What is an Agricultural Commission?

Lorraine Stuart Merrill

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

The purpose of an agricultural commission is to protect agricultural lands, preserve rural character, provide a voice for farmers, and encourage agriculture-based businesses. For years, New Hampshire farmers have served as stewards of land and water resources, and provided habitat for native plants and animals. As New Hampshire communities grow and change, citizens are looking for ways to support local farms, and foster new ones.

Agricultural commissions are a new idea for New Hampshire municipalities seeking to balance growth and quality of life issues, and preserve local character. A New Hampshire town or city may choose to establish an agricultural commission to promote, enhance, and encourage the interests of farming, agricultural resources, and rural aspects of community life. Citizens can use an agricultural commission to help keep farming viable and vibrant in their community, whether rural, small town, suburban, or urban.

Establishing an agricultural commission is an option for communities that value their local farms and rural character, keeping land in open space, and healthy, locally-produced foods. An agricultural commission has no regulatory or enforcement authority. In general, an agricultural commission serves a similar role for local agriculture as a heritage commission for historical resources, or as the non-regulatory aspect of a conservation commission for natural resources. Heritage and conservation commissions, and other municipal boards, may spend some time on agricultural issues, but they also have many other responsibilities that prevent them from concentrating on agriculture.

An agricultural commission focuses primarily on agriculture. It will typically work cooperatively with other town or city governing and land use boards and commissions to make sure the concerns and interests of farmers are better understood and considered in their decision-making processes. An agricultural commission may:

Advise and work with other boards and commissions on issues facing farming in the town;

Conduct inventories of agricultural resources;

Conduct inventories of historic farms and farm buildings;

Educate the public on matters relating to farming and agriculture;

Serve as a local voice advocating for farmers, farm businesses, and farm interests;

Provide visibility for farming;

Give farmers a place to go to for help;

Help resolve farm-related problems or conflicts; and

Help protect farmland and other natural resources.

Where Did The Idea Come From?

The idea of creating of local agricultural commissions was pioneered by residents of urbanizing communities in Massachusetts, Washington, and California who valued and wanted to cultivate their agricultural heritage and resources. In these states, such commissions gained acceptance and became an important voice for agriculture. These areas confronted many of the same challenges facing New Hampshire: towns with a strong sense of community and desire to preserve rural character, experiencing rapid population increases and rising land values. Rather than allow agriculture to be pushed from their towns, these pioneers found a way to promote the interests of agriculture through public education, contributing input to town governing and land use boards, and enhancing the value of agriculture in the public mind as an essential component of the local quality of life.

Each community may choose to adopt an agricultural commission. Typically, selectmen or town or city councilors appoint members representing the principal elements of the local agricultural community and agricultural businesses, by geography, commodity, and size of farm. An agricultural commission may include other supporters of farming and land preservation as well as people who also serve on other town boards and commissions, such as the planning board or conservation commission. This can facilitate communication among town leaders about ways to enhance agriculture, and provide opportunities for education and informed debate on proposed local ordinances that may affect agriculture.

What Does an Agricultural Commission Do?

Agricultural commissions do not have any enforcement powers or regulatory authority. Their role is to advise other town boards and advocate for farming.

Agricultural commissions serve as an information bridge between farm businesses and the non-farm public. For example, the planning board may draft an amendment to the town zoning ordinance regulating signs. The agricultural commission can advise the planning board of potential impacts on farm businesses, and recommend ways the ordinance could be written to assist farm businesses, such as allowing temporary signs for seasonal crops.

Actions by town boards that unduly restrict farm businesses are often taken without specific consideration of consequences to farmers. Agricultural commissions provide a positive way for the governing bodies of the town to consider the effects on agriculture before taking action.

Other potential activities of an agricultural commission may include:

Publicizing farm retail outlets in the town;

Fundraising for farmland protection and economic development;

Providing mediation and conflict resolution on farm-related disputes;

Collaborating with other town boards to review development proposals;

Holding educational workshops on intergenerational transfer of property;

Conducting an inventory of farms and barns;

Discussing state and federal grant and land protection programs;

Starting local farmers’ markets;

Obtaining technical assistance on conservation easement planning, woodlot management, nutrient management, environmental stewardship, and non-point source pollution management;

Adopting local Right-To-Farm bylaws;

Hosting farm festivals; and,

Much, much more.

Getting Started

Agricultural commissions provide a mechanism for towns to take positive action to remain or become more farm-friendly. Assuring that voters understand and support the concept before the town votes to establish an agricultural commission requires considerable preparation and groundwork.

Any local resident or group interested in farming, farm businesses, growth, rural character, open space, and related issues in their community can start organizing support for an agricultural commission. There is no one formula to assure a town will adopt an agricultural commission, but towns that have organized agricultural commissions usually follow these steps:

Individuals or groups express interest in an agricultural commission and one or two people agree to coordinate organizational tasks.

In some towns, one of the first tasks is building a case that the town has agricultural enterprises in need of a voice. Many towns overlook agricultural businesses, assuming that greenhouse growers, Christmas tree growers, hay producers, or pick-your-own berry or flower growers are somehow not really farms.

Organizers of an agricultural commission should consider making a preliminary inventory of agricultural operations in their town to generate data about the number, size, scope, and diversity of farm businesses and services in town. This will help to identify a “farmer network” of potential supporters.

Talk with farmers, community decision makers, residents, boards, and committees to assess and build interest in creating an agricultural commission.

Gather support from farmers and town leaders for a public exploratory and informational meeting about organizing an agricultural commission.

An agricultural commission exploratory meeting helps determine if creating an agricultural commission is a good idea for the community.

Invite farmers directly, and invite residents and the public through postings, press releases, and community newsletters.

Have knowledgeable people or members of established agricultural commissions speak about the purpose and activities of these commissions, and how the community benefits.

Ask an active farmer, town administrator, and/or selectman to facilitate the meeting.

Following the presentations and opportunity for questions and answers, the facilitator should ask the audience: Is an agricultural commission a good idea for our town? Do you think we should organize an agricultural commission?

The facilitator then asks for volunteers to serve on a steering committee to develop an article to establish an agricultural commission for the town meeting warrant, and educate voters and town officials about the article and its benefits.

The steering committee volunteers convene to agree on a date, place, and time to meet. Include representatives on the steering committee from the board of selectmen or council, and staff such as administrator, planner, or health officer.

Typical steering committee work includes:

Selecting a chair

Meeting all deadlines and requirements and drafting a warrant article or council motion for review by town counsel and submission to the board of selectmen or town or city council

Developing and implementing a public education plan for the agricultural commission vote

The article is presented at town meeting for discussion, questions, and vote.

Selectmen solicit applications for agricultural commission membership. Often the selectmen, the appointing authority, will seek advice on appointments from the steering committee.

Selectmen notify members in writing, with a list of all members’ addresses and phone numbers, and charges them to meet within a certain date.

Selectmen may facilitate the first meeting of the appointed agricultural commission membership.

How Agricultural Commissions Work

Members attend meetings regularly, and serve to fulfill the purpose of the agricultural commission as stated in the ordinance. (Example: serve as facilitators for encouraging the pursuit of agriculture and promote agriculture-based economic opportunities in the town.) Members report on issues of concern, serve on subcommittees, vote, and conduct business based on written rules of procedures.

Alternate members attend meetings regularly and vote in the absence of a regular member. Alternates and other participants, often referred to as advisors and circle of friends, play a key part in the success of the commission. Several established agricultural commissions have found these positions extremely helpful.

Advisors are volunteers who serve at the request of the agricultural commission members. They attend meetings and provide information, expertise, and recommendations to help guide the work of the agricultural commission. They may also provide clerical and organizational assistance, help members navigate local politics, advise agricultural commission members on connecting with agricultural service providers, and help plan meetings, social events, and public education events. Seeking the involvement and contributions of individuals who are interested in agriculture is very important.

Circle of Friends are people in the community (or connected to the community) who possess particular skills, experience, and abilities that can help the agricultural commission achieve its goals. Friends of agriculture, including graphic artists, legal counsel, soil scientists and journalists, are honored to be asked for help when the task is well-defined, short-term, and achievable.

Electing officers is one of the first responsibilities of a newly organized agricultural commission. Officers (chair, vice-chair, secretary and treasurer) lead the commission through meetings, public events, and community relations. Here are some suggested roles and responsibilities for officers:

Develop a Plan of Work

Each local agricultural commission determines its own plan of work, often seeking advice and input from members of the farm community as well as others in the community interested in a vibrant local agriculture.

Agricultural commissions often form subcommittees that may include other volunteers to implement the plan of work. Here are examples of efforts undertaken by commissions.

Prepare an inventory of agriculture to help residents appreciate the diversity, scope, and economic contributions of farming in their town, and to identify agricultural and natural resources, such as protected lands, under farm stewardship.

Build relationships with town boards to help increase mutual understanding of the mission and authority of all town boards and commissions, build trust and credibility, facilitate effective communication and education efforts, help manage and reduce conflict, and allow collaboration on changes in planning, zoning, health, and finance that positively affect agriculture.

Educate the public, new residents, town boards, and youth about the people, businesses, and lifestyles associated with farming to help make agriculture more visible in the community, and to increase awareness of issues related to retaining farm families, farmland, and farm businesses. Increased knowledge can result in more informed decisions.

Manage and resolve conflicts within the community.

Adopt a local Right-to-Farm ordinance to reinforce community support and awareness of the NH Right-to-Farm Law (RSA 432:32-35) and the NH definition of agriculture (RSA 21:34A).

Perform farmland protection activities, including the promotion of planning and zoning that supports agricultural land and businesses. Commissions can learn about state, federal, and non-profit programs to protect farmland, and work with landowners, local conservation commissions, conservation districts, and other agencies to conserve farmland.

Use the New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture publication “Preserving Rural Character Through Agriculture: A Resource Kit for Planners” as a tool for finding ways to help the town to become more farm-friendly.

Establish a Budget

Funds and an operating budget are needed to accomplish the work of an agricultural commission, just as most town standing committees have a line item budget. Agricultural commission budgets generally range from zero to $1,000. An agricultural commission gains credibility from even a modest appropriation. Typically the budget is based on the plan of work for the year. Some agricultural commissions have sought and received grants from land trusts and other non- profit or business sources.

Communicate with the Public

Open meetings provide a place for members of the agricultural commission and the public to engage in the give-and-take of opinion, advocacy, and resolution. Keeping communication open with other town boards, town staff, businesses and residents helps further the mission, goals, and vision of the commission.

Communication with the public generates awareness of the agricultural commission and local agriculture, and encourages public participation. Publicity and outreach efforts, open and welcoming conduct of meetings, liaison relationships with other town boards, and maintenance of public records all contribute to positive communication. Sponsoring or participating in local fairs, farmers’ markets, farm or food festivals, farm-to-school programs, or other town events helps nurture community connections to local agriculture.

Is Your Town Farm Friendly? A Checklist for Sustaining Rural Character

Growing Trends of New Hampshire Agriculture: A Snapshot

Enabling Statutes: Forming an Agricultural Commission in Your Town or City

New Hampshire Towns with Agricultural Commissions

Resources for Agricultural Commissions

Lorraine Stuart Merrill is a dairy farmer and writer specializing in agriculture, business, and the environment. She currently serves as the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food.