Delegation may delay county dairy farm closure
February 24, 2011WEST STEWARTSTOWN — "The decision was made in December to close the county dairy farm," explained farm subcommittee chairman Duffy Daugherty of Colebrook at Saturday afternoon's public hearing that drew a crowd of 35 citizens. "We're here to talk about how to close it efficiently and to see what else we can do there. The decision is not reversible."
But after listening to almost two hours of testimony from area residents objecting to the decision the delegation reached on a 8 to 1 vote in December 2010, it appeared that many of the state reps were leaning toward giving the cows at least a 9- or 10-month reprieve so that area farmers could help come up with a sustainable plan for some kind of farming operation.
The possible change of heart came about because the price of milk is reported to be on the verge of surging upward, thanks to strong international demand.
Several farm proponents urged that these predicted higher prices should be used to buy time to allow an appointed advisory committee to report to the county delegation at its 2012 public budget hearing in December.
This was the course of action strongly urged by John Scarinza of Randolph, one of the five supervisors of the Coös County Conservation District (CCCD).
"What does the North Country have left but its forests and farms?" he asked. "It's our rural nature; the county farm is one of our treasures. Let's use this window of opportunity to put our heads together."
Two months ago, the county farm's projected 2010 deficit was in the $200,000 range, and this year's projected shortfall was in the $135,000 range.
Now, with milk prices climbing, all bets are off. Experienced hands noted, however, that when milk prices rise, so do the costs of fuel, fertilizer, and feed, along with an up-to-14-percent increase in health insurance costs for the farm manager and two full-time farm employees.
Rep. Herb Richardson of Lancaster said that he had voted "yes" in December, allowing him to move for reconsideration should he wish to reverse the decision. Rep. Bill Remick noted that he could do the same.
Only Rep. Gary Coulombe of Berlin voted in December against the dairy herd being sold by June 30.
Rep. Robert Theberge, also of Berlin, was not present, since he was recovering from back surgery.
Wayne Frizzell of Colebrook said the delegation had heard at earlier meetings that locals wanted the farm to stay open, and said that delegation members had not done their job.
Coös County Farm Bureau president Joyce Brady of Columbia said that the organization had offered to help by forming an Advisory Council but had never heard back. "Why aren't you tapping into your citizens' knowledge?" Brady asked. The farm serves as a rehabilitation center, developing a good work ethic in inmates, and should not be considered primarily a farm since it pays higher wages plus health insurance benefits to its full-time employees than do area farms, she said. The bulk of the farm manager's salary is charged to the Corrections Department, and not to the farm.
Brady also predicted that closing the farm would cause collateral damage to area businesses and farm-related services.
Trucker Steve Mardin of Groveton said that the county farm is part of the customer base he maintains and that the cows are very productive. He hauls the raw milk to H. P. Hood in Portland, Me.
Aime Ramsey of Berlin said that if food security issues arise, then having local sources of dairy products would be good.
Rep. Larry Rappaport of Colebrook said that the farm had lost $200,000 during a major recession when many Coös citizens are out of work. The farm should be leased, he said, removing the county from the farming business.
"Our job is to contain spending by the county," Rappaport said.
If that were the case, Pam Frizzell of Colebrook asked, why then was a quarter-of-million-dollars spent on a fancy addition to the nursing home.
Theberge said that through his own investigations he had learned that there is no way that the farm could be profitable, even though he wished that were not so.
Two of Stewartstown's selectmen — Allen Coats and Hasen Burns — said they favored keeping the dairy farm open. Cows grazing in pastures are part of the local scenery that tourists enjoy, others said.
One person said that shutting the farm would be closing down 124 years of living history, "sending it down the river like the last log drive."
Cyndy Hakansson of Jefferson said she is in favor of keeping the farm open.
Subcommittee chairman Daugherty said the issue is clear when times are tough and constituents are calling for a lower cost of government and the farm is losing money.
Delegation chairman Rep. John Tholl of Whitefield said that the farm had lost $1.6 million over the last 10 years.
Dairy farmer Scott Mason said that a government-owned and operated farm could no longer break even or make money because it requires too much costly paid labor to supervise the inmates. If the county farm is to pay its own way, then only half the total workforce of three could be employed.
If the 70 milking cows and 85 others in the herd are sold, the various "grandfathered" provisions under which the dairy farm operates would be lost and any future plan to reopen it would require it become 100 percent compliant with today's codes.
The county commissioners are opposed to closing the farm.
The delegation's next posted meeting to vote its approval of the 2011 budget is scheduled at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 12, at the Coös County Nursing Home in Berlin.