2023 hit farmers hard. Now, many say NH's Ag department is making things worse in 2024


New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 05-19-2024 2:55 PM

At the start of every growing season for the past 14 years, James Steever, who co-owns Generation Farm in Concord, works his fields, plants his seeds — and hand-delivers his organic certification application to the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture.

But this February, when he arrived at the department’s office, he was met with some unexpected news.

“It was the Tuesday before the deadline,” he said. “And when I went in, the director told me that they had decided to terminate the program.”

The sudden end to the state’s organic certification program came at a particularly stressful stretch for New Hampshire farmers, after last year's incredibly destructive growing season and drought posing a regular threat in recent years. Last year, many farmers across the state experienced massive crop loss due to extreme weather like flooding and late frosts.

The state's farmers — organic and non-organic — find themselves struggling financially this year, but now some are saying recent moves by the Department of Agriculture and its commissioner, Shawn Jasper, are potentially making things even worse. The tensions are flaring up in informal conversations among farmers, and in public forums where some have accused Jasper of not serving the best interests of the state’s agricultural community.

“I felt like someone was trying to kick me when I was down,” Steever said of the department.

The end of organic certification in NH

The Department of Agriculture announced the end of its organic certification program at the end of February, which many local farmers said came as an unwelcome surprise. Jasper had been raising concerns about the future of the program since last fall, but farmers and agriculture advocates said the department made it seem like any changes would not happen for at least a few years.

“We all thought that for this year everything was going to be the same,” Steever said.

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According to Jasper, the program was untenable because of budget and personnel constraints. The state offered some of the lowest fees for farmers in the country, around $50 to $500, depending on the size of the farm. But that meant that it only brought in around $15,000 while costing the department around $200,000 to administer.

Certification is necessary for farmers to sell any of their products as “organic.” The process requires them to meet guidelines set by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. But it’s a time consuming task for both the certifying agent and the farm being evaluated. Farmers are required to keep track of every crop they seed, harvest and sell, and the certifying agent has to review this paperwork every year.

Jasper said that he had intended to keep the program running through 2024, but said he always mentioned the caveat that if the program’s staffing dipped below three people, it would have to shutter. Jasper said his “worst fear came true” when an employee announced they would be on-leave for 12 weeks and the department decided to end the program.

Prior to terminating the program, the department worked with agriculture stakeholders, including farmers and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New Hampshire, to find other options. An effort to secure an additional $220,000 to keep the program running for another year failed in the Legislature in February.

NOFA-NH conducted numerous surveys regarding farmers preferences, and they said farmers overwhelmingly wanted the state to continue the program.

“Working with the Department of Ag as an organic certifier provided New Hampshire's organic farmers with a direct connection to the state's Department of Agriculture, and farmers deeply valued that connection,” said Teresa Downey, a program coordinator at NOFA-NH.

Farmers also said that while they appreciated the state’s low fees, they were willing to pay more if it ensured the New Hampshire-based program would stay alive. But now all of the 66 organic farms certified by the state have had to find a new certifying agent or surrender their organic designation.

Katie Doyle Smith, owner of Pork Hill Farm in Ossipee, N.H., is switching to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which she said has a similar certification process to New Hampshire’s, but a much higher price tag.

“The cost is quadrupled basically,” she said.

Farmers and advocates said they wish the department had made the announcement sooner, given the challenge of selecting a new certifying agent and the busyness of the start of growing season. Downey said the early spring is a challenging time for farmers.

“Their cash flow is low, but yet their expenses are high. They're starting everything they have to buy supplies, they have to buy seeds,” she said. “And now an unexpected jump in not only certification fees, but the time they have to spend researching and then applying.”

Backlash to crop loss program

It’s not just the organic certification program that has farmers upset with the department and Jasper. Because of last year’s widespread crop loss, many farmers found themselves struggling to stay afloat and hoped the state could provide some relief. Several potential programs were discussed in the fall and winter, and in February the state approved using $8 million of leftover federal COVID relief for hard-hit farmers. But once the application guidelines were announced, many farmers said the program came with too much red tape.

During a webinar in March explaining how to apply for the program, some farmers voiced their discontent with the reward criteria and the amount of personal financial information required to apply.

“Many of us, we lost a lot,” said Stephen Wood, who runs an orchard in West Lebanon. “But this looks like a fishing expedition to me.”

Some farmers who did hand over the extensive financial information required said they received so little money it barely made a dent and wondered why farmers in other New England states got more aid and got it faster.

Jasper said hefty handouts are not possible in a state without a sales or an income tax like New Hampshire.

“Well, I mean, to be quite blunt, I guess then you're living in the wrong state because this is not a state that has deep pockets,” he said of farmers hoping for more money.

“This is the reality of living in New Hampshire,” he added. “To complain about that, okay, go to your reps, go to your senators and tell them that you want them to advocate for a sales and income tax so that you can get more money from the government.”

Jasper said he didn’t expect farmers to ask for help, or to complain about the aid they did get.

“I'm quite surprised by that, because farmers tend to be very self resilient,” he said.

But some farmers and local agriculture advocates disagree with Jasper’s outlook. Julie Davenson, president of the board of directors of NOFA-NH, said any money put into local agriculture benefits the wider community.

“I would look at this as stimulating innovation, stimulating economic development in the long term for the state of New Hampshire by aiding and assisting these farmers,” she said.

New Hampshire differs from neighbors

Most New Hampshire farmers who were certified by the state programs are switching to independent organizations in neighboring New England states. Many of them said they think their peers across state borders have access to more resources.

“You look at surrounding states and there seems to be much more of a community around farms and more support for farms,” said Stephanie Kelleher, owner of Uphill Farm in Whitefield, N.H. “I sometimes feel like New Hampshire is lacking that.”

Like Doyle Smith, Steever has also switched to the Maine organic farmers association. Switching certifiers was a headache, but now he is seeing the benefits of not working with a state government and a commissioner that he views as indifferent — at best — to the needs of organic farmers.

“If the state doesn't want to work with the farmers, then why should anybody expect it to turn out well?” he said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.