Country Mice Hit Manchester

New Hampshire Farm and Forest Exposition Celebrates 32 Years of Rural Heritage in the heart of the Queen City.

Dave Anderson | February 5, 2011

“Welcome to Farm and Forest Nation!”

It always seems to snow - even just a little bit - in Manchester when the annual New Hampshire Farm and Forest Exposition arrives at the Raddison Hotel and Conference Center in Manchester in February.  A light snowfall adds just the right down-home touch when a tribe of country folks arrive in the big city.

This year, New Hampshire Farm and Forest Exposition celebrated its thirty-second anniversary having begun in 1983. The event offers an annual snapshot of our rural culture, a winter milestone when people engaged in all facets of a diverse natural resource economy converge to share goods, services, laughter and stories from a culture dependent upon open space as more than a mere scenic backdrop to outlet stores and shopping malls.

The Expo floor is crowded with shiny new tractors, portable sawmills, cordwood mills, a replica maple sugarhouse and timber frame display barn. Like an odd mid-winter dream, live farm animals - chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, llamas and even live honey bees – cluck, oink, bleat, grunt and buzz in downtown Manchester. The Expo is a scaled-down winter version of a traditional N.H. County Agricultural Fair. Perhaps the most incongruous part is Farm and Forest Expo takes place in middle of winter in the heart of the State’s largest city.

For rural folks from the hills, navigating big city Manchester streets can be slightly challenging. “Country Mice” from the hill farms arrive in the triple-decker cement parking garage at the Raddison to unload pick-up trucks and horse trailers with displays of farm goods and services ranging from equine insurance, electric fencing and maple sugaring supplies to New Hampshire-made honey, goat’s milk soap and hand-spun wool.

I smile each year when loading the Forest Society’s display booth in to the Trade Show floor. “These are our people” I tell my colleagues at the Forest Society. Expo is a great commercial and social gathering of the extended New Hampshire family clan of farm and forest-related businesses, a traditional New England subculture. It’s almost like walking into Fenway Park, only it smells nicer – like a barn.

Live animals from The Friendly Farm enchant the children. One year, twin lambs were born. One was promptly named “Expo.” Formerly, a large draft horse was stationed along one wall. Recently there have been more exotic, live llamas and alpacas in attendance.

Myriad equipment vendors greet forest folk, tree farmers, livestock farmers and vegetable growers including suburban homeowners who increasingly dabble in diverse backyard agricultural ventures. Our State’s former Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Taylor often reminded audiences that even as the total state acreage being actively managed for agriculture decreased with the loss of large, traditional dairy operations, the total number of small backyard farms and number of residents engaged in agricultural pursuits is ever-increasing. Some describe the resulting trend as “niche agriculture” or “boutique farms.”

The popularity of backyard gardening has fueled growth in the horticulture industry. Community-supported agricultural cooperatives and Farmer’s Markets are a testament that agriculture, while smaller and more specialized, is thriving in New Hampshire.

Backyard farmers belong to organizations like the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Growers Association – one of my favorite booths. The Wool Growers serve-up a delicious Teriyaki lamb stir-fry that I sample each year just to keep my own four pet Romney sheep a bit more wary of my oft-repeated idle threats of what I might do.

The Expo offers more than a colorful snapshot, it also offers the opportunity to take the pulse of a farm and forest natural resource economy. I survey a vast murmuring crowd of farm and forest folks who travel from afar each winter to graze along aisles of the trade show floor at the Farm and Forest Expo. Beyond the extended economy of traditional goods and services, an entire way of life is also at stake.

Each year, I try to discern if the Expo crowd is larger or smaller and whether the folks are all the same familiar faces of Farm and Forest faithful or new converts. I believe farmers, like much of our state demographic are aging. The former strong presence of youthful “Future Farmers of America” in their bright blue jackets seems to be dwindling. I worry about a growing disconnect between the laughing toddlers and beaming suburban school kids petting cuddly farm animals and real, authentic knowledge of where their food comes from. I very much want to believe that a new generation of savvy young niche farmers will continue our State’s long and proud agricultural heritage and help perpetuate rural culture even as southern New Hampshire is less rural. I remain optimistic but unconvinced.

New Hampshire’s “green infrastructure” includes more than agriculture and forestry. The economy extends beyond local farmers and savvy consumers dependent upon local working landscapes. The natural resources economy feeds tractor salespeople and skidder repair shops. Tourism-related restaurants, lodging and retail businesses generate revenues dependent upon scenic open space: a rural landscape of verdant valleys, sparkling lakes, rivers, forest-clad hills and rolling pastures; the working landscape of farms and forest where people must be able to make a decent living while working the land.

Just as farmers nurture dairy cows or crops and forest-related businesses sustain New England’s forested landscape, we as a society may want to think about how purchasing habits can help to nurture local farm and forest economies and help sustain people whose livelihood maintains and manages the green infrastructure and rural economy on display briefly in Manchester each winter.

When “country mice”arrive in the big city for a few short days, I can’t help but note how dependent they are upon not only rural landscapes but also upon “city mice” consumers inhabiting vast suburban and urban areas of the country where supermarkets and lumber yards are far-removed from the landscapes which actually provide the products found on their shelves.