by Edith Tucker
The 38th annual New Hampshire Farm, Forest and Garden Exposition kicked off live on Zoom recently, with NH Commissioner of Agriculture Shawn Jasper and Expo Director Ken La Valley, Ph.D., of UNH Cooperative Extension focusing on how they and the departments they lead were able to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two leaders who were appointed to positions during 2020 also spoke: Director Patrick Hackley of the NH Division of Forests and Lands and Director Anton Bekkerman, Ph.D., of the NH Agricultural Experiment Station in Durham, who also fills other UNH posts.
“We’ve had to adapt; everything’s been unprecedented and ‘on the fly,’” Jasper said. The pandemic has lasted far longer than he thought it would. Early on, he explained, the governor and his team realized that agriculture would be impacted by the pandemic, and $7 million in federal CARES Act funds were allocated – $5.5 million to dairy and $1.5 million to non-dairy. Jasper himself oversaw the dairy dollars, and UNH Extension oversaw rest of the disbursements.
“Dairy farmers were impacted the most, since schools and restaurants were closed, and maple producers next, since the restrictions came just as maple weekends were scheduled,” the commissioner said. “In time, many of our farms did really well. Vegetable growers spaced out their customers, and pick-your-own farms alternated one-way rows.”
At first, many in-person services were pulled back, but inspections and testing were soon resumed, often in the larger spaces of other state agencies. Jasper reported that although a $250,000 line item in the current budget to buy development rights on farms to help keep the state’s rural character was frozen, the governor has included these dollars in his proposed two-year budget.
La Valley reported that UNH Extension was able to pivot quickly to provide services when they were urgently needed. Extension, for example, documented a big increase in “page views,” indicating that answers to online inquiries and other resources were used more frequently. “4-H created a virtual online community through Facebook, posted online learning activities and sent over 250 learning kits home that covered topics from engineering to growing pizza gardens,” La Valley said. Nonetheless, nearly 1,400 in-person participants attended workshops in June 2020, including large woodlot and barn visits.
Extension worked closely with the public assistance community to create the NH Food Access Map, an online platform on which organizations offer their services and share their needs with the public. The map shows where free or low-cost food is offered, volunteers are needed and donations are accepted. Already viewed over 28,000 times, this map lists 375 sites where families in crisis can get food, including pop-up meal sites and farms that accept EBT.
“Our specialists continued working in the field, making 751 farm visits,” La Valley said. He proudly touted Extension’s new webinar series and podcast, “Granite State Gardening.” Youth and family programs have leveraged over $3.5 million in additional federal, state and foundation funds to bring active in-home ag-focused learning experiences to thousands of youth in northern New England states.
Although new to his position as director of the state Department of Forests and Lands, Hackley recalled how much he had enjoyed the Expo when his now-adult children were young. “It was like a town meeting in the middle of the City of Manchester – a wonderful human interaction event where you saw and talked with many colleagues,” he said.
Forests and Lands manages 200,000 acres of public land, oversees 15 fire towers plus some mountaintop communication equipment and the state forest nursery. “It’s been a challenge just getting to know my staff during a pandemic,” Hackley said. The department’s work continues, including timber harvesting, with COVID-19 not affecting either its caliber or quality, he added.
“Foresters, by and large, like social distancing, and sometimes farmers on their tractors do too,” Hackley chuckled.
Bekkerman, whose last post was in Bozeman, MT, said he regrets that the pandemic has prevented him from traveling around the state, but that he will not have 10,000-acre wheat farms to visit. The Experiment Station in Durham supports 52 Ph.D. scientists and 38 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, plus 810 research farm and forest acres and 304 research cows, the enthusiastic agricultural economist explained.
His quantitative list also includes 1,359,711 stakeholders – the state’s entire population. Bekkerman is committed to strengthening the connections between station scientists and the Granite State community, whose members are its beneficiaries and supporters. He said, “I’d like the station’s work to become more bi-directional.”
Former Ag Commissioner Steve Taylor, who started the Expo shortly after he was appointed in 1982, recalled how and why the Expo was started at a time when development was rampant in southern NH. Those who recommended his appointment to the governor believed, Taylor said, that it was important to raise the visibility of agriculture and the quality of life, landscapes and culture that farms and forests support. The Expo’s founding and development was his and many others’ response.
In 2021, the Expo will offer new content all year: videos, workshops and a virtual industry tradeshow. All options can be found at NHfarmandforestexpo.org.