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N.H. Ag Commissioner: Labor Shortage, Climate Change Among Challenges Facing N.H. Farmers

Elaine Grant, NHPR

A little over a year ago, former Speaker of the N.H. House Shawn Jasper traded in his Speaker’s gavel  for the job of Commissioner of the N.H. Department of Agriculture, Markets, and Food.

Jasper suggested on The Exchange this week that he doesn’t miss the tussle of Statehouse politics -- dealing with 399 lawmakers, constant deadlines, and the scheduling of bills.

When it comes to his new job, Jasper said, “There are still issues here, of course, but I feel I’m able to help people a lot more directly." 

Jasper also outlined what he feels his department can and cannot do when it comes to resolving disputes over agritourism and advising farmers with concerns about the effects of climate change.  On the latter, Jasper said: "That is more UNH Cooperative Extension's role. That’s not something we’re able to do."

Interview Takeaways (excerpts edited for clarity):

On challenges facing N.H. farmers:

  • Finding laborers. Finding people to milk cows.
  • It's a real struggle finding workers, but some vegetable growers have done a good job partnering with local high schools, or through the FFA (Future Farmers of America) in finding workers. 
  • Regarding labor issues:  "I’m concerned  about a bill in the legislature limiting the period of time someone could hire employee through temp agency.  That would be devastating for a lot of people.  H2A visas (a temporary agricultural program) have increased. But the program needs some revamping for both employers and employees.”
  • In some cases, transitioning to more modern farming practices, such as robotic milking machines. “There are only five in the state -- four in one farm and one in another. They’re absolutely amazing. You don’t even have to have a person there.” 
  • Redeeming milk’s reputation:  “Milk developed an undeserved bad reputation. Our consumption of milk has continued to decline. We have to realize milk is good for you. It’s an important nutrient. And we’ve got to try to get that consumption up.”
  • Overproduction of milk: “Dairy farmers tend to be their own worst enemies. When times are good they make more milk; when times are bad they make more milk…90 % of milk in the U.S. goes through farmer-owned cooperatives. But they don’t manage their milk supply to match the demand. If you have more product than demand, the price is going to be low.”
  • Federal management of dairy prices.  “But even without that, prices would stay low because we have an oversupply of milk. Too much of it is going into powder and cheese , which is going into warehouses. What needs to happen is we need to cut back by about 2 percent the production in the U.S. to tighten up those markets. Then the price will go up.”

On a new program promoting milk made in N.H.:

There would be a premium, about 50 cents a gallon. That money, with some going to advertising, would go directly to all NH dairy farmers.  That’s receiving a lot of good legislative support (HB476). Key to this is finding bottlers willing to participate.  Our polling shows people really want to participate and would be willing to switch brands to support NH dairy farmers.

On climate change:

There's no doubt in my mind the climate is changing and it's having some negative effects. People are locked into the idea that we are responsible for climate change and that may be, but we’re in a world; we don't shut off the weather at the borders of the United States.  So for us to be taking all the responsibility  for reducing CO2. We're producing 28 percent of the CO2 in the world. China is double that. They are building right now more coal power plants than we have in the United States.  We can’t solve this problem alone.

I don’t know how much of it is man-made. But if I assume it’s all manmade, my assumption also is that we can’t eliminate all of that because we’re a growing population.

On whether the N.H. Dept. of Agriculture plays a role in helping N.H. farmers become more resilient when dealing with the effects of climate change:

That is more cooperative extension's role. That’s not something we’re able to do.  I don’t disagree that there is climate change. There’s no question in my mind there’s climate change. When I was a kid my dad used to keep notes on the side of our egg charts as to how much snow we got and the extremes of temperature. And when I go back and look at what we did in the 50s and 60s, I can’t believe how many negative days we had, where it would be 10 below, 20 below -- long spells of that. We haven’t had that in many years. But that was definitely the case in the 50s and 60s.

On Agritourism:

It presents an opportunity for us to keep more land open, more farms producing. The Commissioner of Agriculture is now the first stop in the process in resolving any differences of opinion between a town and a farm as to what agritourism is. It used to go to court. However, my decision can be appealed to the courts. 

As for a definition: Whatever is going on (wedding or some other event) must be enhancing the sales of a product on the farm.  The event is not the primary use of the farm. It’s there to supplement the farm income.  Any neighborhood  complaints or restrictions are still addressed by the planning board.

On whether the N.H. Dept. of Agriculture should promote organic farming:
We will support all farmers, whether they’re organic or traditional. This will anger people -- but we can’t feed the world on organic. There are a lot of starving people in the world… It’s not my job to transition farmers to organic. The difference between organic and non-organic  is falling but organic is much more expensive.  I will support farmers who want to go to organic, but I will never tell someone who is a traditional farmer that you need to do this. I get a little upset with the word sustainable. I don’t know of any agriculture in New Hampshire that’s not sustainable.  We’ve been farming here for nearly 400 years. I don’t know of any farm that has depleted itself. Farmers are the best people at sustainability. That shouldn’t be a word that divides us either.

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