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September 10. 2012 7:23PM

Another View: New Hampshire's women farmers are leading the nation

As more women get involved in farming nationwide, New Hampshire is leading the way. One out of three New Hampshire farms has a woman as principal operator: nearly a 50 percent increase since 2002, and more than twice the national average.

Women farmers and food entrepreneurs are part of the resurgence in agriculture that is bringing renewed spirit to communities and the state economy, creating jobs and forging strong connections between farmers, local businesses, and consumers. The annual Women in Agriculture conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, and others grows more vibrant each year.

What makes this state stand out is the range of women-led enterprises and the creative approaches they use. Whether on their own or as partners in family businesses, women have pioneered innovative production methods and are educating consumers about how food is produced. Many market their products locally — through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets or to local grocers, schools or hospitals.

Before Tracie Smith graduated from UNH in May 1999, she sowed the first seeds of Tracie's Community Farm, LLC on a small piece of family land. In 2008, Tracie purchased her own farm in Fitzwilliam — 33 acres permanently protected from development with a conservation easement, making it more affordable for farming. Tracie has worked with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to offset the costs of a season-extending hoop house and several soil conservation practices. Today, nearly 300 families participate in her CSA program. She also sells vegetables, herbs and berries at her small farm store and to numerous Monadnock Region restaurants.

Further north, members of the Women's Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN) are also seeing promise in local food. The North Country nonprofit, based in Bethlehem, provides training for entrepreneurs and obtained funding from USDA Rural Development to support the Local Works Farmers Market in downtown Berlin. The market accepts electronic SNAP (food stamp) benefits, providing more families with access to healthy, local food. WREN Executive Director Marilinne Cooper says the market has “changed the dynamics of how people are eating” in the community. It has also helped jump-start small food businesses. One family launched a bakery at the Berlin market last summer and saw such success that they recently opened their own storefront in town.

The Berlin market is one of more than 80 operating in New Hampshire this summer, a 38 percent increase since 2007. Local and regional opportunities like these help experienced producers diversify their sales and young and beginning farmers — women and men alike — get started. Local food also creates opportunities for small processing and distribution businesses and boosts access to healthy, fresh food for consumers. It is truly a winning strategy.

But we can do more. From the North Country to Greater Manchester, groups are convening to plan and nurture strong, job-generating local food economies. They are identifying needed infrastructure investments: cold storage, commercial kitchens, season-extending technologies, distribution networks and local processing facilities.

This work, of course, is not limited to women. Even WREN now trains both men and women entrepreneurs. But as more women get involved, and as local food demand grows, we have an important opportunity to strengthen the state economy in new ways.

USDA offers an electronic tool to help communities find federal resources to advance these efforts. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass is a guide and interactive map with hundreds of examples of USDA support for local food systems around the country, including information on the grants, loans and other tools that helped them start up or expand.

For American agriculture to continue out-innovating the world, we need diverse leadership, diverse markets and strong farming systems. New Hampshire is leading the way on all three.

Lorraine Stuart Merrill is the New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture. Kathleen Merrigan is Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass is available at www.usda.gov/kyfcompass.


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