Farm and Forest Ethic

Jack Savage | February 4, 2012

“There are two kinds of people in the world,” my late friend Dennis Joos once wrote. “Those who have chickens, and those who are thinking about getting some.” Joos is remembered by many as an extraordinary writer and editor in the North Country, as the appropriately named Dennis Joos Memorial Library in Stewartstown attests.

I still get a chuckle out of that opening line more than two decades after he penned it. As I recall, Dennis went on to make the point in his entertaining and insightful prose that deep inside all of us somewhere is a desire to be self-sufficient. To husband livestock, farm the land, and steward our natural resources and thus sustain ourselves in the most directly satisfying way—by doing it oneself.

Much of New Hampshire’s landscape is a testament to the strength of that desire. And even when we don’t fancy milking the family cow or cutting our own firewood, we like to live near people who do. In town after town the master plans reveal that, when asked, residents aspire to the ideal of the rural community. If they don’t have chickens, people at least like the idea of getting some one day.

A sample of both kinds of people congregated in Manchester Friday and Saturday for the 28th annual Farm & Forest Expo. For many the Expo is something of a dreamscape--a place to lust after all they things that can make for a bonifide rural lifestyle, whether it’s your first chicken or that new and bigger tractor with the inevitably curse-inducing implements. It is here that the city-dweller can imagine the country estate they will someday inhabit, or the established farmer can dream about fixing the fences the right way, once and for all, and dispense with the bungy cords and baling twine.

As a modest tree farmer, I am drawn annually to the display of portable sawmills. I dream of whiling away my weekends converting some of my own standing timber into low-cost dimensional lumber. For a few minutes I ignore fact that I live just a few miles from a commercial sawmill that can provide me just about anything I need, dried in their own kiln. Or the fact that with the sugar house finished I don’t really have any building projects that would require the lumber. Or the fact that as one of the many landowners who makes his primary living ‘off the farm’, there’s not a whole lot of time available for what amounts to recreational lumber milling. None of that stops me from being attracted to the self-sufficient idea of milling my own.

There is often much discussion among exhibitors and organizers of Farm & Forest about the ongoing relevancy of the event. As times change, are we as exhibitors adapting to new trends in landownership, agricultural demographics and evolving markets? Statistics tell us that there as many farms today as there were 30 years ago--though we are trading larger-scale agriculture like old-school dairy farms, for far smaller boutique operations that offer a wide variety local products direct to consumers along with ‘agri-tourism’. Agriculture makes up 7 percent of the land use in New Hampshire, generating 2 percent of Gross State Product ($930 million).

On the forest front, the industry represents 4 percent of GSP, or $2.26 billion. Some 68 percent New Hampshire’s forestland (3.2 million acres) is still owned by private individuals and families, though the size of the ownerships is shrinking, which worries some. The good news is that the forest stewardship ethic is still strong—we either own a woodlot or are thinking about acquiring one.

One can argue that this bodes well for New Hampshire land-based economy. It’s often driven by an ethic, a desire for a lifestyle and a sense of independence. Included that ethic is a sense of stewardship, a recognition that the resources we manage are not merely for us but are managed wisely for the benefit of all and that we oversee our farms and forests as much for the next generation of landowners as for ourselves. And, of course, we also think about getting some chickens.

Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire’s Conservation Magazine published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached at