to the public on Thursdays from 2 to 4 p.m. They hope to add new products like fresh eggs and non-perishables. “We’d love to invite everyone in when it opens, but we may need to limit service to curbside pick-up because of the coronavirus.” Small said.
Fortunately, the rhythms of farming are less susceptible to disruption from the coronavirus. Each farmer at Fresh Start Farms has their own plot and their own greenhouse, so social distancing is easy. According to Small, work on the back end is right on schedule, seedlings are germinating in the greenhouses and fields are being plowed and planted. His biggest concern is where to find enough hand sanitizer for the upcoming season of farmers’ markets.
Editor’s note: The auction sale price of the building has been corrected from an earlier version of the story.