To The Daily Sun,
The Lakes Region Food Network (LRFN) is a grassroots organization that is concerned with our local food system and its ability to ensure all citizens have access to sufficient healthy food. Our vision includes the continued viability of local farms and the preservation of farmland for future generations. LRFN has been following the ongoing debate regarding agritourism that has emerged in recent years throughout the state of New Hampshire.
It is not surprising that so many of these conflicts are arising throughout our state. Agritourism is a long-standing part of agriculture, with a new name and some modern twists. Agriculture and farms pre-date many residential developments in New Hampshire, but these developments are often "planted" on farmland, thus bringing adjacent farms and the new residences into much closer proximity than existed historically. This appears to be the issue in Gilford regarding a proposal from Andy and Martina Howe to develop a farm-to-table event facility on one of their farm properties.
Given that the people of Gilford will be asked to vote on a warrant article defining agritourism and related zoning issues, with a wide array of opinions having been expressed both favorable and unfavorable, we would like to offer the following perspective on agritourism. While every town or city has the right to make decisions based on the needs of the town, we hope they will remember that their actions can and will be cited by other parties in other communities in future decisions of this nature.
First and foremost, farms are commercial enterprises, businesses by which farmers make some or all of their living. Thus it stands to reason that commercial activities will take place on the farm, irrespective of the zoning in which the farm is located.
Farmers are business men and women, and they seek to diversify their income stream in order to remain profitable, just like any other business. Farmers need diverse income streams to mitigate the negative effects of the unpredictable aspects of farming — crop failures due to weather, pests, seed or plant issues, etc.
Agritourism is a dynamic, rapidly changing component of the agriculture of the future, especially for our small family farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture reflects this reality — in Belknap County, "Agritourism and recreational services" were reported as an income-producing activity by eight farms in 2012, up from four in 2007. The value of sales related to "Agritourism and recreational services" in 2007 was $180,000 and nearly tripled by 2012 to $523,000.
Agritourism is a marketing tool to bring customers onto the farm. It is a way to highlight and showcase the products available, with a resulting increase in sales. Farmers use agritourism to increase traffic at their place of business — the farm. It is also an educational tool, enabling the general public to have a better understanding of farming and how their food is produced.
While the definition of agriculture and related zoning changes submitted by the Gilford Planning Board for a vote in February are apparently in response to the Timber Hill Farm situation, these changes will impact all farms or future farms in the town of Gilford. There is a meeting on Jan 19 where public input will be heard, although the proposal cannot be modified in any way and will go as is to be voted upon. Visit www.lrfn.org to view a copy of the proposed changes.
There are two other parties in Gilford who have received site plan approvals for events including weddings on their properties which are in residential zones. One was approved under 4.7.6 (i) "outdoor special event" and the other under 4.7.6 (e) "home occupation." Both of these parties intend to rent their property for events like those the Howes wish to host, with the exception that the Howes' events would feature food produced at both the Timber Hill Farm and the Beans and Greens Farm locations.
We are unclear why the Planning Board has chosen to treat agritourism so differently from these "Accessory Uses" that are similar in nature.
We acknowledge that all parties have rights in situations of this nature, and believe that site plan reviews should be the process by which the concerns of abutters can be addressed. In the case of Timber Hill Farm, the site plan seems to reflect efforts to minimize the impact on the closest residence.
To view an aerial of the property, visit www.lrfn.org. The 2015 site of the event tent is approximately 300 feet from the nearest residence, while the site of the proposed barn is over 800 feet from the nearest residence. The barn site is in an area adjacent to the fields which is unsuitable for growing crops, but still affords the proximity to the fields and bucolic atmosphere desired by guests.
We hope the voters in Gilford and other communities who may be facing these issues will carefully consider all the short and long-term ramifications of any zoning changes that are proposed.
Farms are part and parcel of the rural character so prized by residents and visitors alike in the Lakes Region. Let's ensure that they will continue to be part of our unique landscape for years to come.
Lakes Region Food Network