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My Turn: Growing Farms – Agriculture is making a comeback in New Hampshire

Frank Hunter drives his  Belgian draft horses Moon, right, and Molly as he turns the soil on his Hillside Springs farm, Tuesday, May 6, 2014 in Westmoreland, N.H. Hunter works with his area Community Supported Agriculture program and grows his organic vegetables for about 100 families in his area.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Frank Hunter drives his Belgian draft horses Moon, right, and Molly as he turns the soil on his Hillside Springs farm, Tuesday, May 6, 2014 in Westmoreland, N.H. Hunter works with his area Community Supported Agriculture program and grows his organic vegetables for about 100 families in his area.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

It sure seems like there are more roadside farm stands, and certainly more roadside “eggs for sale” signs around New Hampshire these days. There has certainly been a noticeable growth in the number of farmers markets, and some would say that there are even too many.

As it turns out, these aren’t just anecdotal observations. Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does a census of agriculture. The last one was completed in 2012, and of course it took them a while to publish the results. But the data is now available, so I decided to take a look and see if my personal observations are borne out by the facts.

Sure enough, farming is growing in our state. Despite the fact that we have a tiny amount of really great farmland (only 8 percent of our land was ever “prime” rock-free agricultural soil) many more people are making good use of what’s left.

Sadly, we lost a lot of our best soils over the past 50 years as developers, who know land that is easy to develop when they see it, converted plenty of it to shopping plazas, office parks and housing subdivisions. In Concord, the evidence is on Fort Eddy Road and Loudon Road. Fortunately, farsighted people saw what we were losing, and with the help of open space bonds, the Conservation Commission, and land trusts, the tide of prime farmland conversion has been receding, and recently more has been protected for farming than lost to development.

But I digress. Yes, farming is having a renaissance in our state. Between 2007 and 2012, there was an increase of more than 200 farms (from 4,166 to 4,391) and an increase of 2,000 acres in farming. Most of these are not full-time farms (like dairy) but part-time operations where farmers supplement their income from other employment. The data says that of all New Hampshire farms, more than half are part-time operations. Given the short growing season in our state, and the small size of most farms, this is not surprising.

Another intersecting trend is the number of these farms that are organic. The census says there are now 192 organic farms in New Hampshire, more than in Nebraska or Missouri. Most people now have some idea of what “organic” means, and many have started buying at least some organic products. Nationally the organic food market has grown to more than $3 billion a year.

Of course New Hampshire is just a tiny part of that total (about $15 million), but it’s still important for those of us who want both locally grown and organic food on the table.

There are, of course, debates about whether organic foods are really better for you. One thing for sure, however, is that growing food organically is healthier for the farmers and the land. Handling less toxic and fewer pesticides and herbicides means organic farmers face fewer occupational exposures to chemicals that can be very dangerous. Beneficial or at least nonharmful insects and animals also suffer less when organic methods are used.

One of the oft repeated mantras of organic growers is “feed the soil, not the plants.” Yes, the plants must be fed to grow, but in a healthy soil, rich in organic matter (organic as in carbon-based materials), the natural processes of soil building and decomposition provide plants with a healthy balance of the many nutrients they demand.

And, it seems, organic farming is also good for the climate. Soil rich in organic material holds an impressive amount of carbon in the form of humus, decaying plant waste and trillions (yes, trillions) of tiny living organisms per acre.

While conventional farming has come to rely on chemically processed fertilizers to feed the plants, it has diminished the importance of organic material in soils. In short, some agriculturalists came to think soil was basically unimportant, except as a medium to hold up the plants.

It turns out that research at the Rodale Institute (corroborated by independent research at academic institutions) has demonstrated that organic farmers are creating “carbon sinks” in their soil, and getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

In a 10-year trial, fields with a crop rotation utilizing composted dairy manure sequestered more than two metric tons of carbon per hectare per year, while the paired conventional farming system lost carbon.

Our soils used to have a lot more carbon in them than they do now. The Rodale Institute estimates that since the dawn of farming, most agricultural soils have lost 30 to 75 percent of their organic carbon. Two-hundred years of land clearing for subsistence farming, sheep grazing, row cropping and other farming methods that neglected to put organic matter back in the soil have depleted a lot of what 10,000 years of forest cover deposited on our state before European settlement.

But today, we are restoring our soils both in our renewed forest cover (now 80 percent of the state) and even faster on our organic farms.

So more farms equals more fresh local food, and organic farms equal better soil, rich in sequestered carbon. Two good reasons to visit a farmers market next weekend.

(Paul Doscher is a conservationist and retired environmental science professor who lives in Weare, where he owns and operates a small Christmas tree farm.)

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