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Keene residents turn Ellis Farm into a model of sustainable living

Laura Andrews and her partner, Cary Gaunt, were taking their daily walk in West Keene two years ago when they saw two red foxes at the edge of Hurricane Road.

They decided to follow the wild animals up a driveway, at the end of which they discovered a beautiful open expanse of land and a run-down-looking cabin with no other life in sight.

With the name Hansel on the mailbox as their only piece of information, they were able to determine that Filtrine Manufacturing Co. owned the property.

Andrews happened to know Peter Hansel, then the company’s president, because he had served on the board of trustees at Antioch University New England, where she works as director of institutional advancement. (Hansel retired from Filtrine earlier this year.)

Andrews and Gaunt have those two foxes to thank for leading them into a partnership that could have far and long-reaching benefits for the region.

That’s because the land, part of a 14.6-acre farm, will serve as a model of sustainability and climate responsibility.

The property has a long history, most notably when it was the location of Ellis Farm — a pick-your-own-berries spot long-time residents remember. A 1770s farmhouse that sat on the land across the road from the cabin was razed, but a barn still stands and houses Mill Hollow Works, a heritage craft school. The 13.4 acres adjacent to the cabin is managed by the Elm Research Institute, which grows about 4,000 Liberty elm trees there.

The couple’s shared core values of sustainability — Gaunt is Keene State College’s campus sustainability director — led them to reach out to Hansel, who happened to be looking for ideas for the property’s future use.

“He pitched this idea of a collaborative with us working in concert with Filtrine,” Andrews said. “He painted a vision of how the land could be restored and regenerated using sustainable methods.”

Part of that vision involved renovating the cabin using sustainable materials. That project, on which they worked closely with Hansel, was completed, and Andrews and Gaunt moved into their solar-powered home in September of 2019.

Along with Hansel, they came up with a plan to develop a farm on the land, which Filtrine still owns, with space to support wildlife and pollinators.

The land around the cabin had recently been logged, and the soil, after testing, was found to have almost no organic matter.

Andrews said she and Gaunt are working to restore the 1-acre area that surrounds their house.

“We’re basically starting from scratch,” said Andrews, because of the poor soil quality.

The blueprints include a pollinator garden in the patch encompassed by the circular driveway as well as behind the house and immediately in front of its deck. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens will also be planted.

Andrews said the project will improve the soil and bring in native plants “that will be both beautiful and useful for butterflies, bees, birds and other species.” It will also serve as roaming space for the four goats she and Gaunt acquired.

The project received a $5,500 grant this year from the Cheshire County Conservation District, which also awarded three other small habitat-improvement projects in the region.

Andrews and Gaunt received the expertise and advice of the conservation district’s manager, Amanda Littleton, along with Michael Nerrie, a local expert in environmental landscaping, on how to stage and prepare the land to fulfill their vision next spring.

The pair are also working to identify what is growing on the land naturally so they can factor it into their list of plants they need to purchase.

They aim to create something that is accessible on a neighborhood scale.

“We want people to think they could do this,” Andrews said. “We also want to spread knowledge that having open space attracts wild beings. We want it to be an oasis in the middle of development.”

Part of the group’s long-term goal for the project is providing community education with hopes the farm can serve as a model of sustainability and renewable energy. Keene State College student interns were already involved in a project with Village Roots Farm and Education of East Alstead to create a permaculture — a sustainable and productive ecosystem — on the land by burying debris left behind from logging operations.

“Whatever we do in terms of education and farming, we don’t want to compete with surrounding farms, we want to complement them,” said Andrews, adding that the group has been talking with Daniel Prial and his wife, Anne, a farming couple who live nearby, about the possibility of future stewardship.

Until next spring, project collaborators will be putting together more pieces of their vision for how the land will be used and determining what additional funding may be needed to get there.

“We’re so excited about what can happen here,” Gaunt said.

When they first met with Hansel, he showed them some earlier photos of the property.

“It was Ellis Farm — I feel like we’re building on that legacy,” Andrews said. “The ability to have this much open land right in Keene city limits, with so many environmentally minded people in the area — it feels right.”

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Winchester youth coalition receives grant for drug prevention work
  • Updated

WINCHESTER — A Winchester-based youth coalition is slated to receive more than half a million dollars in federal grant money to help prevent substance misuse among local teenagers.

The coalition — created in 2018 through the nonprofit, faith-based community service agency Salt & Light Ministries — will receive $125,000 annually for five years, starting Dec. 31.

The group is made up of 10 high-school and middle-school students and is aimed at reducing youth substance use while also strengthening community partnerships, according to coalition Director Jeremy Miller, who founded Salt & Light.

“The strategy is to really work with middle-schoolers, develop a program with them, and build positive relationships from high school to middle school and [with] adult community members,” said Miller, 42, a Winchester resident who serves as pastor of Center Church.

The idea stems from the coalition’s 2019 survey of Winchester middle school students, which asked if they use drugs or alcohol, and if they do, why.

The survey, according to Miller, showed most of the kids were using drugs or alcohol for one of two reasons: to help them perform better academically, or to cope with not doing well in school.

“The thought process that [the coalition] had was to build positive community connections with adults and peers in elementary and middle school before they get to high school so this doesn’t continue to happen,” he said.

Statewide, just over 30 percent of teens said they had an alcoholic drink in the past 30 days, according to a 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

Fewer — 25.3 percent — admitted to using marijuana in the same time frame, and fewer than 5 percent of those surveyed said they had ever used heroin or methamphetamine.

To prevent students from resorting to substance use, the coalition decided to focus its initiative on educating 6th- and 8th-grade students, according to Miller, who previously served as the executive director of ACCESS, an after-school program at Winchester School.

In the grant’s first year, Miller said the federal dollars will be used to develop and implement prevention-education curriculum in the Winchester School District, as well as training for coalition members on how to talk with students about drug misuse and how to deliver that message.

The curriculum piece, Miller explained, would consist of local law enforcement talking to Winchester students in their classes about drug use — similar to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program — as well as implementing drug-prevention programming in Winchester’s after-school program and the area’s faith-based youth groups.

The coalition has also teamed up with several community members — including representatives of law enforcement, education, local businesses, faith organizations and after-school programs — to help with these efforts and further develop student connections within the community.

One of those is Winchester Police Chief Mike Tollett, who said the coalition receiving this funding is “fabulous.”

“Salt & Light’s continued sponsorship of preventing youth tobacco use and drug and alcohol abuse is key to helping our youth to be successful contributing members of the community,” he said in an email. “Our department looks forward to the ongoing collaboration ... to combat the dangerousness of teen tobacco and substance abuse.”

And while community leaders are helping, Miller added that coalition members will be “the ones actually making the decisions, receiving the training and doing the work.”

The coalition was one of two organizations in New Hampshire last week to be awarded the federal grant, which is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The other program is in Laconia.

The Drug Free Communities Support Program is a national effort to mobilize communities to prevent youth substance use, according to a recent news release from New Hampshire’s congressional delegation announcing the latest awards.

While Salt & Light has a Christian faith-based mission, Miller noted that there will be no religious push for the students the coalition works with.

“Faith-based organizations have to follow the same stringent protocols and qualifiers as all of the other approved applicant organizations like community-based organizations, municipalities and schools,” he said.

“Funds are not allowed to be used to proselytize,” he added.

Ultimately, Miller said the coalition wants the middle-schoolers to have someone to turn to — whether it be a high-school student, teacher or community member — when they need help, rather than to substance use.

At the end of the grant’s first year next December, the coalition will reconvene to go over its progress and set goals for the next grant cycle. While it will always focus on youth drug prevention, Miller said the funding’s use will vary each year depending on the community’s needs.

“The [goal] is to not be reactive, but to get in a position where we are proactive and not a drug-free community, but a healthy community with healthy conversations and set healthy standards together,” he said.

The coalition hopes to increase its membership to 20 students by the end of the year. Those interested in joining can contact Miller directly at saltandlighttt@gmail.com.

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Rapid at-home COVID tests: What are the pluses and minuses?

Recently approved at-home COVID tests could make huge strides in increasing testing access and lessening the burden for laboratories. But like other rapid tests, they’re less accurate, and since they’re done outside a medical setting, they’re also more prone to user error.

“A big benefit of home tests ... is that one can get a quick answer if one is unwell, isolate immediately if positive, and break the chain of transmission going forward,” Dr. Christopher LaRocca, a family physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, said in an email.

Despite community testing being readily available now — compared to earlier in the pandemic when test supplies were limited and reserved for front-line health care workers and other groups — it doesn’t reach everyone, LaRocca noted. A recent poll by Quest Diagnostics shows 74 percent of Americans postponed or skipped COVID-19 testing because of worries about contracting the virus, getting delayed results or not being able to pay for it.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved three at-home tests since November under an emergency-use authorization.

However, while these and other rapid tests are helpful, LaRocca said polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests — performed most commonly with a six-inch nasal swab, which can be taken at testing sites across the state — remain the most accurate.

Also known as antigen tests, rapid tests use a mucus sample from the nose or throat to reveal whether a person is currently infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 by detecting certain proteins of the virus.

And as with other COVID-19 tests, a small percentage of the at-home test results may be false. Therefore, the FDA says for patients without symptoms, positive at-home results should be treated as presumptively positive until confirmed by another test.

People who test negative may also need additional testing, the agency says, particularly those with COVID-like symptoms.

Conducting the test in an uncontrolled home environment could also affect its accuracy, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Because of that, we encourage people to contact their medical providers if they test positive for COVID-19 with an at-home test, or if they test negative but have symptoms of COVID-19,” spokeswoman Kathleen Remillard said.

Though they are less accurate, the benefit of these tests is how quickly they can determine — with a reasonable degree of accuracy — if a patient is positive or negative for COVID-19. This is especially important for those who need to return to work or school the same day.

The prices of the three FDA-approved home tests differ. And it’s unknown yet if insurance will cover at-home testing, LaRocca said.

The cost of COVID tests given in medical settings varies dramatically. Though private insurers, Medicare and Medicaid are required under federal law to cover these tests, people with and without insurance can still wind up with bills, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In July, the nonpartisan foundation reported that a survey of publicly posted prices at larger hospitals across the United States showed a range of $20 to $850 per out-of-network test.

In New Hampshire, those who are underinsured or uninsured can apply through the state for financial coverage of an on-site test, according to the state health department’s website.

The three tests

The first rapid at-home test, approved on Nov. 17, is by California-based Lucira Health. The “all-in-one” test must be prescribed by a health care provider, in part so clinicians can report test results to state and federal agencies, according to a news release from the FDA.

The test is intended for those 14 and older, but younger patients can use it if a medical professional performs the nasal swab for them, the release says.

The test is also authorized for use in point-of-care settings, like hospitals and urgent care centers, the FDA says.

Lucira users will mix their nasal specimen into a solution, and then plug a vial into a portable, battery-operated device that uses a light to show the test result within 30 minutes.

The company did not respond to The Sentinel’s request for comment on the test’s accuracy or when it would become available, and that information is not readily apparent on its website.

The second rapid test, approved Dec. 15, is by Australia-based Ellume Health. This is the first at-home test that doesn’t require a prescription, and can be used on anyone age 2 or older.

To get the results from the nasal swab, which should show up within 20 minutes, users must download a smartphone app, the FDA says.

LaRocca, of Cheshire Medical, said that because the app automatically reports results to public health authorities, the test provides an “important tool for public health scientists and officials to monitor the pandemic.”

The test will cost about $30, and is expected to hit drugstore shelves by the first week of January, according to company spokeswoman Suzanne Sterns.

Ellume’s test accurately identified 96 percent of positive samples and 100 percent of negative samples for those with symptoms, a separate FDA news release says. In those not showing COVID-19 symptoms, the test accurately identified 91 percent of positive samples and 96 percent of negative samples.

The third rapid home test, approved Dec. 16, is by Illinois-based Abbott.

The company’s original $5 COVID-19 test, launched three months ago, has been widely administered by health care professionals at schools and nursing homes.

The home version — the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test — will cost $25, according to the company, and can be ordered with a prescription through the smartphone app Navica. The test is approved for ages 4 and up.

A partnering telehealth company, eMed, will have certified guides supervising administration of the test to ensure patients use the nasal swab correctly, as well as to assist with reading the results, a news release says.

Test results will also be shared with the relevant public health authorities.

The BinaxNOW test is currently available on a limited basis, according to spokeswoman Jackie Lustig, but the company plans to distribute 30 million tests in the first few months of 2021. Another 90 million will be produced in the year’s second quarter, she added.

As for the test’s reliability, its positive results had a 91.7 percent accuracy rate, and it was 100 percent accurate in identifying negative results in people within seven days of symptom onset.

In the coming weeks, the FDA says it plans to work with other distributors to put more at-home COVID-19 tests on the shelves.

Overall, LaRocca said offering at-home tests is a step in the right direction.

“Clearly, if someone would not consider community testing, but would consent to home testing and could afford it, it is a reasonable alternative,” he said, “provided that the individual follow-through with appropriate behaviors when the result is known.”