When Lorraine Stuart Merrill was nominated as Agriculture Commissioner in 2007, the first reporter to get her on the phone asked her how it felt to take the job when farming was all but disappearing in the state.
That wasn't the case then - and it isn't now. There's something of a boomlet going on, she says. But for Merrill it showed that she had her work cut out for her in terms of public perception.
"My first job as an incoming commissioner was to try to counteract that," she says. "And I heard that a lot in those earlier years from legislators, as well. 'Oh, there's no farms left in Rockingham County, or Hillsborough County. And, actually, you know, Hillsborough and Rockingham County are two of the top in the country, out of 3,000 plus, in terms of direct consumer sales from farms."
A Return to Roots
Merrill will soon be back -- on a full-time basis -- to her own farm. She declined to seek a new term as commissioner. She's on the job for a few more days to help with the transition to the new commissioner, recently confirmed House Speaker Shawn Jasper.
She will work the farm there off Route 108 in Stratham. She's also a writer. She has a writing project in mind. It's a follow-up to the book she co-wrote with Peter Francese, "Communities & Consequences: The Unbalancing of New Hampshire's Human Ecology, and What We Can Do About It."
And then, she says, there's the hope of getting her dairy farming husband to travel a bit.
Merrill spoke with NHPR about her tenure and the state of farming in New Hampshire during a recent tour of her farm. One of New Hampshire's most influential farmers is as optimistic as ever. She exudes a quiet confidence and obvious pride in her department. Asked to summarize the state of the farmer, she flashes a smile and laughs.
"The state of the New Hampshire farm -- you can't put it into one sentence. It's not one-size-fits-all. New Hampshire farms are so diverse and New Hampshire farming is so dynamic. It's constantly changing and yet it constantly reflects our roots and our tradition. It's kind of like living history where you have the future and the past, all working together, all the time."
The Stuart Farm is Lorraine Merrill and her husband, their son and daughter-in-law and family, plus about 240 milking-age cows, and some young ones, around 400 total head. It’s a breath-taking scene beyond Merrill as she speaks - all the way to the Squamscott River. It’s a typical day on the farm, one that's been in her family since 1961. There’s movement everywhere, including the cows chewing on hay. Her son's behind the wheel of a small, front-loader. Her daughter-in-law greets a contractor. And there's Merrill, as tell-it-like-it-is a state commissioner as any you'll meet.
The Largest Small Department
The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food is one of the smallest state agencies. “Sometimes it’s described as the largest small department, or the smallest major department," she says. It has about 39 full-time positions. It could use a few more, as Merrill lets known.
“We really have, I think, been chronically understaffed and underfunded in this department, partly because of that sense that people have had that somehow agriculture is a declining industry. And, it really, A) it is not a declining industry, it’s a changing industry. But B) the department is responsible for much more than just agriculture and farming.”