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Increased demand for local food, but many challenges for NH farmers

Since March, the webpage run by the New Hampshire Farm Bureau listing local meat sellers has been viewed more than 2,500 times, a dramatic increase that’s indicative of the way New Hampshire consumers are actively seeking out products from local farms during the pandemic.

“It was pretty incredible for us just to see the traffic,” said Josh Marshall, communications director for the bureau. “The purchasing trends continue to support local. What I’m hoping is consumers will have reshaped their patterns.”

While there has been a push for more local product, the pandemic hasn’t affected New Hampshire’s farmers in a universal way. Many farmers who have direct-to-consumer sales have seen a spike in demand, as people try to avoid grocery stores and work around interruptions to the local supply chain. Other farmers, particularly in the dairy industry, are struggling with low prices and demand. With much of the state bordering on drought, produce farms are concerned about the size and quality of their harvest.

Lewis Farm in Concord has seen a spike in demand for its vegetables, mostly sold through the farm’s CSA, said owner James Meinecke. While it’s nice to see more people shopping local, Meinecke is very concerned about the lack of rain on his crop.

“We’ll most likely be seeing a reduced harvest this year because of the weather,” he said.

Normally, Lewis Farm partners with other local growers to offer a robust CSA. The farms swap or sell products to each other, and their CSAs feature goods from other farms. This year, Meinecke is having trouble finding farms to partner with, because other farmers are just as worried about meeting demand for their products.

“All the farms across the board are having trouble,” Meinecke said.

New Hampshire is providing financial support to farmers through the New Hampshire Agriculture Relief Program using funds from the CARES Act, but the funds are only available to farms that grossed more than $50,000 in sales in 2019. That excludes many small farms in New Hampshire, including Lewis Farm, according to Meinecke.

“There’s nothing out there that we qualified for,” he said.

Many farmers work their business on multiple fronts, making it difficult to know what relief programs they qualify for. Many farmers were initially excluded from help through the Small Business Administration (SBA), which directed farmers to seek funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“At the beginning, there was some confusion and some hiccups,” said Marshall. However, the SBA is now approving farmers for COVID relief, including the payment protection program (PPP), which covers payroll for eight weeks.

Beth Hodge, who owns Echo Farms with her sister Courtney Hodge, was able to access PPP funding, as well as federal funds through the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), meant to support food producers impacted by the pandemic. The programs helped with the two different sides of her business: selling milk through a co-op and producing puddings sold at local grocers and farm stands. Hodge is also in the process of applying for state relief funds.

“There’s been some help,” she said, adding, “it’s not enough to cover the shortfall.”

Deb Erb of Springvale Farms and Landaff Creamery in Landaff, sells milk to a co-op and produces cheeses. Her cheese sales dropped 70 percent when restaurants closed, and she was affected by a substantial decrease in dairy prices because of the pandemic. However, she was able to use the PPP loan and CFAP funds to stay afloat.

“We have not fared too bad,” she said. Overall, Erb feels supported by state and local programs supporting agriculture, but understands the frustrations of other farmers.

“Not everyone has been successful in tapping into some of the programs from the state or the federal government,” she said.

Erb has heard from other farmers who have had trouble getting employees back to work because pandemic unemployment assistance pays more than some farm labor jobs, but her workers were eager to return, she said.

Although Erb uses local labor these days, she’s used migrant workers in the past, like many larger farm operations in New Hampshire. The H-2A visa program, which allows foreigners to work in agriculture, has been affected, though not eliminated, by the pandemic, Marshall said. Most farmers have found they’ve been able to bring back workers who have been on the farm before, but they’ve had trouble bringing in new laborers because of immigration restrictions, Marshall said. He pointed out that having access to experienced farm workers — often migrants — is important to the vitality of New Hampshire farms.

“These are skilled laborers. They come back year after year. You can’t just find somebody with that knowledge,” he said.

At Parnassus Farm, a dairy operation in Acworth, owner John Luther is glad that his farm has kept him busy during the pandemic.

“I’m thankful I have a job,” he said.

Luther is uncertain about the future of the dairy industry, which he says has been overproducing milk for years. The pandemic price crash, while painful, was a necessary correction, he said.

“The problem was already there, it was simply heightened by the pandemic,” he said.

Luther sells most of his milk through s dairy co-op, but maintains a small side operation selling milk and beef directly to consumers. These days, he really values the relationships he has with customers who buy products from him. It’s the only time that he’s in control of his prices and sees the impact of his labor directly.

“The only people to whom I really matter are the people who buy milk directly from me,” Luther said. “Psychologically, it’s nice to matter.”

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Keene school names first graduate after staying open through pandemic

As schools throughout the state transitioned to remote instruction this spring due to concern over COVID-19, a new special-education school in Keene remained open and celebrated its first-ever graduate.

“Basically, the decision was simple,” said Cory Rogers, the director of academics at Ashuelot Valley Academy. “Our kids are not the kind of kids that remote learning would be successful for. They’re also not the kind of kids that would benefit from an interruption in their schedules. … Consistency and routine [are] what they need to be successful. They need to know what tomorrow’s going to bring.”

Ashuelot Valley Academy, at 31 Washington St. in the former Keene Middle School building, opened last fall, and has 22 students in grades 5 through 12. As part of Plymouth-based Mount Prospect Academy Inc., the school serves students who require more services than public schools can provide, such as those with behavioral issues or who are on the autism spectrum.

Ashuelot Valley Academy has a staff of 28, who were instrumental to the school’s continued operations during the coronavirus pandemic, superintendent John Fulp said.

“People were so focused on the kids that it was almost like there wasn’t time to be fearful,” he said.

On March 16, Gov. Chris Sununu ordered all New Hampshire public schools to transition to remote learning, but the order did allow for private special-education schools, like Ashuelot Valley Academy, to remain open if they met certain size requirements and implemented health and safety measures.

“They basically said, ‘The types of students that we serve, it’s not going to work for them to do remote learning, so if you’re comfortable staying open, you folks are allowed to stay open,’ ” Fulp said. He added that the school worked closely with the state education department to develop policies based on state and federal health guidelines in order to remain open during the pandemic.

Those measures included daily temperature checks for everyone entering the building, and screening questions like whether staff, students and visitors had traveled recently or showed any COVID-19 symptoms. All staff members were required to wear masks, and an outside cleaning company sanitized the school daily, Rogers said. The school also began using as many disposable materials and kitchen utensils as possible to avoid potential disease transmission.

Despite all of these changes, Ashuelot Valley Academy completed its inaugural year last Friday, when the school also honored its first 12th-grade graduate, Jade Castor.

“I would have never graduated if I didn’t go to this school,” Castor, a Swanzey resident, said. “They just work with you and they help you out so much.”

Castor added that she struggled in her three previous years at Keene High School, but flourished when she started at Ashuelot Valley Academy last fall.

“I just really think it’s a great school, and it helps out a lot of people,” she said. “It changed my life.”

Castor, who is the first person in her family to graduate from high school, received her diploma in a small ceremony at the school last Friday, followed by a celebratory lunch for her family and school staff, who organized the event. The graduation marked the successful completion of Castor’s mission to complete high school, Fulp said.

“She came to us this year and was a really dedicated student — caring, kind, really focused on her mission,” he said. “ ... She was a friend to all, and just such a caring person.”

Rogers added that, in the face of the various disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Castor stayed the course and did everything she needed to do.

“I’m very proud of her, and I was super excited that she was our first graduate,” he said.

Castor plans to become a licensed nursing assistant, with the ultimate goal of caring for seniors.

“I just love helping out people,” she said. “It just makes me really happy.”

Ashuelot Valley Academy, meanwhile, will reconvene July 6, following a two-week break, to continue classes and activities as part of its 220-day-per-year program, Rogers said.

The school typically takes students on field trips throughout the area, both as part of its curriculum and as rewards. Those trips came to a halt over the past few months, but as businesses around the state begin to reopen, Rogers said Ashuelot Valley Academy students and staff are excited to get back to these sorts of activities. They include a weekly blacksmithing class in Milford and a therapeutic horseback riding program through Cooper’s Crossroad in Keene.

“Those are sort of the things we couldn’t do during COVID,” he said. “So, the summer should be packed.”

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Police body-cams
Councilors say Keene needs time to research police body-cam issue

A Keene City Council committee wants to hear more information before acting on a petition calling for city police to use body cameras.

During the finance, organization and personnel committee’s Thursday meeting, held via the videoconferencing platform Zoom, councilors voted unanimously to put the petition on more time. The vote gives staff time to look into the cost of cameras, clear up legal questions and see how similar communities have approached the use of body cameras.

The Change.org petition, launched by a recently formed group called Keene Direct Action, had more than 500 signatures as of Thursday night, and organizers said additional signatures were collected during a recent Central Square protest.

The petition was prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department and the widespread protests against police brutality and racism that followed.

“While [police brutality] is not happening here in Keene as of this point, it could at any time,” Laura Dunfey-Ehrenberg, one of three local women who started the petition, told the committee Thursday. “We’re not expecting that of the Keene Police Department, but we have to be aware of what’s going on throughout our nation and that has to be a concern of ours and of yours, to protect our safety.”

She emphasized that the petition calls for action to be taken as soon as possible. She believes requiring police officers to use body cameras, which record their interactions when they’re on calls, would improve transparency and make it easier to hold officers accountable for their conduct.

“We consider this a public safety emergency,” she said. “We hope [councilors] take it as seriously as we are, and the entire nation is.”

Councilor Terry Clark said the question of equipping city police with body cameras was also raised back in 2015, but failed to move forward. He said that was due in part to legal concerns about the privacy of people who end up on body camera footage who aren’t directly related to police investigations.

Another area of concern, he said, is the cost of the cameras and related systems and software.

Josie Fernandez-Andersen, another of the people behind the petition, said other communities with populations similar in size to Keene spend much less on their police budgets but still equip their officers with body cameras. She gave Bedford as an example.

Benjamin Schiffelbein, a local criminal defense attorney, said police in the nearby towns of Winchester and Hinsdale have body cameras, and dashboard cameras are used in police cruisers in Jaffrey and Chesterfield.

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the costs of cameras have changed since the matter was last reviewed, along with the technology, laws and other areas that that would need to be re-examined.

Police Chief Steven Russo said outfitting officers with body cameras would require the city to pay for the camera system as well as redaction software. He said it would take a lot of legwork to figure out the total cost of implementing body cameras and going over legal questions.

“There’s a lot to it,” he said. “And I think it would be best to be able to do that through a research committee, which we did in 2015 for about six months, and then be able to present a package to the [committee] and full council.”

Clark argued that six months was too long. Instead, he suggested city staff could handle the research, which he said would be more time-efficient.

Councilor Stephen Hooper suggested a middle ground, saying the council needs to act quickly, but not at the cost of a thorough discussion. He said the cameras would be a big change and the city should take as long as it needs to find the right solution.

“I agree with Councilor Clark, we don’t need a blue ribbon committee that’s going to discuss this forever,” Hooper said. “But there needs to be some valid discussion.”