MANCHESTER, N.H. — United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made a stop in New Hampshire Thursday to announce $320 million in grants and loans for new projects in the US meant to boost small and medium-scale producers, including one in Berlin.
North Country Growers, a Massachusetts-based company, will receive a $19.9 million federal loan to create a 20-acre greenhouse facility in Berlin that will grow leafy greens and lettuce.
Of the 26 projects Vilsack announced Thursday, he said the initiative in Berlin is the only one in New Hampshire.
The greenhouse will employ 35 people once construction is finished on the first 10 acres of the greenhouse, according to founder and chief operating officer Marguerite Piret. She expects to complete the first 10 acres of the greenhouses by the end of 2023 and start selling produce in the first quarter of 2024.
Once the full 20 acres of construction is finished, she expects the operation to employ 80 people.
She said construction is already underway on the facility that will use the gas line formerly used by paper mills in the North Country. The plan is to use around 45 percent of the energy for electricity to keep the lights on and the other 55 percent for heat to regulate the temperature of the greenhouses.
“We’re just about twice as energy efficient as other greenhouses,” she said. Finding a location for the greenhouse was hard because a lot of communities didn’t want it in their backyard, she said.
Vilsack said that while 2022 was a record year for farm profits, 98 percent of it went to large-scale producers who do more than half a million dollars of business per year.
But increasing small and medium size operations and attracting young people to farming is an uphill battle. They face barriers like how expensive and difficult it is to access land, how difficult it is to hire workers, and how hard it is to make money farming at that scale.
New Hampshire Department of Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper said that while there’s a goal of producing 30 percent of food locally by 2030, agricultural production has been declining over the past century.
Employment and sales in both agriculture and fisheries are either flat or declining, according to a recent report.
As production has gone down, local infrastructure for farming has also diminished, which means it can be hard to find local food processing facilities.
A hundred years ago, around 12 percent of food was produced locally, Jasper said. Now, he estimated that it’s dipped under 10 percent.
“I have to think we’ve lost significant ground,” he said.
“Over a quarter of a million acres (are) at threat in the region right now,” he said, pointing to how big a problem the loss of farmland is. “We would probably need to bring a million acres back online to meet that (30 percent goal) and that’s just realistically not going to happen.”