Agricultural Commissions: Keeping Agriculture Viable in New Hampshire Communities
How many farms are there in your community? Does your master plan include a chapter on, or any discussion of, agricultural resources? Is a farmer required to go through full site plan review to put up a seasonal farmstand? These are questions that a local agricultural commission can help to answer.
Enabled by RSA 674:44-e, agricultural commissions are local land use boards that communities may establish “for the proper recognition, promotion, enhancement, encouragement, use, management, and protection of agriculture and agricultural resources, tangible or intangible, that are valued for their economic, aesthetic, cultural, historic, or community significance within their natural, built, or cultural contexts.”
The purpose of an agricultural commission is to protect farmland, support the local agricultural economy, preserve rural character and promote local agriculture to community members and visitors. Agricultural commissions are advisory only in nature and do not have a regulatory role. Rather, they are the ambassadors of the farming community, acting as educators, advisors and promoters to help keep agriculture viable in New Hampshire.
A municipality may opt to establish an agricultural commission if there is interest and need within the community. As with other local boards and commissions, the local legislative body (town meeting, or town or city council) votes to create the commission in accordance with RSA 673:1. Next, the board of selectmen, or town or city council, appoints three to seven members and up to five alternates to serve on the commission. Most members should represent the local agricultural community and agricultural businesses, although the commission may include other supporters who are not directly involved in agriculture. Members of the agricultural commission are allowed to serve on other municipal boards and commissions. Having some members serving on other boards can improve communication and ensure that town leaders are working together to incorporate agricultural concerns in planning and land use management efforts.
Powers and Duties of an Agricultural Commission
Agricultural commissions are not regulatory but, rather, serve in a review and advisory capacity. RSA 674:44-f lists the following activities that agricultural commissions may undertake:
Survey and inventory agricultural resources in the community.
Conduct activities to recognize, promote, enhance and encourage agriculture, agricultural resources and agricultural-based economic opportunities.
Assist the planning board in the development and review of sections of the master plan which address agricultural resources.
Advise local agencies or boards in their review of requests on matters affecting agricultural resources.
Coordinate activities with appropriate service organizations and nonprofit groups.
Publicize and report its activities.
Hire consultants and contractors as needed.
Receive gifts of money to carry out its purpose.
Hold meetings and hearings as necessary.
Just as a heritage commission advises, promotes and communicates about historical resources, an agricultural commission advocates for the local farming community and for the preservation of agricultural resources. One of the ways that an agricultural commission can most directly benefit a community is by reviewing its zoning ordinance and land use regulations to ensure that they are “farm friendly” and do not result in overly onerous impacts on the agricultural community. Maintaining a farm-conscious regulatory framework can make the difference in whether existing agricultural operations survive and new operations choose to locate in the community. This is a direct way for the community to work toward preserving its “rural character,” which is an oft-articulated element of the community vision in master plans.
Agricultural commissions also play an important role in communicating about local agricultural resources and opportunities to the general public. For instance, they may produce and distribute brochures or maps showing where farms are located in the community, hold farm festivals, conduct educational workshops or establish local farmers markets. Commissions may also raise money for farmland protection and educate landowners about conservation easements.
Origins of Enabling Legislation
The New Hampshire Farm Viability Task Force published a report in 2006, titled “Cultivating Success on New Hampshire Farms.” Commissioned by the state legislature in 2005, the Task Force made a series of policy recommendations to sustain agriculture in the state in coming decades. One of its 10 key recommendations was to pass statewide legislation authorizing municipalities to establish agricultural commissions to “be the voice of agriculture” in each community. In 2007, the state legislature followed this recommendation and passed HB 293 enabling cities and towns to create the commissions. Language was inserted into RSA 673:1, 673:4-b, and 674:44-e, f and g.
The New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture, an unofficial group of farmers and representatives of agricultural, environmental, educational and land use organizations, developed a manual and other materials with information on creating agricultural commissions for local groups. Drawing in part on concepts developed in Massachusetts, the Coalition and UNH Cooperative Extension have been working to disseminate training materials to communities across the state. Resources, including “Creating an Agricultural Commission in Your Hometown” by Lorraine Stuart Merrill, are available here.
Community Benefits of Agricultural Commissions
Supporting local farms can benefit communities in many ways. Farms provide jobs, maintain the working landscape and draw tourists. Typically, agriculture is a net gain for a town, providing more in tax revenue than it requires in public services. A cost of community services study can demonstrate this concept. Well-managed farms provide environmental services such as flood storage lands, wildlife habitat, wetland protection and groundwater recharge. Finally, local farms produce fresh, local food, fiber, timber and other products of high quality for local markets, and support a sense of community.
As growth and development occurs, it can threaten agricultural land, which often occupies relatively flat areas with good soils—the most attractive places to build. Once the land is developed, it rarely returns to agricultural use, signifying a permanent loss of production. Residential development can result in a higher tax burden due to increased public service costs such as road maintenance, emergency services and schools. The conversion of the agricultural landscape to developed land uses can contribute to the loss of rural character that many New Hampshire communities prize.
Agricultural protection and support can help towns focus development in desired areas, protect natural resources, grow the local economy and support a vital sense of community. Such activities can help to achieve a community’s articulated vision in the Master Plan.
Many citizens and town officials are surprised to learn how many agricultural operations exist within their community. An inventory of agricultural resources will identify all operations, which include not just large conventional farms, but also businesses such as nurseries, greenhouses, market garden operations, wool and fiber producers, woodlots and horse farms. In fact, the state definition of agriculture is quite broad. It is codified in RSA 21:34-a. Municipalities may adopt their own definition of agriculture that is even broader than the state’s, if so desired. The Town of Lee, one of the first New Hampshire communities to establish an agricultural commission, has chosen to do so.
The most recent Census of Agriculture, conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, shows that farming is on the rise in New Hampshire. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms (defined as any agricultural operation with more than $1,000 in annual gross revenue) rose from 3,363 to 4,166, a 24 percent increase. Land in farms increased by 6 percent during the same period. While average farm size decreased from 132 to 113 acres, it is evident that agriculture is a growing industry, perhaps using new and different business models.
Considering the rising demand for local agricultural products, the growing agricultural industry and the important benefits provided by farms to communities, the establishment of local agricultural commissions can ensure that the farming community has a voice in local development.
Communities across the state are establishing commissions to support and protect agricultural resources. To date, 14 New Hampshire towns have created agricultural commissions:
In addition, the towns of Derry, Londonderry, Candia, Chichester, Salisbury, Westmoreland, Nelson, Plymouth, Sandwich, Newton and Fitzwilliam have informal agricultural committees in the process of establishing commissions, according to UNH Cooperative Extension Educator Nada Haddad.
Farming in New Hampshire is alive and well but under increasing pressure from development. Municipalities can support farmers and protect agricultural resources by establishing dedicated local commissions. Such commissions provide a voice for the farming community by reviewing local regulations, advising other town boards and educating the community about local agricultural resources.
The first step toward establishing an agricultural commission is to gather a group of interested members of the farming community to investigate the municipality’s need. This informal committee can hold informational meetings, interview farmers, prepare warrant articles or council resolutions and publicize their efforts to attract community support. Once the local legislative body votes to create the commission, these committee members may be excellent appointees to the inaugural board.
With an agricultural commission in place, municipal leaders can work together to ensure that local land use regulations are coordinated in support of agricultural operations. This collaboration will help to protect farmlands, support agriculture-related economic development and contribute to a more vital sense of community.
Vanessa Bittermann is a regional planner with the Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission. For more information on this topic, she can be reached by phone at 603.226.6020 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Agriculture Resources for New Hampshire Municipalities
Contact: Nada Haddad, extension educator, Agricultural Resources, UNH Cooperative Extension,
Contact: Nada Haddad, extension educator, Agricultural Resources, UNH Cooperative Extension,
New Hampshire Agriculture: A Snapshot
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Town of Merrimack Agricultural Commission: Protecting the Town’s Agricultural Heritage for Future Generations
By Eleanor Baron
In May 2008, a group of farmers in Merrimack, New Hampshire formed a steering committee as the first step toward forming an agricultural commission. Motivated by a desire to assist any agricultural enterprise in town with understanding laws and regulations relating to farmers, the group’s early members were surprised at how many agriculture operations actually existed in town. The Merrimack Town Council voted to establish an agricultural commission in December of 2008.
By July 2009, the group had started a weekly farmers market in town. Because it was to be held in the lot of a local tractor supply business, the proposal had to go before the Merrimack Planning Board for a site review. “Our town is very ag-friendly,” says John Lastowka, chair of the Merrimack Agricultural Commission and owner of Maplegate Farm. “The Planning Board was willing to set us up as a ‘trial farmers market’ to see if we’d be successful, while we waited the couple of months for the actual site plan review.” The market was a success the first week, with 12 vendors attracting 250 shoppers, and, according to Lastowka, “has become a real community event ever since.”
The Commission pruned a 100-year-old crabapple tree, to bring it back to health, using volunteers and volunteer-donated equipment. They also pruned a black walnut tree on the Horse Hill Nature Preserve, in collaboration with the Merrimack Conservation Commission. The Agricultural Commission brought in two UNH Cooperative Extension educators to guide Bob McCabe, Commission member and arborist, in the pruning.
Most recently, the Merrimack Agricultural Commission has established a community garden at Wasserman Park, near Naticook Lake. The group provided volunteer help to: remove dead trees and stumps; procure and process soil samples; and create garden rules and contracts for renters. They also secured permission from the Merrimack Village Water District, the Planning Board, Parks and Recreation, and the Conservation Commission in order to have a community garden at that location. The handicap-accessible garden will offer 95 plots for $10 per year.
Future plans include: creating other gardens in town; expanding the farmers market; speaking at events around the state promoting agricultural commissions; and continuing to encourage farming and agriculture in Merrimack. Merrimack, with a growing population of more than 26,000, balances the needs for services and housing with the desire to retain its rural character and preserve its agricultural heritage. Hillsboro County, despite its burgeoning development, is 37th in the nation in monies generated from agriculture, according to the National Agriculture Statistic Service. (Rockingham County is 38th). The Merrimack Agricultural Commission plays an important role in securing that place well into the future.
For more information on the Merrimack Agricultural Commission, visit the Town of Merrimack website. Eleanor Baron is director of communications with the New Hampshire Local Government Center. Contact her with your story ideas for New Hampshire Town and City by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 800.852.3358, ext. 137.
Town of Lee Agricultural Commission: First in New Hampshire
By Eleanor Baron
A group of farmers in Lee, New Hampshire, first came together in the mid-1990s to work toward changing some local ordinances which were not farm friendly. Although that group was not initially totally successful, it later reformed with some interested residents when the town began work on a new master plan. During 2004 and 2005, some 20 farmers and residents interested in agriculture met regularly to develop a strong Master Plan section on agriculture with the idea of making the Master Plan a working document. It would reflect and help to maintain the Town’s strong agricultural and forestry heritage and character of a working landscape while working toward a sustainable, compatible balance between traditional land uses and “smart” residential and light commercial uses.
Selectmen approved the creation of the Lee Agriculture Committee in 2006 with nine of the original members appointed by the board of selectmen to the new committee. After the Legislature passed enabling legislation to establish local municipal agricultural commissions, the town resoundingly approved the establishment of a permanent commission, one of the first in the state. The group includes both farmers and non-farmers and represents the diversity of agriculture in town by age, gender, and size and type of agricultural operation. “One very important person on our commission is a member of the public with connections to the schools,” says Community Planning Coordinator Laurel Cox. “Having differing perspectives is very helpful to farmers; it helps them understand how agriculture fits into the community as a whole and how the non-farming public perceives the role of a working landscape in the community.”
The Lee Agricultural Commission meets monthly. According to Commission Chair Erick Sawtelle, recent projects have included an ongoing inventory of agricultural properties in town and organizing the town farmers market. “We’re planning for a local harvest dinner and we’re also collaborating on a barn tour with the Lee Heritage Commission,” he added. The commission provides considerable community outreach by hosting educational programs on topics like seed saving, building a root cellar and soil assessment.
Paul Gasowski, a member of the Commission, is spearheading an effort to create a “working landscape” feature on the town website, eventually providing information on local farms and producers; events; the Agricultural Commission’s activities; Backyard Farming Initiative programs; as well as a link to the town library’s agricultural resources.
Settled in 1657, and incorporated in 1766, Lee’s population at the time of the 2000 Census was 4,145. A rural town, in one of the most rapidly growing areas of the state, Lee is committed to retaining its rural character, open space and agricultural tradition, as well as being able to meet the growing demand of area residents for high quality, local food and other agricultural products and services.
For more information on the Lee Agricultural Commission, visit the Town of Lee website. Eleanor Baron is director of communications with the New Hampshire Local Government Center. Contact her with your story ideas for New Hampshire Town and City by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 800.852.3358, ext. 137.