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The Job Interview: New Boston farmer standing up for small producers

  • Roger Noonan starts his tractor for the first time this year at his organic farm in New Boston; Thursday, April 25, 2013. <br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Roger Noonan starts his tractor for the first time this year at his organic farm in New Boston; Thursday, April 25, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Roger Noonan poses for a portrait at his organic farm in New Boston; Thursday, April 25, 2013. <br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Roger Noonan poses for a portrait at his organic farm in New Boston; Thursday, April 25, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Roger Noonan starts his tractor for the first time this year at his organic farm in New Boston; Thursday, April 25, 2013. <br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
  • Roger Noonan poses for a portrait at his organic farm in New Boston; Thursday, April 25, 2013. <br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

The New England Farmers Union was founded in 2006 as an offshoot of the National Farmers Union, with an aim, according to its website, to enhance “the quality of life for family farmers, fishermen, nurserymen and their customers.”

The organization, led by Roger Noonan, an organic farmer from New Boston, spends a lot of time lobbying. Its focus of late: the Food Safety Modernization Act, which critics claim unfairly burdens small-scale producers. The bill, designed to give the Food and Drug Administration more power to prevent contamination hazards, was enacted in 2011 but has yet to be fully implemented because of legal challenges and extended periods of public comment.

Noonan said the bill essentially treats all farms and food producers equally, which is wrong, because they’re not. He warned that the bill as written would likely put farmers like himself out of business by imposing expensive and often unwarranted safety tests.

“It’s essentially swinging a big hammer at farms like mine and others in New England,” Noonan said.

Can you talk a bit more about your organization’s concerns about the act?

It’s going to have a major impact on the economic viability of small-scale producers because of the regulatory burdens to get yourself up to and compliant with these rules. I hate to place the blame on

large farms, but, well . . . we’ve got long supply chains in this country. A bag of spinach that comes out of California, say the San Joaquin Valley, has a huge potential to be contaminated because of the scale of the operations out there. The law was driven by those issues. But what we’ve seen is the rules actually put the onus on small farms, which are not part of the problem.

There are several components to the act, but, for example, take the rules on the water. Out West, they don’t have a lot of surface water, so they get subsidized water from aquifers. But here in New Hampshire, where a lot of us use surface water, we would have to test that water every couple of days under the act. That would cost me about $7,000 per year, and that is a lot for a middle-size farm like mine, with 30 acres of produce and 100 acres of hay and feed.

There would also be new constraints on the use of manure. Under the law, I would have to wait 270 days after laying down manure before I can harvest a crop from that land. That’s basically taking the field out of production for the entire year. As an organic farmer we often use compost, but it is a cost, so when we can apply manure we do, because it’s more cost effective. If small farms were really the problem, people would know it. Consumers would be sick, and we would lose substantial business.

We’ve seen a tremendous rise in local produce in the past few years. We’re talking a 25 percent rise in local produce sales. And that has made an impact on these larger-scale packers and producers, who have a lot of the money and power to influence how this act was written.

So it makes sense that there is some push-back from them, and that that comes through in the legislation. But it’s not right, because unlike them we can’t afford to pass new regulatory costs onto our customers.

How are you working to address your concerns?

Our first task is for us to understand the rules. I’ve taken the time to read the rules, attend meetings, participate in conference calls. Then we get the farmer’s perspective and then we educate other farmers. I’ve noticed somewhat larger farmers in New England may not be too worried about the regulations, but when you dig deeper into the rule there is a lot more that is not readily discernible from a quick read.

The other thing that’s important is to remind people to be engaged. Because these laws, they do have impacts on family farms, and if we want to see those thrive in New England, we have to make sure these policies treat us fairly.

What about other pieces of legislation – the Farm Bill, the state’s bill to label genetically modified foods?

First of all, I would say we are very blessed to have (U.S. Rep.) Annie Kuster on the House Agriculture Committee. It’s great to have a conduit into that community. As far as the Farm Bill, I’d say our priority is around the conservation components, the programs it sets up. And any part of the food stamps program that we can leverage for local farms, that would be great.

My organization supports labeling of (genetically modified foods). We do not have a particular position on whether they are good or bad in general, but do feel it’s a consumer issue and that it’s appropriate that there be a labeling policy.

We’re not an organization that tells people how to farm. We represent farmers. I’m organic, but that doesn’t mean the interests of organic farmers trump others. But we think it’s important to be a national policy. So we essentially stay out of the state issues and focus of federal efforts.

With all the focus on Washington, how do you, well, find the time to farm?

My son is out there right now on a tractor. . . . Believe me I still get out there. But look, if I want this farm to continue – my son eventually wants to take it over – I need to ensure we can expand and find new markets. Without that access, it will be impossible to eventually support another family. If that’s what I want, then I have to invest the time.

What would you tell someone trying to break into farming in New Hampshire?

That’s a challenge. Land is expensive. That’s not unique to New Hampshire. But there are opportunities for new farmers. And, you know, new farmers are not just young people – one-third of all new farmers are 50 or older. Oftentimes that’s people looking for something new to try or returning to their family farms. But anyway, the challenge is access to land.

There are opportunities out there and ways for them to find those opportunities – sometimes people retire and want to see their land preserved, so there can be agreements made for using the land. There are also low-interest loans. Beyond expense, though, there’s also just the problem of space. I mean the state, it’s covered in trees.

As far as specific advice, that’s a tough one. Sometimes you see a piece of equipment and you think, that’s the one that is going to make life easy, that’s the one that is going to make everything better.

But it doesn’t always work out that way, so be conscious of that. At the same time, anything you can do to save labor is very important. It’s the No. 1 thing. So the challenge is getting good help, training them and keeping them around.

What about your story? How did you find farming?

Probably “stumbled into it” would be the best way to put it. My wife and I are both from farm families, but I started farming part time in 1989 and then went full time in 1999. When we started, I was doing just a little hay. A crop of this, a crop of that.

Today, we’re primarily family operated. Sometimes we’ll bring on four or five additional folks, depending on the time of year.

What’s happening on the farm this time of year?

We’re getting the ground ready for planting. Peas, lettuce, some early greens.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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