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We spoke with Commissioner Jasper about the expanded NH Agriculture Relief Program, the impact of COVID-19 on the NH agricultural community, supporting organic farmers and small producers, the impacts of climate change and the importance of soil health, co-ops and food hubs, grants, resiliency, and the future of agriculture in NH.

Reminder to Farmers: There are two more application periods for the Registered Farm and Expanded Farm Programs. These programs aim to “ease the burden of substantial new COVID-19-related costs like extra cleaning and sanitizing, ensuring social distancing, and lost sales, including $1.5 million for specialty crop producers that had at least $50,000 of 2019 gross sales, and $1 million for all other farms that, during any application period, have incurred average COVID-19-related expenses of at least $500 per month or average COVID-19-related lost sales of at least $1,000 per month… The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food will administer these programs.” The Department urges applicants to track their income and expenses monthly for easier reporting.

Upcoming Deadlines:

  • October 15, 2020, for expenses and/or lost sales incurred during July 1, 2020 to September 30, 2020; and

  • December 10, 2020, for expenses and/or lost sales incurred during October 1, 2020 to November 30, 2020.

NOFA-NH: Do you have any updates on the aid package you would like to share with NOFA-NH’s members and readers? Such as how many farmers have been served or how many you anticipate will receive funding? Has the $1.5 million allocated to farms earning $50,000 or more been distributed?

Commissioner Jasper: We had 40 original applicants, which was many fewer than we thought. Only about 10% of the eligible farms applied. Fewer than that applied for the first round of funding. What we’ve since learned is that there were other farms who thought that their registration was their application. So, we’re sending out a letter to those farms who did not actually put in an application, and we’re going to open that back up for them for the first time period, which is March through June, and see if we can help some of them because we only put out $204,000 of the $1.5 million for the first quarter.

 

We don’t know what we are going to be seeing in the second period, which is really the third quarter of the year. But what we are hearing in the farming community in general is that for most of our agriculture sectors, COVID is turning out to be a positive in many respects. Because so many people are looking for local produce now, many farms are having the best year they’ve ever had. And of course, there are exceptions to that rule: people who may have had sales to summer camps which have closed, or sales to restaurants which have closed, and they haven’t been able to easily adapt. So, we know that there are outliers there.

 

In the new round of funding for other farmers who suffered losses or large expenses, I think we are in the neighborhood of 40 who have applied (as of August 27, 2020). We expect that number to go up. Often people wait until the last minute because they are busy. We’re looking forward to getting to work on that and to getting money out to people who need help as soon as possible.

 

I always wanted to be able to reach out to more, but I was really just very concerned that with the little amount of money that we had, that we would do no good for anybody, and now I think we can do some substantial good for a lot of people. And we’ve been seeing that the two sectors that have really been hurt in COVID have primarily been dairy and maple. So far, that’s where most of the money has gone. But now we’re finding out there are pockets here and there. There are things that we can do to make a difference, and ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do, is make a difference.

NOFA-NH: Given the concern over supply shocks with the COVID outbreak in March, what are ways that the farming community can come together and build resilience before the next disaster? Which of the Department’s programs or initiatives do you consider to be best suited to build the local food sector?  

Commissioner Jasper: Well, that’s not really our direct mission. We think there are other organizations that can really do a better job with that. And that’s where I look to organizations like the New Hampshire Food Alliance as building that supply chain. That’s really their mission. That’s what they’re trying to do, and I’m very supportive of what they’ve been doing in that area. There’s obviously more to do, and it’s still a relatively young organization, but I really see an opportunity there for them to bring the people who are delivering products together with the growers. Because for New Hampshire with a lot of small farms, one of the problems is that in very few cases can one grower say I can supply a supermarket with all of X, Y or Z. But when you have essentially the co-op type model, the co-ops can do that. So the type of thing that I see that can really strengthen the New Hampshire agricultural community is coming together and not having hundreds of little farms trying to find an outlet where they can sell. And I really think that is a model. My grandfather was part of the New Hampshire egg producers cooperative back in the 1930s and it was very successful for many years, and that’s exactly what they did. All the poultry farmers got together with their eggs and were able to reach the big markets.

One of the things that we do on our website is list all of the producers, where they are located, and what they have, those that want to participate with us. And UNH Cooperative Extension is doing something similar. You can find both of those resources on our website. They’ve got an interactive map, which is something I thought we needed. Somebody can say I have a farm in Hinsdale. Well, not everybody is going to know where that is. But if you go on the map the Cooperative Extension has, you know where you live, so you know your general geographic area. You can say there’s a farm there, you can click on it, go to their website, and see what they have. And I think that’s a great tool that Cooperative Extension is developing. And again, it takes the individual farms to reach out to them and say they want to be part of it. Same as with ours. But I think those two resources are extremely important to strengthen our food network in New Hampshire.

NOFA-NH: What's your vision for agriculture in New Hampshire in 10 and even 50 years? 

Commissioner Jasper: I tend not to be one who tries to go too far into the future because I’ve found that to be somewhat of a fool’s errand. Of course, 60 years from now we’re all still going to be eating, but 20 years ago I never could have imagined the hydroponic operations that we have in New Hampshire now. So, I guess in general my goal is to see NH agriculture be vibrant, for us to be producing more of our own food, because one of the things that has generally been a challenge for us has been the climate. But with hydroponics, and now of course the lighting that is so much cheaper, we have a lot more opportunity to be growing food year-round, beyond just beef and things like that. I do think that if we can get people to understand how much better it is for them to be eating local food and supporting our local agricultural infrastructure, I think we have a pretty bright future here. People are certainly turning that way now. Things tend to move in phases. But hopefully that’s one of those things that’s not going to be a fad, and people are really going to say, hey, it’s really not that much more expensive to buy from the farm down the road or meat from a local farm, and they’re going to continue to do that. And the more they do that, the more opportunities there will be for farms in New Hampshire to expand.

NOFA-NH: Is there anything in that vision that relates specifically to organic or small producers that focus on sustainable practices?

 

Commissioner Jasper: I think that in general one of the things I want to say is I totally respect what organic farmers are doing and will support organic farming in any way that I can. I get a little bit touchy when people talk about sustainability because I believe that all New Hampshire agriculture is sustainable agriculture. We’ve been farming in New Hampshire for hundreds of years and what we’re doing has been sustainable in terms of how we treat our land. All farmers understand the importance of not depleting the soils, that they must treat the soil with respect, and do everything that they possibly can to ensure that the land will continue to be productive for generations. So, I get a little touchy about that area, but I do believe that there is a huge place for organic farming in New Hampshire. It’s continuing to grow. More and more people understand the benefits of having products that are grown in a way that you’re not loading up the foods with chemicals. I think that’s really important.

At the same time, it is more expensive and not everybody can afford that. And so, we’ve got to find that balance where we have enough organic for people who want it, and ultimately going in that direction will lower the costs, and we’ll see, I believe, a smaller differential in those sectors. But I think we all have to be appreciative of people who are farming in New Hampshire and not set up any type of us versus them. We’re all in this together, and we can all learn and benefit when we work together in the agricultural community.

NOFA-NH: What incentives and support is the NH Dept of Agriculture providing for farmers to adapt to the impacts of climate change?

Commissioner Jasper: Well, again, that’s really not one of our missions. Perhaps it should be, but it’s not something that the legislature has directed us to work on. I look at Cooperative Extension as being our sister organization and we wok with them constantly. We have contracts with them. But that research is what Cooperative Extension is so good at, and they do have the people to do that. And it is obviously extremely important, because there is no question that our climate is changing dramatically, and we need to adapt to that. We need to figure out what is going to grow here better, what we can do to preserve our soil. That’s why cover crops are so important. No till planting is so important for maintaining our soil. But our seasons, both the summers are getting hotter, seem to be getting dryer, and it’s hard to really say is this a short-term trend or a long-term trend, because when you are looking at the history of the world and billions of years, and you look at even a 50 year period that’s just a nanosecond in time. So, we can go back and we can look at cycles that we’ve had before, but for now, certainly for what we’re doing, we can’t ignore the changes, and we have to figure out how we can adapt to that. And that’s a challenge.

But that’s where Cooperative Extension is really playing a very important role. We don’t have people doing research here. We don’t have funding to do that type of thing. And that’s where, to a large degree, what I say about the Department of Agriculture is we are a consumer protection organization. That’s largely what we do. We protect the consumer. We try to. In food safety, and in weights and measures we protect them from people ripping them off. So, we do that. We make sure that people who are spraying certain chemicals are licensed to do so and are doing it correctly. I had a conversation with a woman the other day whose been very involved in water resource issues and pollinators, to which she recognizes, and what I’ve said, is a lot of the problems we’re having is the home use of chemicals, that people have no idea what they’re doing, and they’re overusing chemicals on their lawns, on their flowers, and they’re killing the pollinators. That’s a real problem. I think even the beekeepers will probably tell you the same thing, that if we’re responsibly doing things with our chemicals, we’re going to do less damage. Now there’s no question that there is damage done, but that’s what we do. We regulate and make sure that people who are doing what the legislature has determined is legal to do, that they do it correctly. And that’s why during this whole period of COVID I said we are not going to let people spray chemicals unlicensed. We figured out how to continue to do our testing, and our exams, and our licensing because that just wasn’t an option for me to say, oh yeah, go ahead. That wasn’t going to happen.

NOFA-NH: Are there any current incentives for farmers to adopt healthy soil practices? Is there a system being developed, or would you consider one, that would measure soil health and reward farmers who can demonstrate that they have improved the health of their soils?

Commissioner Jasper: I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but for us as a Department, any time we have any of that funding to do anything like that it has to come through the federal government because the state never appropriates money for us to do those particular things. We certainly are working on best management practices. We are certainly recommending programs for people and whenever there is an opportunity for funding. Through organizations that I’m involved in, such as the National Association of State’s Departments of Agriculture, that’s one of the things that we talk about quite a bit: soil health and what programs and incentives are out there on a national level. Because we all recognize that we have got to do a better job of protecting our soil health. And obviously the retention of carbon is something that agriculture can really help with. So, there are programs out there. Do we do anything specifically here in the Department? No, because we don’t have any funding for those things.

There absolutely should be [funding], and I think what farms are finding, too, is that when they are doing those practices the right way, while they may start out seeming more expensive, they actually end up having land that is more productive and they can be more economical than they ever envisioned, even somewhat short-term.

One of the things, and its not just agriculture, but I think in agriculture it’s a little bit more engrained, is the notion that this is the we’ve always done it and this is the way we’re going to continue to do it. Agriculture needs to be constantly evolving. And I think certainly nationwide we are, but sometimes when you get down to the more local level there’s a lot of resistance to change. The farms that survive are the ones that recognize that and are constantly changing.

I wish we had more funding, more grant opportunities for some of those things, but again, ultimately, its not likely to happen anytime soon. But I think through more education farmers can understand that those practices probably are in their long-term best interest anyhow.

NOFA-NH: What are your thoughts on the flourishing of Food Hubs in New Hampshire in recent years? Should or could there be more money available to start more food hubs around the state?

Commissioner Jasper: So much of it does come back to money, but on the other hand, things that are sustainable end up being sustainable by their own value, and so if we can show that food hubs are something that work and have a value to everyone, they will expand on their own. Of course, seed money to start things up is always important and I’m not downplaying that at all. But what I am saying is that you’re never likely in New Hampshire to see sustained funding for things like that. They have to prove their own value. And that has to be done by the fact that the consumers are willing to use those services. Farmers need to find the value of participating. And so I think there are a lot of things that we can do. But ultimately, you’re still going to have most of the people in New Hampshire shopping in grocery stores, and that’s where I think the value of finding a way to bring our farms together to be able to say to somebody like Market Basket, you don’t need to go to the Midwest to get eggs. You don’t need to go there to get carrots, or whatever. We can supply those to you. And obviously there are a lot of things that if we have the right facilities we can store. I’m thinking of root products that we can store and supply to New Hampshire stores year-round. Beef is a little bit more difficult because we have very little meat production in New Hampshire, and one of the things with COVID that people have been talking to me about constantly is that we need more slaughterhouses. The problem isn’t we need more slaughterhouses, the problem is we need more meat cutters. That’s really the issue. That people aren’t trained there. And that’s the issue with farming in general. Where is the level of interest there?

That’s the biggest challenge we face in agriculture in New Hampshire, that our farmers are getting older constantly. Every census that comes out, that age creeps up, and if we don’t reverse that trend it won’t matter how good we are at growing things if we don’t have anybody willing to grow them.

NOFA-NH: Currently New Hampshire agriculture is supported by your Department, some federal funding, and a large network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to communities and resilience. How would you like to see these supporting entities interact and collaborate?

Commissioner Jasper: I think we need to come together and have more discussions. I wrote about an organization that used to exist in New Hampshire. It was essentially an umbrella organization of all agricultural groups, so the apple growers would come together with the poultry growers and the dairy farmers, and there was one umbrella organization where these types of agricultural issues could be discussed. I basically believe we need more communications. There are things that are not unique just to dairy, or the apple growers, or the vegetable growers. There are issues that all sectors of agriculture face and we need to come together and figure those out. Too often I see, and it’s not just in agriculture, I see it everywhere, that there are too many people working on the same problem and none of them can individually solve those problems. But if they could come together and work as a group on a specific issue it could be solved. And I think that is what we are lacking right now in NH, is an overarching [organization]. That’s why that group had been formed I think back in the 30s. Unfortunately, I think that what happened was, I looked at the history of it, they ended up opposing a Commissioner of Agriculture and went so far as to go to court over his appointment. He was confirmed by the council, and this organization continued to fight that. Well, then you become useless because now you’ve made an enemy of the Commissioner, and ultimately the Commissioner has to be the person bringing everybody together. It seemed to have fallen apart at that point. I can’t find any reference to that organization existing or ever doing anything after they fought so hard against the nomination of the Commissioner. That’s when things get political, and that’s what you can’t have.

 

NOFA-NH: What other DAMF programs might be particularly useful to our readership of organic farmers and eaters? 

 

Commissioner Jasper: Of course, in the division of regulatory services we do have organic inspectors and programs, which I assume your readers know about. Through the federal grants, we have programs for improving certain conditions on the farm, and most of them have to do with nutrient management, which would really apply to people in the animal industry. But we do have monies generally available for that, and that is something that should be very important to all of us, to make sure that we are containing the runoff from our animals and not polluting the waters. We generally never have enough money, though. I will say that. There are always more applications for grant money in that area than we have funding for.

 

Generally, in agricultural development, we have block grants for specialty crops, and a lot of that has to do with promotion so people can get the word out as to what they’re growing, what they’re doing. Some of that has been state money, some of it is federal. We’re probably not going to have as much money available in that area as we’ve had in the past, but hopefully we will again in the future. We’re just in such uncertain times right now as to what things are going to look like. So right now, anything we don’t absolutely have to do has been put on hold.

NOFA-NH: What developments in New Hampshire agriculture are giving you hope and inspiration these days?

 

Commissioner Jasper: The things that are really giving me some hope has been a lot of research that’s gone on at UNH in terms of developing plants that thrive in New Hampshire. I think there’s some work going on with getting strawberries that may produce for a longer period of time. There’s kiwi berries. There’s just a lot of things that are going on in the UNH research that really give me hope that we’re going to be able to have a more vibrant agricultural sector, because it won’t just be oh, well, we’ve got a strawberry season that’ll last for four weeks. We can extend that. We were with the Governor at a farm where they’re allowing Cooperative Extension to do some pretty extensive research. They have 35 different apple strains, not necessarily varieties, trying to figure out what grows better in New Hampshire’s climate. You’ve got apples coming in earlier and some that are heartier and extending the season.

 

The hydroponics that we’re seeing all over the state are going to allow us to be producing more vegetables in New Hampshire year-round. LEF Farms is a great example of something that’s pretty good production size and they’ve got plans to really expand.

There are some other great things going on with greenhouses. One that I visited a couple of years ago that was just getting started, where instead of heating the greenhouse, which can be very expensive, they’re heating the soil and seeing that that may be much more economical but have the same end results as heating the air. If the plants are kept warm from underneath, they’re going to be productive. So, there’s a lot of good things going on.

NOFA-NH: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Commissioner Jasper: I really welcome people to contact me directly, either by email or by picking up the phone and calling me. I think what’s important is to have an open line of communication. I welcome and have tried to let everyone know, please reach out to me if you have an issue and we can work on these things together. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing, is trying to help people. That’s pretty much what I’ve always enjoyed in public service, is when somebody has an issue, I want to be able to help them or send them to the right person if I can’t deal with it. And agriculture is such a small community in New Hampshire, really, when you look at the rest of the population. That’s what a Commissioner should be doing. That’s what a Department of Agriculture should be doing, is helping our producers directly.

NOFA-NH thanks Commissioner Jasper for his time and advocacy in support of the farming community here in NH. If you'd like to contact Commissioner Jasper directly, you may reach him by email at Shawn.N.Jasper@agr.nh.gov or by phone, 603-271-3686.

Interview with Shawn Jasper, NH Commissioner of Agriculture