N.H. Farmers Face An Uncertain Spring

Apr 5, 2020

If you thought being a New Hampshire farmer was challenging before, imagine doing it in the midst of a global pandemic. Farmers are well-acquainted with uncertainty, but this Spring, Granite State farmers are being challenged to find new ways to produce and sell their products. We talk with small family farms to find  out how they're coping, if federal subsidies are available, and if strong local connections will endure.

Air date: Monday, April 6, 2020

GUESTS:

When some of the retail stores that carry Contoocook Creamery milk stopped taking glass bottles back from customers, they made a change. Although it's not their original business plan, they are switching some production over to plastic bottles.

Transcript

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange. Farmers are well-acquainted with uncertainty. But this spring contains more unknowns than ever. How to produce and sell their products in the midst of a pandemic. Here in New Hampshire, local farmers have worked hard to create strong connections with wholesale and retail customers. But those relationships are now in question due to the coronavirus. Today on The Exchange, Granite State farmers face a spring like no other. And we'll hear from several local farmers throughout the hour today. But we'll begin with Shawn Jasper, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture Markets and Food. Commissioner Jasper, a big welcome back. Thank you for being here.

Shawn Jasper:
You're welcome. Laura, it's my pleasure to be with you.

What effect has this pandemic had so far, Commissioner, on New Hampshire farmers?

Shawn Jasper:
Well, I think there's been not a lot of practical effect at this point, cause we're not really in a growing season. I think that Jamie Robertson will be able to talk to a little bit about the issue of returnable milk bottles and how he's had to deal with that. That was an issue that came up last week. The first things that really came up were from the greenhouse growers, because as this country started to shut down and before we had any orders issued here, I started to hear from growers who were very concerned about what that would mean to their operations, should they even open their greenhouses, should they start their normal process? And I encouraged them to do that because I was confident that those type of operations would continue and they would be essential to what we were doing. I expect that we're going to probably see more people planting gardens and relying more on greenhouses for their vegetables. Well, we started to hear from others about feed supply because they're concerned that with disruption in the country that they might not be able to get enough feed in on time to feed their livestock. So just a lot of general concerns. Of course, we didn't have answers to a lot of them, but tried to work to get those. Farmers markets were another concern. We've really encouraged those to stay open. There have been some venues that the farmers markets don't control and those have closed down. But we see these markets as a much better alternative than going into the large supermarkets. And again, we think people are going to want to get more locally sourced produce and so that those type of markets are going to be very important.

Laura Knoy:
So, lots of uncertainty. That's what I'm hearing from you, Commissioner. And I remember reading in The New York Times a couple of days ago, the farmers markets, they are doing quite well. We'll talk a little bit later, too, with a farmer in the Upper Valley who specializes in the seedlings and so forth that you talked about. Real quickly, though, you mentioned something that I have heard about, and that is some New Hampshire farmers like to, but they all like to operate sustainably and in doing so have been using glass bottles, you know, sort of returnable bottles and some even returnable egg cartons. Now, you can't do that anymore. Commissioner, right?

Shawn Jasper:
Well, not entirely. There have been some some venues, some stores that have worked out the process with with their suppliers where the store employees don't actually handle the bottles. They put them in a separate shopping cart. And then when the milk deliveries are made, drivers take those bottles directly themselves so that they're not being handled by the other store employees at all. So there are methods that are being done to do that. Some have worked to allow them to bring them right back to the farms and get their credit there. So it hasn't totally stopped that. I know a number of people have switch more to plastic. They can still do that. Doesn't quite look the same. And frankly, as far as I'm concerned, there's no milk that tastes any any better than that that comes out of a glass bottle,.

Laura Knoy:
So, Commissioner Jasper. You said in a recent message to farmers and I'm quoting you here, that for production agriculture, the governor's stay at home orders should not affect normal operations. What should change, you said, is how farmers deal with customers and employees. So let's take customers first, Commissioner Jasper, how might farmers' relationships with customers change?

Shawn Jasper:
Well, I think it's going to be that social distancing. You know, and being able to provide some safe space and maybe do change how they do their checkout. In farmer's markets, I was really referring to to some degree that they'd need to space out more and have more space between the vendors and just try to do things that are going to provide a little bit more room so that people aren't crowded. If they're in a building, they might have to limit the number of people in the building at a time. And we're seeing that now in the larger supermarkets as well.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Yeah, I'm thinking about the Concord Farmer's Market, you know, right near the statehouse and its packed on a nice day. So, yeah, that may be different.

Shawn Jasper:
Yeah, and that's going to be a while before that one is open and hopefully we'll have some better guidance and we'll be over the hump. But the problem here is this is a virus. And, you know, we're doing all these great, great things right now, that you know, look like they're they're showing some progress. And not New Hampshire at this time, but other other places. But if we go back to our own routine, we're likely just to start it all up again. We're gonna have to continue this until there is a vaccine. Yeah. Not a total shutdown like this, obviously, but we're not gonna be able to go back to our old normal. We'll have a new normal for a while.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I want to remind our listeners that we're looking at New Hampshire farmers this hour, checking in on how they are dealing with all the uncertainty, especially during this time right now, the important spring planting season. So, Commissioner Jasper, we're talking about the changing relationships between producers and customers. Josh in Portsmouth emailed. He says, I try to buy my produce from Portsmouth's Farmer's Market, but it's unlikely to open anytime soon. Josh says, however, a farm stand I normally buy my leafy greens from Mirth Meadow Farms, now locate in Brentwood, has helped forge an innovative partnership. The Three Rivers Farm Alliance has created an app where you can order fresh produce. And I'm excited to be receiving my first order of greens this Thursday. Josh, that sounds great. It does make me wonder whether those relationships that customers build up commissioner at the farmer's market may have to get even more micro. You may just have to go to the farm yourself.

Shawn Jasper:
Well, that may happen as well. I mean, I know there's a lot of conversations going on about, you know, people placing orders online, having those orders boxed up, having them picked up curbside. So I think there's going to be a lot of different things that we're going to see because some of those farmer's market type operations may well change dramatically depending on their location and how they operate. There may be more collaboration between different farms that grow different types of things to provide a full order for people.

Laura Knoy:
How has the closure of many restaurants in the state, Commissioner Jasper, affected farmers. So many restaurants now that pride themselves on doing farm to table and then those restaurants are closed.

Shawn Jasper:
Well, I think, you know, because we don't have a lot of big greenhouse operations providing the fresh produce at this time that part of it hasn't been affected, but it probably will. Although we're seeing, you know, more, more take out, and I think we'll as we get into this into the new norm. So they'll still be a lot of that. So I'm hopeful that there's not a huge problem there. But of course, we still do have a lot of local needs. We're having some disruption. I think with some slaughterhouses out of state having closed down, which may create a problem for people who are sending animals out of out of state for processing and then bringing those back. So there may be a problem with supply there. But. I'm hopeful that because of the limited number of the animals and the limited number of farms that are selling to restaurants, that we don't see a big disruption there, that they're able to shift their model so that they don't end up with an oversupply.

Laura Knoy:
We talked earlier about your statement that farmers are going to have to think about new ways of being with customers and employees. Let's talk about the employees. Commissioner Jasper, if we could, most of New Hampshire's farms are quite small, but still many have at least a few workers. What are their chief concerns about workers right now?

Shawn Jasper:
Well, for a lot of the major producers who do rely on foreign labor. They're really concerned about that. I know the federal government is working diligently to make sure that we do have a supply of foreign workers coming in under that program. And one of the problems is they need to be quarantined. And what does that mean and do they have to pay people to be quarantined? Well, the good thing about farms you're out in, they generally out in the fresh air. So those workers can quarantine, but they can actually quarantine in the field working as long as they're not coming into contact with others. So, again, there's going to have to be some changes. How we do business, how we think about doing that type of business. But, you know, we're we're pretty good at adaptation. And I think that we'll get through that part of it. So you don't have to have people working side by side in the field. Acres and Acres... so 6 foot, you know, or 600 foot spacing is not out of the question.

Laura Knoy:
Six dozen foot distancing. And who's better at being flexible and dealing with unpredictability than farmers? So you're talking about the H-2A visas, Commissioner? OK. All right. Well, in the national media, I have seen lots of concerns about H-2A visas. So how concerned are you? Sounds like you're saying people are working on it, but it's a little uncertain.

Shawn Jasper:
Yeah, well, I do know that the USDA is, fully recognizes how important that labor is, that they're working diligently to make sure that there isn't a disruption and that we get enough workers here to make sure that our food supply doesn't rot on the vine.

Laura Knoy:
Right. And Christy in Concord is calling in Commissioner Jasper. Go ahead, Christy. Thanks for being with us. You're on the air.

Caller:
Commissioner Jasper, this is Representative Christy Bartlett, we spoke last week regarding the problem that the dairy farmers are having. Wondered if you'd made any progress in helping them regarding the issue of obtaining the empty glass bottles at the grocery stores.

Shawn Jasper:
Yeah, well, as I told you last week, that really something that I can't get involved in other than trying to be a source for ideas back and forth. I did hear from a number of producers. And I've heard about what Jamie is doing and some others. So they're working on it with their retailers. They're finding solutions to it. I know that even though we've had some contact with Hood saying they have a supplier, if people need more, they can contact them to jump on to that supply chain. But, you know, we'll work with any farmer who says that they're having an issue and trying to find a solution. But I certainly don't have the ability to order a store to do anything.

It's really an issue between the producers and the stores, as I said. One market, a large market that I'm aware of, did find a solution where they'd still bring them back and just put them in a shopping cart. And you know that to solve that problem there so we'll have to be creative about this.

Laura Knoy:
Christy, thank you for calling in, because again, we've referred to Jamie a couple times. We will have in a couple of minutes Jamie Robertson. He's with the Bohanan Farm and Contoocook Creamery in Contoocook. So he'll be with us in about five minutes, Christy. So I hope you can keep listening. And thank you for calling. Seth sent us an e-mail. Commissioner Jasper, Seth says, Please let your guests know that they can access so much information on the U.N. H cooperative extension Web site. We work with farmers and state and federal agencies to aggregate information for farmers, consumers and employees. Seth, thank you very much. Because, Commissioner Jasper, we have heard from some farmers when we were getting ready for the show today, concerned about all the great services that they get from U.N.H. Cooperative extension and wondering how those will continue.

Shawn Jasper:
Well, they are working diligently to get the information out there. You know, I've always considered cooperative extension to be like our sister organization. We work with them constantly. We've been working with them on getting the best information up on our Web site or links to information that they have so that people don't have to spend a lot of time digging for it. But they're they're working on it. Of course, they have relationships with all the other states and the extension services out there, because it is a really, you know, federal. And so they are the best sources of information for farmers.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Seth, thank you very much. One more question for you, Commissioner, about the the H-2A visas in the past. The reason for these visas is that New Hampshire was at almost full employment. Farmers just couldn't find Americans to work, you know, very long days for just a couple months. Now, as you know, unemployment is ticking up and it's expected to go way up. So do farmers still need these foreign worker visas?

Shawn Jasper:
Well, they they do. I mean, you know, there I think for many people there is this idea that, oh, you know, anybody has the ability to think at all can do the job. Well, that's not really true. Picking crops and dealing with anything is something that takes knowledge in education and time to train them. And so, of course, with what we're seeing in the employment, while the numbers are huge, the benefits are also going to be much larger than normal. And everybody is hoping they're going to be back to their normal job, a regular job in a short period of time. It is probably not a lot of willingness and there's no, you know, unfortunately in this program that doesn't appear to be any way to say, all right, well, you know, you're gonna get your normal new New Hampshire unemployment, whatever that might be. Plus, you're gonna get six hundred dollars a week. So there's not a lot of incentive for people to go out there and there's not any way for us to say, well, you'll still get, you know, X plus plus Y and we'll just subtract, you know, the Z from from what you're getting from the farm and you'll end up with the same amount. It doesn't work that way. And it's too complicated to even try to figure that out. So, not really something that's likely to have an impact in a large number of cases. We're still going to need workers.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Well, and another policy question came in from Kate in Warner, who wrote on our survey at NHPR.org. And Kate, thank you. Kate says, We operate a very small, certified organic family farm in central New Hampshire. I'm wondering if the governor has considered the inevitability of our food resources drying up at some point. With the beginning of this season, our farm could ramp up production and hire one or two more people with extra funding. We do not have the numbers to apply for the small business loans other types of businesses are eligible for as our margins are so small. Kate says Although our farm cannot feed all of New Hampshire, we can help our community and along with other small farms in our state, it will make a difference. Finally, she says, some of us in this situation have had to work off farm to support our own farms. Kate says this is her situation and we've now lost our jobs and investment capital. And I've just become full-time farmers with no cash to upscale. Kate also says removing some farm product restrictions would help us get our food out into the community faster and efficiently. And Kate, thank you for writing in on that survey. NHPR.org, there's a lot to unpack there, Commissioner, but I'm guessing a lot of people are in her situation. You know, they had another job. They work sort of part time on the small farm and now they're just farming full time because they lost their jobs.

Shawn Jasper:
Well, I think we do have a tremendous number of people who work full time off of the farm and far more on the side and that probably going to find themselves in that situation. Now, of course, they've lost income stream to get their production ramped up. I'm not so sure that Small Business Administration loans are not something that they could apply for. I know there are some criteria. Anybody in that situation should really be talking to their local bank if they're part of the Small Business Administration lending program because it is specific for farmers. There are certain criteria like, you know, if you are paying anybody - that's eligible. If you have utilities -that's eligible for a loan. If you have mortgages that's eligible for a loan, and then that money can be can be used to ramp up production. So I wouldn't be totally discouraged about that until you've actually had a conversation with a banker and I'm not sure too many people have at this point because it is such a new program.

Laura Knoy:
Everything is so new. Sure. And there are the unemployment benefits, too, that she could access if she hasn't already.

Shawn Jasper:
Correct. Which if she were working full time, actually, that could give her potentially more of a income stream than she had before, when this six hundred dollars a week comes through onto the New Hampshire unemployment. So, yes, I wouldn't be discouraged. And I do agree there is a lot of potential for more New Hampshire fresh vegetables being purchased within the state than we've seen before.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Kate, it's good to hear from you. Thank you for writing in. And just last thoughts from you, Commissioner Jasper, a message that you want to put out there for New Hampshire farmers who are listening. And for those Granite Staters who love their local products.

Shawn Jasper:
Well, just that I think that your listeners need to think about how they can support their local agriculture all the time. But particularly now when we're going to see some issues probably in transportation and production and other places, because there's obviously there's going to be disruption, there's going to be illnesses in places which is going to affect harvest. So we need to be supporting those farms. And I think for those farmers, they need to think about what they can do, what their potential are to perhaps plant a little bit more this year and to work with some of the restaurants that they've worked with to see what their demands are, that, you know, some of the co-ops. There's a lot of potential out there. There's, you know, lot of resources that are available that they may not have thought of. They can certainly start by looking on our Web site for the links that we have. And go directly to cooperative extension. I wouldn't be discouraged if I was farming right now because I think there is some potential for reawakening the importance of local food.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Commissioner Jasper, it's always good to talk to you. Thank you.

Shawn Jasper:
You're welcome. Good to talk to you.

Laura Knoy:
That's Shawn Jasper. He's New Hampshire's commissioner of the Department of Agriculture Markets and Food. Coming up, how dairy farmers are adapting. Also, we'll talk to a meat producer in the North Country. Stay with us. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, Granite State farmers face a spring like no other due to the coronavirus. We're checking in and let's hear from you, especially if you're connected to local farming as a producer or a customer. And we're bringing in the voices of several local farmers today. With us now is Jamie Robertson. He and his wife and their son Sy own the Bohanan Farm and Contoocook Creamery in Contoocook. And Jamie, welcome back. Really nice to have you.

Jamie Robertson:
Thanks for having us. Laura, really appreciate you doing the show on agriculture today.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and from the North Country, joining us is Joyce Brady. She owns both the CJEJ Farm and the Meat House in Columbia. And Joyce is also Coos County Farm Bureau president and vice president of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau. And Joyce, thank you very much as well. We appreciate your time.

Joyce Brady:
Thank you very much for having me on.

Laura Knoy:
Well, both of you, just briefly, if you could first describe what you produce on your farm and how big or small an operation it is. And Joyce, why don't you go first.

Joyce Brady:
So on our farm, we produce beef. We raise pigs for the pork. My daughter in law and son have sheep and goats. We have laying hens. We raise broilers and we raise turkeys. So pretty much all the protein through meat we raise.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. That's really interesting. Joyce and I read that nationally in The New York Times any way they said meat is flying off the shelves. How's it going for you right now?

Joyce Brady:
I am the busiest I've ever been this time of year. I am having trouble keeping up, we sent over an animal strictly for hamburg, and I'm working on that right now.

Laura Knoy:
Why do you suppose that is, Joyce?

Joyce Brady:
One, you know, everybody's starting out to buy through panic. They want to get the freezer stocked. They're realizing now that kind of people have got their freezer stocked, they're realizing that they don't really want to be in the grocery store. There's more people. People touch more things. So they're reaching out to the local farmers. Is it helping our business a lot.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So they'd rather go to the CJEJ farm and the meat house than going to, you know, Shaws or Hannaford's or whatever.

Joyce Brady:
I've had multiple, multiple people tell me that when they walk in the store.

Jamie Robertson:
Wow. Jamie, first, just remind us what you produce on your farm. Dairy, obviously. But give us a sense of what kinds of dairy products you guys produce and how big or small it is.

Jamie Robertson:
Sure. So there's my wife and I and oldest son in partnership and own the farm. And then we have two other full grown sons that are also coming in as partners in the near future. And then about ten or twelve employees on top of that. We we milk about 180 cows. We have a total of about 320 dairy animals between replacements milking cows and and cows that are on their maternity leave. And we bottle about a day's worth, two days worth of that production under our own name, as Contoocook Creamery and distribute that throughout throughout the southern part of the state.

Laura Knoy:
And Jamie, I don't remember if you do cheese or not.

Jamie Robertson:
We do some cheese also, though, that's been a tight supply at the moment. We weren't quite expecting the run on cheese. So we're all on cheese at the moment. We're working on getting that restocked. Our farm produces about roughly 2800 to 2900 eight ounce servings of milk a day is about what we figure. In that we're kind of a mid sized farm in New Hampshire, a little on the bigger side of New Hampshire farms-

Laura Knoy:
Sounds relatively large by New Hampshire farming standards. You know, Jamie, it was really interesting to hear Joyce say she'd never been busier as people don't want to go to the regular grocery store, as people want to stock that freezer with local produce. What are you seeing on your end in terms of dairy and cheese?

Jamie Robertson:
Well, I'm talking to you from the parking lot of a restaurant in Londonderry because I'm on my way to my second farm stand that we usually deliver to once a week that have been selling out in about two days time. So there's no doubt local farm stands have been just the ones that are open, have been getting a tremendous amount of business out of this and it's been very good. And exactly like Joyce said, people wanted to be in a smaller shopping experience than than the bigger stores.

Laura Knoy:
Jamie, how about the closure of restaurants and schools? Those seem to me to be big clients for local milk, especially schools. What about that?

Jamie Robertson:
So it's that's been an issue for us. We aren't too big into that market, so personally it hasn't hurt our farm as much in some of the other farms. Two the bigger farms milk the same way we do. It has had a had a big crunch on them. We still market five to six days worth of milk as wholesale. And it's had a horrible, horrible effect on the wholesale market. That our big our big processors rely tremendously on restaurants and in schools. And we've seen price drop 30, 40 percent while they're struggling to keep milk in stores, which is just horrible.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So you have always sold more directly to local grocery stores and at local farmers market so that restaurants and schools, the disruptions there haven't really affected you. Jamie, is that what you're saying?

Jamie Robertson:
Not nearly as much in the restaurants that we do have are doing some curbside pickup and take out. And their business has been curtailed dramatically. But they're adapting like, you know, all small business people, farmers and all of our customers. That's one of the things that we're good at adapting as quick as we can. And this is going to you know, for restaurants, I feel awful for them. That's just. You know, we still have we still have a wholesale income at this point, but restaurants don't even have that. That's a rough road for them at the moment.

Joyce Brady:
Well, Joyce, how about you? How much did you sell to local restaurants in Coos County? And has the closure of restaurants or schools affected your business?

Joyce Brady:
So I do not sell to restaurants at this time. We kind of look into it. We talked to a few restaurants and it just, you know, we live in Coos County and people live on a very tight budget up here. So the other problem that we have being a small meat market in raising our own you know, we're selling what we're raising is, if a restaurant wants 20 porterhouse steaks, well, I'm going to kill... Well, say, they want 40 porterhouse steaks, I'm going to kill two cows just for a porterhouse steaks for that restaurant for that weekend. So I haven't found a way to really work with restaurants. So it that has not affected me.

Laura Knoy:
Interesting. Who else were some of your key customers, Joyce? And are they still buying, it sounds like, from what you said earlier, they are.

Joyce Brady:
Yes. So I would say probably half of my customer base is the people coming up from down south. So obviously those numbers are down because you don't have as much travel. My local customer base has grown drastically and my hope is when this is over, they'll be used to coming here. They'll like the quality and it'll help me in the long run.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. So in normal times, half of your customers would be people who were there for tourism or coming through the region or visiting or second homes and so forth. Now it's more of a local base that's got to be more reliable, Joyce, in a way, right?

Joyce Brady:
Yeah. And it's really comforting because that's kind of what we set up. We set up knowing that we would have that base coming from the south. And I was very surprised at how much local support we were starting to get. But now there's so much more and it's just good for everybody.

Laura Knoy:
You know, Commissioner Jasper has said that as we continue to see the number of Covid-19 cases increase here in New Hampshire and I'm quoting him here, we need to be ever mindful of our responsibility to act in a manner which lessens the spread of the disease. I'm curious as to how the two of you have changed the way that you operate, the way that you work. And Jamie, you first. How much has changed in terms of the way that, you know, you and your wife and your sons, you get up in the morning and you do what you do?

Jamie Robertson:
Yeah, and all the hired help too.

Laura Knoy:
You have 18 employees, you told us earlier. Sure. Go ahead.

Jamie Robertson:
Well 10 plus us. You know, we're very excited to be on the show recognizing us as frontline workers. And, you know, social distancing is certainly difficult in dairy farming. But, you know, we're watching our employees and making sure that that is if if someone is exposed, if they get to stay home, you know, on the employee side. O We have a small farm store at the farm also. And that's that's just kind of a very small spot that just a person or two at a time are in there and and set out sanitizer and stuff so that you can sanitize your hands after handling cash. And we run through and sanitize the doorknobs and the handles and the windows. And as far as ... On the Contoocook Creamery side, we've had, you know, drastic changes there. And we've embraced them and take them on with excitement.

Jamie Robertson:
And, you know, we talked about one of our major retail operations that we deliver to stop taken glass bottles back. They'll still sell our glass bottles, but it's really hard to fill in when we don't get them back. I actually started to prepare for that one with the governors, you know, asking not to bring back reusable bags. I figured it wouldn't be long before bottles got roped into that. Most of our customers are still taking bottles back. Just the one big retail retail operation that doesn't want to do it. It makes up about 50 percent of our business. So if you do have bottles, you're still able to return them at most of our customers. And we've gone to plastic - that rolled off the line on Saturday. We made a fast, fast switch. And today, I'm delivering plastic half gallons. Plastic quarts will come later on in the week and we'll keep on bottling both plastic and glass as long as we keep getting enough glass back to offer for the stores that want it and the customers want it.

Laura Knoy:
I'm glad you mentioned that because we did get a call when Commissioner Jasper was on someone wondering about that. Commissioner Jasper said, look, the Department of Agriculture can't do anything about this. This is really an individual sort of business decision between you and the grocery store. Is that is that correct?

Jamie Robertson:
I think he's right there. Some stores are still allowing us to to take bottles back. And it is, it's an individual store. And we all want our customers to be safe and feel safe, realize that we're offering real clean, healthy products. And that's one of the things that I wanted to make sure to do, two things I want to make sure we mentioned. But, you know, all of the federal rules and regulations into producing, this is why we do them, you know, so that was so that we can keep food safe. And that's kind of obvious with, you know, communicable diseases you don't get through our food system. Does the FISMA plans and all those plans. We have to participate in and take real seriously and make sure that everybody make sure that your food is safe.

Laura Knoy:
Today on The Exchange, we are finding out how local farmers are doing during this coronavirus pandemic. It's been really interesting. Some aspects of their businesses, they're telling us they're doing quite well. And David in Canterbury is on the line. Hi, David. Thanks for calling in. Go ahead.

Caller:
I really, really enjoy this kind of a show. I was 80 years old last Monday and I was raised on a small farm. We didn't even have electricity. We milked in the wintertime with the lantern and my grandfather never milked over 15 cows, between 10 to 15 depending on. But he delivered the milk to the door with a horse and wagon and then a panel truck and never made butter. And you would pick up butter on the way by their place. And if you left out three empty bottles, he would leave you three new. And back then the doors weren't locked. He would take the milk right in and put it in their ice box. More and more, it seems like the bigger farms are getting, the less money they make. And they have to have a government subsidy. He ran his farm and never got a nickel of government subsidies. He put three kids through college and when he was in his wheelchair in his nineties, he said he never borrowed a nickel from anybody in his life. And I think wee're going to have to get back to that style of living.

Laura Knoy:
David, it's so great to hear from you. I love that image of your dad going around and picking up the milk bottles. And a lot of people remember that time where you had the you know that the metal box on your doorstep and you put your used bottles in there and and the milkman would pick it up. Is this a model, what do you think, Jamie, that you might return to?

Jamie Robertson:
We've been asked about home delivery. For the most part, New Hampshire isn't populated quite enough to make that work,is what our calculation has been. Southern New Hampshire certainly has some pockets that do for sure. We haven't been able to make the equation work on our operation yet.

Laura Knoy:
Well, it's really good to hear from you, David. And Joyce, to his point about sort of small is beautiful. He didn't, his father didn't have to take federal loans or subsidies or anything like that because they were sort of small and deeply connected with their customers. What do you think? Is that sort of your experience producing meat in Coos County?

Joyce Brady:
Well, that was a good time. And it would be nice to get back to that. Times have changed and part of the change is so many people are disconnected from the farm. They go to the grocery store and they get everything they want. They don't have to wait for the milk man to show up and then they don't have to wait for the meat man to show up. So, yes, it would be nice to get back to that time, but time has moved on and things have changed. We have actually talked about doing a route, trying to figure out how to do a delivery route. We've been talking about it for about a half a year now. Farmers markets. You know, we go to the one in Gorham. It's a great one. We do very well. But it's an hour over there. It's three hours there. It's an hour back. A lot of tying up a vehicle. So we have actually talked about a delivery route. It just we haven't figured it out yet.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Joyce, I'm going to let you go. Oh, go ahead. Go ahead, Jamie.

Jamie Robertson:
One of the things that's changed from from the time that David was talking about to today's time, is the amount of the amount of income, the percent of income that spent on food. So back in that, back in the early nineteen hundreds, the percent that the American family, the percent of their income that they spent on food was huge compared to today. So it's very difficult for us to make the kind of living that we need to put our kids through college and to provide retirements for our for the generation before us and build a retirement for my wife and I, on a small farm like that. Just just the calculations, you know, on 15 cows right now, we'd be talking about total money coming in of probably something like ten or fifteen thousand dollars.

Laura Knoy:
So life has gotten more expensive, Jamie. And people expect to pay less for food. So it just doesn't add up for you.

Jamie Robertson:
Yes, that's that's what I'm trying to say. Exactly.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Joyce, we're going to let you go. But one last question before we do you. In addition to running, you're very busy meat business. You are Coos County Farm Bureau president. What are you hearing from other farmers in your area?

Joyce Brady:
So I actually reached out when you guys had talked to me and I'm hearing similar things, the whole sale on anything. We've got a big maple producer. Right in Lancaster said the wholesale market is just gone. They weren't able to do Sugar Weekend. So, you know, that was a big hit to them. But their online sales, they're seeing a lot of people trying to still support them through online sales. So back to the local portion. The local portion is really helping when you get into a wholesale world with school shut down and restaurants limited because of, you know, just curbside pickup. It's really affecting them.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Joyce, good luck to you. It's really good to talk to you today.

Joyce Brady:
All right. Thank you very much.

Laura Knoy:
That's Joyce Brady. She's owner of both the CJEJ Farm and the Meat House in Columbia. And as we said, she's also Coos County Farm Bureau president. So coming up, an Upper Valley vegetable farmer looks at new models to stay connected with customers. We'll find out more.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, New Hampshire farmers face a spring like no other due to the coronavirus. We're checking in on the Granite Staters who produce our local food. We've been talking with several local farmers this morning. Joining us now is Pooh Sprague. He runs Edgewater Farm in Plainfield. That's a fruit and vegetable farm in the Upper Valley. Good morning. Thank you for being here. And just remind us, what kind of food do you grow? Is it fruit and vegetables only?Is there a seedling business?

Pooh Sprague:
We're trapped in that high diversification paradigm that a lot of us got into over the years. We have a fairly significant portion of income is derived from greenhouse sales, ornamentals, hanging baskets, vegetables starts, flowers, ornamentals. And then we have part of that component is that we grow a lot of vegetables in greenhouses as well. So we're well along are our year. And what we do next...our next challenge is definitely how do we how do we deliver products? And that's what we're coping with.

Laura Knoy:
So when you say we're well along in our year, you're out in your greenhouses and you've got plants, from what I saw on your Facebook page that are, you know, in pretty decent shape so far.

Pooh Sprague:
Yeah, I mean, it's like when the whole thing hit, people going like we have a lot of calls, a daily thing, are you open? are you growing? you know, what's going on? It's like farming. We have to get the loans or by the 1st of January, the loans are already on the line. The seeds are on their way, fertilizers ordered. So you're pretty well committed. And that's what we're sort of doing. We really can't change the ship in midstream to any advantage. So we're going ahead with our crop plans and projections based on what we did last year, just like this thing never hit. The problem is going to be is how the system by which we get the goods to the people. And unfortunately, fortunately, it's diversified. The problem with that is these various marketing strategies that we utilize, which are pick your own CSA shares, or a retail stand and our wholesale accounts, we have to think about how that's going to impact each of those four areas.

Laura Knoy:
So CSAs, farm stands, regular stores. Each one of those has a different sort of set of concerns with it. And because you're so diversified, Pooh, You have to think about what you need to do in each one of those very different situations.

Pooh Sprague:
Exactly. And you know, the daily phone call around the Upper Valley farmers is, you know, starts off, well, what are you gonna do? And that's clearly. Everything is so fluid, changing daily that, you know, it's really hard to commit to a path halfway when we just learned about this thing, you know, four weeks ago.

Laura Knoy:
Right And everything is changing every day.

Pooh Sprague:
So we're trying to navigate that. There's brighter minds on the farm than I have for working through social media. They're investigating online purchasing platforms. We're talking with a co-op who's one of our big wholesale accounts. Trying to figure this out so that, you know, we can deliver, get it out there, to everybody who wants it and do it safe and sane way?

Laura Knoy:
Well, and Pooh, you probably heard earlier that we have on the line with us Jamie Robertson, he and his wife own the Bohanan Farm and Contoocook Creamery. And we also talked early with Joyce Brady. She owns The Meat House in Columbia, where she sells the meat, that she and her family produces. And everybody was talking about the importance of sort of going local, small, local grocery stores, farmer's markets, maybe selling directly to customers. And towards that end, I want to read an email from Brett, who works at the Warner Public Market.

Laura Knoy:
He says, We are a small local grocery co-operative that aggregates food from farms in the Kearsarge area and New Hampshire. Brett says We've had to change our whole operation to be sure, we are doing everything we can to keep our customers safe. All of this has probably quadrupled our workload. Wow, Brett. He says it's encouraging that people are beginning to recognize the importance of our local food suppliers and distributors and act upon that understanding. Brett says money spent at small farms and local food retailers like Warner Public Market stays in our local economy and supports our neighboring farm families. In regards to the milk bottle issue, Brett says we carry Contoocook Creamery glass bottles and have a collection point where bottles are quarantined first for three days and then go into a disinfection bath before we return them to the farm. And boy that glass bottle issue keeps coming up, Jamie. Brett, thank you very much for writing and just Jamie, overall, what do you think about that? He's actually he says this has quadrupled his workload, but he does feel like people are beginning to recognize the importance of local food. I wonder what you think, Jamie, what you're hearing from people.

Jamie Robertson:
I think he's right. Spot on. We work with them, Sy delivers to them Wednesday mornings. But I think that the importance of local on the small scale is... One farmstand I was talking to in Milford says, you know, we're loving all these people coming through our stand. It's awesome. But if we could get just 10 percent of you to keep coming through after something like this happens, you know, we're always here and we're always growing this food for you. And we need you to recognize that and stop in all the time. And on the other side of that, you know, most of New Hampshire's dairies are all wholesale and that market is in disastrous shape right now across the country, they're dumping tanker loads of milk. But one of the neat things about that is that you can see that dairy is still a local product. I deliver into the grocery stores all the time. And when this panic buying first hit the dairy case got cleaned right out, but the dairy case filled right back up again with the local brands of milk, you know, the Hood, the Oakhurst and the store brands. But the eggs are just barely starting to come back into stock now. This is three, four weeks after the milk caught up. And that's because our egg market isn't local anymore. We have we have Pete & Gerry's up north. But in the 40s and 50s, there was more chickens per square mile than anywhere else in the world in Hillsborough County. And now we have one or two commercial, big commercial operations left and that showed up in the grocery stores. You know, the milk filled right back up again. And how important it is to keep, not just the small farms, but also the big commodity dairy farms and apple farms that are still in the state, that they play a real important key role, and vegetable farms, to keep those stores stocked.

Laura Knoy:
Well, it's interesting you say that, got a little personal story. We eat a lot of eggs in this family. We got five people in the house and people eat a lot of eggs. And we did have that shortage. And for us, we thought, OK, what are we gonna do? And we did manage to connect with a local farmer who had been supplying a local breakfast place. That breakfast place had closed down. So he was wondering where can I sell my eggs? And we were able to connect through a friend with him and we now get, oh, gosh, seven dozen eggs from him every week. And they're beautiful. They arrive fresh from the farm. So that's great. I want to take a caller. This is Karen in Plainfield. Probably a neighbor of yours, Pooh Sprague. Go ahead, Karen. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Yeah, I'm sort of roundabout related to him because Mike Harrington works for him. I was wondering, Mr. Sprague, do you still have your workers that I believe are, many of them are from Jamaica or wherever? Or is it difficult to get them back in? And number two, if you can't get them back in, since the work in the vegetable fields are spread out, could you use high school students or other neighbors that would be willing to go out there and help with the farm?

Laura Knoy:
Well, Karen, I really appreciate the call? We actually talked about this earlier with Commissioner Jasper. The H-2A visas is a big deal and Pooh Sprague. What do you think?

Pooh Sprague:
Well, you know, I've heard that it's tough, some of the Jamaican H2A guys, our guys are all papered. They're all due to get here. But getting them here is much more expensive this year. And of course, there's the whole issue of quarantining them. And when they get here, that's got to be an expense for sure. But I think it's important to note that, you know, it's nice to, and we have hired high school and college kids. But the problem also for a farm of our size is that, you know, it's not during strawberry anymore. It's our busiest time of the year is when the college kids head out at Hopkinton Fair season and they're gone. And we have a ton of stuff to dig out of the field, get washed up, get into cold storage. Daily harvest, daily deliver. We really rely on the backbone of these professional guys to come up. And I say professional, because if you've got a guy from Jamaica who's been here 20 years, he's not a laborer. He's a manager. And so, yeah, we're going to be, if they don't show up, we're gonna have some problems and we're gonna have to sort of figure that out. Ray put of crop plan on my greenhouse bench for me to look at the other day. It was two columns and one was, you know, you know, Roy and Jasper get back here. The other column was blank, if they don't get back here. So, you know, everything changes so much. And I can't predict. You can only prioritize your work, you know, I mean, if I really let myself go into all the what ifs, I'd never get any sleep.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Commissioner Jasper spoke to what you're saying, Pooh, which is, you know, a lot of these workers from Jamaica and elsewhere have been doing this work here in New Hampshire for many years. And it isn't just as simple as like plugging in one person versus another person. These people are trained and experienced and they know what they're doing. But I appreciate the call, Karen, because it is something that people are thinking about. Lindsey sent us an email. She says Local fishermen are facing similar challenges and working to adapt to more local sail options as well. Fishermen and farmers on the frontlines together, and I thank them for all the efforts they are taking to keep us fed. Lindsey, thank you so much. What a nice sentiment to close out this show today. Pooh Sprague, really quickly, what makes you feel hopeful?

Pooh Sprague:
You know, every year, all farmers, but, you know, we're not in the commodity business, have to reinvent themselves to some degree.You know, whether you plant, transplant less, take plant because the sales have been tapering over a couple of years. Well, we'll figure it out. It's going to be a tough year to get through, for sure. But, you know, we get on the back side of it. Maybe we'll learn something and maybe we'll be better off for it. You know, you've got to keep it positive.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Pooh Sprague, it's been really nice to talk to you. Thank you very much.That's Pooh Sprague, he runs Edgewater Farm in Plainfield in the Upper Valley. And Jamie Robertson, it's always good to talk to you, too. Jamie Robertson, he and his wife and his son own Bohanan Farm and Contoocook Creamery in Contoocook. The Exchange is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.