Farmers face climatic changes, loss of farmland, but look for opportunities



                The New England Food Vision has a bold goal of 50 by 60. That is 50 percent of the food consumed in New England will be produced in New England by 2060.  Currently, in the state of New Hampshire, all the food our hard working farmers produce is estimated to be about 4-6 percent of food demand.   

                According to one of the authors of the Food Vision, it will take an estimated 16 million acres to feed New England’s 14.5 million people but the region has just 2 million acres of active farmland. The dramatic shift proposed for our landscape is just one of the many challenges that we need to overcome to achieve this vision for New England agriculture.

The biggest challenge that remains is for our farm businesses to become more profitable if we want to see current businesses grow and new ones start. According to census data, the net cash income per farm in Cheshire County is $3,047. Farming is a high investment and high risk business.

                When you ask a farmer about challenges they are facing, the weather is one of the first things to come up because each growing season brings a new set of challenges.  As the climate changes weather events will become even more unpredictable bringing additional tests to profitability.

               More intense precipitation in the Northeast has the potential to damage crops, delay spring plantings and result in lower yields. Warmer temperatures may extend the growing season but insect pests may show up earlier in the season and with greater intensity. Warmer temperatures are also a concern for livestock who don’t tolerate high heat well in the summer.   

                To address these growing challenges the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created Climate Hubs to deliver science-based adaptation information to provide the tools farmers need. The Northeast Hub is located in Durham NH.  This builds on the good work of UNH Cooperative Extension and the valuable education they offer to NH farms in all growing conditions. 

               One really positive thing farmers have been doing to adapt their growing practices to the weather are constructing high tunnels.  Locally, in Cheshire and Sullivan County, the USDA has worked with farmers to install 41 high tunnels and 25 more are contracted to go up in 2016.  The tunnels provide a constant temperature for seedlings  helping them develop a good root system so they'll survive once planted outside.

               Beside climate unpredictability, another challenge is access to land. The NH Department of Agriculture Markets and Food Commissioner Lorraine Merrill has said that the biggest threat to agriculture is the loss of farmland. Unfortuneately, NH is one of the top five states that have developed the greatest percentage of their agricultural land. Between 1982 and 2007, NH has converted 13 percent of all agricultural land to development and as the economy picks up the threat for more conversion strengthens.   

             The news is not all bad. Locally we are very lucky to have the Monadnock Conservancy, a land trust that works directly with landowners on permanent conservation agreements. In 2014, they hired a project manager who is focused primarily on farmland conservation and they are ramping up their number of new farmland conservation projects. In the pipeline now are eight new farmland projects totaling nearly 500 acres in the Monadnock Region.

            The challenges for agriculture in New Hampshire today are many, but the opportunities are also great. Community support for agriculture in our region is strong and continues to grow.

             Farmers are continuing to innovate by creating value-added products to improve net profitability of their businesses, embracing agritourism to bring in needed revenue, exploring new markets for their products and adopting innovative management practices to steward the valuable natural resources on which we all rely. 

           The success of New England agriculture adds much value to the quality of life in our region and with continued community support it will develop and prosper.   


Amanda Littleton is District Manager of Cheshire County Conservation District and is based in Walpole.


The link to Food Vision.

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