My Turn: Where’s the leadership, Commissioner Jasper?

  • Jasper

For the Monitor
Published: 11/23/2019 6:30:06 AM

Not long ago I was at a meeting of farmers. It was a pretty low-key affair. That is until the issue of our state commissioner of agriculture, Shawn Jasper, came up.

Why did he come into the conversation? Because a motion for a no-confidence vote in his performance was put forward. And it would have easily passed but the farmer-diplomats in the room astutely suggested making the end result a tie to avoid angering him, noting the need to continue working with the commissioner for at least a couple more years.

So I was glad to run into the commissioner at a farming conference not long after that almost-no-confidence vote. I’ve wanted to speak with him ever since he registered strong criticism about two pieces of legislation I’ve put forward in my role as one of the very few working farmers who serve in the State House.

His condemnation of my bills was rather surprising and, in all honesty, I didn’t know how to interpret it.

One bill helps New Hampshire farms save money, has bipartisan sponsorship, and requires no new spending. The other seeks to create a comprehensive response to climate change, which is kind of a big deal to us farmers as our livelihood is dependent on the weather. These seem like topics that a commissioner of agriculture would want to lead on.

The first bill Jasper disagreed with expands the ways farmers can use grant money that the Department of Agriculture already gives out, but that is primarily used to build manure containment structures.

Manure containment structures aren’t really in demand, so I propose allowing the funds to be used for efforts that increase farm energy efficiency. Like reverse osmosis equipment in sugarhouses to reduce the fuel necessary to boil sap into syrup. That’s efficiency. That saves farmers money. Or insulating warm rooms, like the one we use to take the chill off lambs when they’re born. Heating that room costs money. Insulating it saves money. It’s a pretty simple concept.

But in a recent column Commissioner Jasper penned for the Department of Agriculture’s newsletter, the Weekly Market Bulletin, he wrote of the bill: “One idea which really puzzles me would authorize funds from this department to be used for increasing farm energy efficiency. I have no idea what funds the sponsor thinks should be diverted into this new area. I would have appreciated having a conversation beforehand.”

Which is funny, because I, too, would have appreciated some back and forth with the commissioner before filing the legislation. That’s why I emailed him in April, May, August and September. And why I asked the Office of Legislative Services to try to get some answers from him in October. The only response I got was in May, when he answered my email, saying “One of us will respond to you as soon as we are able.” That’s the last I heard from him.

OLS did get some answers out of him, but not on two very basic, important questions: “How much money is available for current Nutrient Management Grant Program projects?” (the source of the funds) and “How much has been awarded in each of the last 5 years?” On these two points, silence.

Which begs the question, if a state representative who is also a farmer doesn’t warrant a reply from the commissioner, who does?

We farmers are used to doing our own dirty work, and maybe Jasper’s silence was a tribute to our industriousness. So I dug around and found the answers on my own.

The funds are given to the department by the USDA. How do I know that? I asked the state conservationist, a USDA employee. He confirmed the amount of annual funding for the program and that he thought my idea made sense. As did the other state representative-farmers who co-sponsored the legislation with me.

Jasper’s second criticism came in the same column. After questioning my efforts to help New Hampshire farmers, he added: “The same sponsor has a proposal establishing a climate action plan. It would seem that in a country of 330 million people, a state with a population of 1.3 million people can only be part of a much larger plan which, if deemed appropriate, should originate in Washington, D.C.”

When I ran into the commissioner at the farmers conference, I asked him about his opposition to this legislation. He resorted to what I recognized as the talking points of climate change deniers, something along the lines of “the climate is changing, but we can’t know why, and some of the change is natural, just like when the last ice age receded.” This does not square with mainstream science.

The commissioner also mentioned how even if we could mitigate climate change, we can’t, because it would cost so much money it would put us at an economic disadvantage to the Chinese. But I thought we were just a lowly state of 1.3 million? Why would the Chinese care what we do?

I respect every American’s right to their own beliefs. But here’s an anecdotal climate change reality, based on the experiences of an actual farmer – me:

■We’re seeing increased extreme rainfall events. That makes hay production harder for every farmer in New Hampshire.

■ We’re seeing increased warmth, moisture and humidity. That makes the management of fungi in orchards ever harder.

■ We’re seeing increased fluctuations in temperatures during the winter months, making winter kill more common.

And those are just the things that are happening on my farm. So as a legislator, I’ve proposed a comprehensive approach to deal with climate change, and ways to grab any efficiencies we can, which helps New Hampshire farms’ bottom line, regardless of what happens with our weather patterns.

These bills aren’t perfect – what is? But it sure as heck beats throwing up our hands and saying, “Can’t do anything about it.”

Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about Jasper’s willful lack of leadership on these issues. As farmers, we’re stuck with him for the time being. But maybe if he thinks about that no-confidence vote a little bit, he’ll remember that we farmers are his constituents, not his enemies.

(Craig Thompson is a state representative from Cheshire County and a farmer.)

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