Q&A with: Outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor

A Plainfield dairy farmer and a former managing editor of The Valley News of Lebanon, Steve Taylor has been speaking and writing about farming in New Hampshire throughout the 25 years he has been the state’s commissioner of agriculture. One of the last appointments made by the late Gov. Hugh Gallen, Taylor — confirmed by a 3-2 vote of the Executive Council on Dec. 29, 1982 — is retiring at the end of November.

Q. Should we conclude from the fact that you’ve been here 25 years that you like this job?

A. This is the best job in New Hampshire state government, because you deal with so many diverse individuals and constituencies. You’re working with dirt farmers, you’re working with consumers, you’re working with the supermarket industry, the petroleum industry, the conservation community, the environmentalist crowd — all different pieces of the fabric of New Hampshire.

Q. Are there things about the bureaucracy in this job that annoy you?

A. Well, it’s hard for people to come in from the outside and adapt to the pace. It doesn’t really slow down below a certain level, but you can’t speed it up either. It just takes a certain amount of time to get that payment processed, it takes a certain length of time to get an initiative approved through the chain of command.

Q. What’s an example of that?

A. Every contract that you want to enter into as a state agency has to be approved by the Governor and Council. To get ready for that, you have to first draw up a contract. And then it has to be approved by your business supervisor in the Department of Administrative Services. Then it has to go to the attorney general’s office to be approved. And it will come back, many times, with revisions and changes, and it’ll have to be reformatted. And then it’ll be tinkered with. And then it may have to go to the fiscal committee, and then it will come back, and then finally it’ll go to the council and it has to be submitted by a certain date to be acted upon.

And then you have to go and sit at the council meeting. Some days you will be called upon to explain what’s in the contract. Other times it’ll sail through and you’ve sat there for two hours twiddling your thumbs. For people inside state government, that is one of the biggest time-consuming, frustrating aspects of the bureaucracy.

Q. How would you change it if you could?

A. You could index the cutoff for Governor and Council approval to inflation or something. It’s $5,000. And it takes just as long to prepare a contract for a $5,500 dollar deal as it does for a $12 million highway project. You have all the same paperwork, all the same hoops to go through, and it’s a tedious, slow process. And a lot of them are repetitive. In other words, you have to do them every year.

It’s the same damn thing. If it was OK last year to do this and the budget is available and you’re carrying out the mandates imposed by the Legislature, then you ought to be able to move a little bit faster.

Q. Aside from the decline of dairy farms, how has agriculture in New Hampshire changed in the years you’ve been here?

A. The traditional bulk commodity agriculture — that’s dairy farming and wide-scale apple production — has been shrinking in numbers of farms. The remaining operations are tending to get bigger. That part of agriculture is beset by the forces of globalization and the concentration of market channels and really also beset by the terribly high cost of land. You can’t afford to pay house lot prices for land and use it to grow crops to feed cows.

There’s another track of agriculture — some people call it new agriculture, some people call it niche agriculture. That agriculture is characterized by a much more diverse group of people. A lot of them are new to agriculture. We’re getting retirees, we’re getting people who’ve moved up from the city. They have a small piece of land, they want to do something and see if they can produce a crop, and they’re finding with some hard work and some grit they can succeed.

So this new track of agriculture is accounting for an actual increase in the overall numbers of farms in New Hampshire, compared to 15 or 20 years ago.

Q. That globalization and consolidation you describe is also happening in supermarkets, isn’t it?

A. Major supermarkets in New Hampshire are owned by offshore entities and our country’s becoming more reliant on foreign sources for our food.

New Hampshire apple producers are a good example. We used to produce great numbers of Macintosh apples and other varieties. But we began getting hit hard by competition, first from Washington state, but then from Chile and the European community. And now, would you believe China is the world’s biggest producer of apples?

Q. What trends in New Hampshire agriculture do you see foresee over the next 25 years?

A. Well, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people if we can lick the problem of getting some land to operate on. But a lot of money can be made on one or two acres if you know what you’re doing, doing things like cut flowers or designer tomatoes or things like that.

Another area that offers promise is in growing crops that our surging population of immigrants is looking for. I just heard the other day that Manchester has 12,000 documented Latinos. Nashua has 13,000. And huge numbers of undocumented people. All those people want to eat the kinds of foods that are traditional in their dietary culture, and there’s an opportunity for us here to be growing some of those crops to take care of that.

Q. What sort of things?

A. Go to the Milford farmers market and compare it with the Nashua farmers market. If you go to Milford or Amherst, let’s say, and you’ve got a great big zucchini, it’s pretty hard to sell, because people don’t want that much zucchini. But if you take a great big zucchini to a Nashua farmers market, there are people there that are very interested in that and they’ll take it home. They’re from the Latino culture and they’ll take it home and they’ll make several meals out of a great big zucchini.

So we have to think that through and examine how it all works and respond to that kind of opportunity.

Q. What are you going to be doing for the next few years?

A. I am going to work with my sons and my wife on managing our family farm. That’ll hopefully get me back in physical shape and maintain my health. And I’m also going to do a little writing, pick up a few magazine assignments, maybe.

Q. What sort of things do you want to write about?

A. I like to write about agriculture and rural issues and I also like to do profiles and features about common people. Every person in this world has a story. Every farm has a story. And I love to tell stories.