Wrapping it up after 25 great years

Editor’s note: In his 25 years as the state’s agriculture commissioner, Steve Taylor — who retired from the post last month – wrote a column for each issue of the department’s Weekly Market Bulletin. In it, he would discuss with readers issues and trends and provide his observations, which always proved insightful as well as entertaining. The following are excerpts from his last column, which appeared in the Nov. 28 bulletin.

I did a little math and figured out that I’ve written 1,284 of these missives in my 25 years as commissioner of agriculture, which amounts to about 800,000 words. It’s been fun the past few days to look back at stuff I wrote 10, 15 or 20 years ago and see how many things have changed and also how much has remained the same.

Agriculture in New Hampshire has evolved greatly over those years. We’ve seen four-fifths of the dairy farms that were operating in 1982 disappear, along with hundreds of acres of apple orchards. But our remaining dairy operations are way, way bigger and more productive, and apple orchards have found their best profit opportunities to be the consumers right next door rather than the wholesale market.

Loss of those farms and productive acreage has caused me no end of sadness and I grieve anytime I drive past meadows gone to goldenrod and brush that were producing forage for a milking herd just a few years before. My lowest point came in 1986 when 58 dairy farms were lost in one fell swoop to the federal Whole Herd Buyout program.

But there has been much more to take joy in and to lead me to believe our state’s agriculture has a lot going for it and that current trends point to a bright future.

The tremendous growth of the New Hampshire horticulture sector over the past 25 years heads my list of positives. In 1982 this department inspected about 200 greenhouse and nursery operations; this year the total is more than 700. There has been major investment in modern high-tech grow facilities and dozens of smaller and very specialized hort enterprises have sprung up.

Demand for plant materials for enhancing living spaces, workplaces and the landscape has been expanding steadily, and this has spurred dramatic growth in services such as design and installation that feed off the production and marketing of plant products.

In 15 years New Hampshire has gone from having a dozen farmers’ markets to 60 this year. That fact perhaps more than any other attests to the rising consumer interest in purchasing locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers and other farm products, and there’s further affirmation in the steady development of farmstands, pick-your-own, CSAs and other kinds of enterprises marketing directly to the consumer.

The profit opportunities afforded by a growing population of prosperous nearby consumers have invigorated every sector of New Hampshire agriculture. Maple, equine, Christmas trees, meat animals for ethnic markets — you name it, our market prospects are close by and they’re ready to spend.

While New Hampshire agriculture changed considerably over the past 25 years, so too did the duties of the department of agriculture broaden and grow. Though it has stayed true to its classic mission of regulating and protecting agriculture, the department increasingly has become an environmental and consumer protection agency dealing with things ranging from the control of milfoil in lakes to the technology of retail store scanners.

Many of these new responsibilities result from growing public concern about animal welfare, exposure to toxins and similar broad issues, others come from the rapid growth of population and commercial activity in the state. Who could have imagined in 1982 that the department would be deeply involved in reducing numbers of unwanted puppies and kittens, or that regulated weighing and measuring devices would nearly double to more than 21,000?

It’s often said that the best time to go out is when things are at the top, so 2007 is the perfect year for me to hang it up. Excellent fruit and vegetable crops across the board, horticultural business solid, consumer demand brisk for local products, best silage corn crop in memory, milk prices at record highs, the state legislature even kicking in some cash to help dairy farmers deal with last year’s abysmal economic conditions—a perfect storm of good things, you might say.

Serving a quarter-century as New Hampshire’s commissioner of agriculture has been a great experience, and as I’ve often said, it’s the best job in state government. That’s because you deal with such a great diversity of people and issues, and because agriculture and those who work the land are so central to the history and culture of this state.

To all those who have supported me and the work of this office, I offer my sincerest thanks. I especially thank my dedicated colleagues at the department and my family for 25 great years.

Categories: Opinion