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New Commissioner

02/12/08 5:55PM By Elizabeth Ferry
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(HOST) Commentator Elizabeth Ferry is a writer and photographer who has worked extensively in local food education. She says that, what with all the primary news coming out of New Hampshire in recent weeks, you might not have heard that New Hampshire has a new Commissioner of Agriculture.

(FERRY) You might ask why it matters who is Commissioner of Agriculture in New Hampshire, a state better known for its timber than its tomatoes. But in these days of rising fuel prices and shrinking farmland, it matters a lot - even to those of us who don't happen to live in the Granite State.

This is New Hampshire's first new commissioner in 25 years. From 1982 through 2007, Steve Taylor of Plainfield, NH, worked both as a farmer and agricultural commissioner. It's an appointed position, and for a quarter of a century, both Republican and Democratic governors kept Taylor in the top agricultural post. He's known and loved by farmers - and by people who appreciate farms - throughout New Hampshire and the Upper Valley.

So when Taylor announced his plans to retire from state office, I wondered how he could possibly be replaced: who else might have such a depth of experience and dedication to farming? But with the nomination and confirmation of Lorraine Stuart Merrill of the Stuart Farm in Stratham, New Hampshire, the reins have passed to able hands.

Commissioner Merrill believes that "it is in our best interest to have as many farms as possible." She points to research conducted during the farming crisis in the 1980s. During that time, many Iowa families lost their farms. But sociologists found, to their surprise, that children from farm families - even those who lost their farms - were more successful socially than children who did not have ties to the land.  "Success" was determined by measurements such as doing well in school, emotional resiliency, and positive relationships with members of the community. And, amazingly, they found this applied not only to farm children, but also to kids with a family member, such as an aunt or uncle, who farmed, and to children who worked often on a neighbor's farm.

Merrill easily recalls her own childhood experience on a farm, and enjoys watching her grandchildren experience what she calls, "the rich kind of life that a child can have on a farm."

She's also excited by the number of people in New Hampshire who have a growing interest in agriculture, both growers and consumers. She says, "There's a whole range of people, motivations, and economic backgrounds, [who have in common] an attraction to the land, working with living things, and the rootedness that represents."

Rootedness. Children connected to their communities. Emotional resiliency. Nutritious food. These are some of the very good reasons why the continuation of family farming matters. And Commissioner Lorraine Merrill's experience in, and dedication to, local and regional agriculture is good news for us all.
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