'Food hub' eyed at former county jail site

The former Cheshire County Jail in Westmoreland could become an incubator for agricultural businesses in New Hampshire if enough are interested in setting up shop in the southwestern corner of the state.

The former Cheshire County Jail in Westmoreland could become an incubator for agricultural businesses in New Hampshire if enough are interested in setting up shop in the southwestern corner of the state.

Cheshire County is accepting letters of interest through March 31 from entrepreneurs interested in growing their businesses at the Cheshire County Commons Farm and Food Hub, a proposed jail-turned-modern-food-facility that could become home for farmers, distributors, educators and everyone in between.

"If we could get it going, it would be a potentially really nice boon for our food and forestry niches," said Mary Ann Kristiansen, executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center, a Keene incubator that is willing to offer its business development education at the hub.

Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire agriculture's commissioner, wrote that the goal of the ambitious development would be "to support entrepreneurs and collectively strengthen and advance the agricultural sector of the region."

The region's agricultural sector has already found community support from groups like Monadnock Buy Local and The Monadnock Community Market Co-Op, the latter of which plans to open a large, year-round local food store in Keene by as early as the end of 2012.

But to find enough suppliers to stock the store's shelves could be a challenge — one that the Farm and Food Hub could help to address, said Amanda Costello, district manager of the Cheshire County Conservation District.

"There's a lot of infrastructure, processing, that is going to be needed to supply these food co-ops with local food," she said. "This could be a facility that could do that."

Supporting agriculture

As proposed, the hub would be housed in the county's former jail, a 35,000-square-foot facility that has been sitting empty since the inmates were moved to a new corrections facility in Keene in April 2010.

Continuing to use inmate labor at the farm became impractical once the jail moved to the Elm City, so in the meantime the county has been leasing the farm and the adjacent dairy facility to the family-run Bo-Riggs Cattle Company.

The county also owns prime property that abuts the jail, including 52 acres of soil-rich farmland, 500 acres of managed forest and more than a mile of land along the banks of the Connecticut River.

Just what should happen to the vacant building has been the subject of much discussion, including a yearlong feasibility study done by the county in conjunction with two nonprofits, as well as a series of public forums held in six Monadnock Region communities. Attendees at the forums made it clear "that they would like to see it do something to support forestry and agriculture for our region," said Costello.

As it's proposed, the facility would offer space for offices, classrooms, food processing and storage, a loading dock and conference space. As for financing these renovations, the county is "looking to not have it be a burden on the taxpayer," said Costello, adding that it would probably look to a mix of grants and low-interest loans.

One person who has expressed interest in potentially moving into the hub is David Wichland, owner of Wichland Woods in Keene, a "myco-business" that grows and forages mushrooms and sells them to local restaurants, stores and co-ops.

"I'd keep Keene as my mushroom laboratory, but I would be very interested in creating a space there for growing mushrooms, having a refrigeration system," said Wichland.

He also holds mycology workshops, teaching people things like how to forage in their own backyards for mushrooms, which he said he'd be interested in offering at the hub. Of course, whether he would go forward depends on the cost. "The price would have to be right for me to extend the capital."

To Costello's knowledge, no such food hub exists anywhere else in New Hampshire, though similar ones can be found in neighboring states.

Not far away is the Hardwick-based Vermont Food Venture Center, the subject of the book "The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food," by Ben Hewitt. It chronicled the emergence of a vibrant food economy in the beleaguered town of Hardwick after the growth of the 15,000-square foot food-processing center and kitchen incubator.

Costello hopes that such success could be recreated here in New Hampshire.

"Every county in New Hampshire had a county farm at some point, most aren't working farms anymore, and there's this great land and resources available," said Costello. "It would be great if we could start to show them, be a model in the sense of what can happen with this public land."

Businesses interested in the facility may contact the Cheshire County Conservation District at 603-756-2988, extension 116. — KATHLEEN CALLAHAN/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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