July 15, 2008

Hollis, N.H., Looks for Ways to Support Agriculture

By Hattie Bernstein, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.

Jul. 13--HOLLIS -- People move here to enjoy the town's woods, meadows and farms.

But while they value the undeveloped land that surrounds them, most residents say they aren't willing to pay extra to keep it that way.

Recently, the town's land protection study committee called a meeting, inviting local farmers to explore ideas about how the town can support local agriculture.

Buying local products topped the list, although those attending the meeting agreed that the town must do more to help farms stay economically viable.

Dr. David Gilmour, a retired physician and longtime resident who moderated the forum, said a survey taken by the town's strategic planning committee revealed that 96 percent of residents say rural character is important to them, while 75 percent favor continuing to protect open land.

But only 25 percent support an increase in taxes to pay for preserving the landscape that give the town its rural character, according to the questionnaire.

Hollis farmer Carroll Spaulding, who at 78 operates a hay-making business, was a dairy farmer until 1986, when Spaulding Farms was sold to a developer, a casualty of the economy. The farm, started by Spaulding's great-grandfather, had 50 cows.

"It was the saddest day of my life, when they put a driveway down the middle of it," Spaulding said. "You'll never see any more poultry or dairy farms in town."

Younger farmers are hoping to avoid a similar fate.

But they told members of the land study group that if their farms are unable to turn a profit, they will be forced to sell.

For farmers, who live in a world of daily changes, a constant is the ever-present wolf at the door.

"Farmers are broke all their life and die wealthy with a million dollars in real estate," Spaulding said.

Farmers say that reality is lost on the general population, including patrons of the local farm stands who look forward to locally grown strawberries, corn and other produce but rarely know what's involved in planting and harvesting the food that finds it way onto their plates.

"People like the farm to be there, but on their terms," said Rob Johnson, executive director of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group that oversees 10 county farm bureaus in New Hampshire, including one in Hillsborough County.

Spaulding couldn't agree more.

"I used to dump my manure and a newcomer made a stink," he said, recalling how he deferred to the neighbor to keep the peace. George Hamilton, the county extension agent, pointed out how alienated most consumers are from what they eat. Many have no idea where their food comes from or how it gets to the supermarket and, eventually, to their table.

"The more generations one is away from the farming heritage, the (more) the love of the land dissipates," Hamilton observed. "I get calls in February asking, 'Where can I go to pick strawberries' . . . There's a real loss of understanding the seasons, and when there are fewer farms, how do kids learn?"

Added Carl Hills, the farmer who owns and operates Kimball Farms in Hollis and Pepperell, Mass.: "It's deep-rooted, and it starts with the school system that wants lawyers, computer nerds."

Others said public education has the power to open minds and change attitudes.

One farmer noted that in nearby Groton, Mass., the community has erected signs showing its commitment to local agriculture.

A land protection committee member suggested coining a slogan to reinforce the importance of buying locally grown products.

"Taste the difference. Buy Hollis," said Peter Proko.

"You're opening our eyes to a lot of things I certainly wasn't aware of," Proko told the farmers. "We need to educate the public about fertilizer, the weather, workers."

Others spoke about new state legislation that permits towns and cities to establish agricultural commissions, advisory groups dedicated to advocacy, public education and more.

The enabling legislation, which allows a municipality to create a commission, isn't the only statewide initiative, although it is one of the most recent efforts to help farmers.

Roughly seven years ago, the New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture, an ad hoc group, distributed resource kits, called "Preserving Rural Character," to the state's 234 towns and cities.

Where those kits ended up, however, is anyone's guess.

There was no mention of the kits during the recent meeting, and Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of agricultural development for the state, said she suspects many of the kits disappeared with the change of leadership in the various communities

Meanwhile, area farmers are holding their own, and even distinguishing themselves from the pack.

McWilliam Jellie said Brookdale Farm in Hollis is one of two main suppliers of apples for the state's Apples to School program. Tim O'Connell, of Milford, who with his wife, Noreen, has been farming locally for 30 years, said in a recent telephone interview he looks to Hollis as an example of how a community can maintain its rural character and support local agriculture.

O'Connell isn't the only farmer in the county looking to Hollis as a model. During the land study meeting, Hamilton, the county agent, told the group that while they struggle to find more ways to support local farms, they should also be patting themselves on the back.

"There's been a lot of good things done," Hamilton said. "Other towns are looking at you to find out what you have done to continue the rural atmosphere."

And the time may be right for a resurgence of local farms, given increasing fuel costs that have translated into skyrocketing food prices

In addition, outbreaks of food-borne illness have raised concerns about food safety, often riskier when food is shipped long distances.

Tough as their lot is, they said, they aren't ready to throw in the towel.

"We've just got to keep at it," said Spaulding, the 78-year-old Hollis hay farmer. "We need more meetings, the public in on this. That was a start. We've got to start somewhere."


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