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Farmlands

Background:

The information that follows draws on the Forest Society's NH's Changing Landscape Report (2010). According to the report, New Hampshire continues to lose farmland. The state's best agricultural soils cover only 380,000 acres, or 6.6%, of the state and are widely scattered in relatively small pockets. About 4% of the best soils have been lost to roads and highways, and another 12% have changed to urban land uses. That means that about 60,000 acres statewide is now unavailable for food and forage production. Over the two decades preceding 2010, the state saw a 23% decline in acres used for cropland and pasture.

Farming in New Hampshire involves a variety of agricultural land uses including cropland, hayfields, pastures, orchards and horticultural operations. These lands are important for food production, wildlife habitat and add to the cultural heritage and open space values of the state. The contribution agriculture makes to the state’s economic activity is significant —approximately $935 million in 2005. Productive farming is dependent upon a key natural resource: productive soils. Important agricultural soils are a good indicator for current and potential farmland.

Because farm soils are typically found on land that is flat, open, and therefore easily developed, a significant share of an already scarce resource has been converted permanently to other land uses. Farmlands provide much more than a place to produce crops and livestock. An inventory of valuable farmland is important to understand the extend of local resources and prioritize the most important places to conserve.

Basic NRI - What to Include:

Inventorying important farmland soils is an important first step to document actual and potential farmlands. Prime and statewide important farmland soils are identified in the NRCS County Soil Surveys, available via GRANIT and GRANITView and discussed in more detail in the NH Soil Data Dictionary.

Prime Farmland Soils are those soils best suited to food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops. The soils are of the highest quality and can economically produce sustained high yields of crops when treated and managed according to acceptable farming methods.
Soils of Statewide Importance are soils that are not prime or unique but are of statewide importance for the production of food, feed, fiber, forage and oilseed crops. Criteria for defining farmland of statewide importance are determned by a state committee, chaired by the Commissioner of the NH Dept. of Agriculture, Markets and Foods.
See also the discussion of Unique Farmland and Farmland of Local Importance under Detailed Inventory Studies below - these are two farmland classes recognized by NRCS, but not mapped into soils units because of their site-specific nature.

Protecting farmlands increases diversity in the landscape, such as scenic diversity and wildlife habitats. Keeping land in farming also builds a more sustainable and local food source. As open space, farmlands preserve local hydrology, ameliorating flooding and increasing infiltration and ground water storage, which is important in the context of more frequent and intense precipitation events as our climate changes. It is also is important that best management practices are followed to preserve water quality

Basic NRI Maps

Prime Farmland soils and Soils of Statewide Importance can be displayed on the Farm and Forest Soils map. See the Epping Farm and Forest Soils Map (map to come) example.

Detailed Inventory Studies:

Inventory of Active Farmlands:  The list of farmlands in a community is probably longer than most people realize. Farms may include pastures that support beef, sheep and horse farms, hayfields, dairy farms, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, "pick your own" operations and nurseries. There is no comprehensive data source for active and potential farmlands in the state. Consider conducting an inventory of active farmlands in your community or region. If you have an Agricultural Commission in your community, check to see what activities they may have conducted. One of the potential activities an agricultural commission in NH may take on is to conduct inventories of agricultural resources, historic farms and farm buildings. The inventory could also include the following NRCS Farm Class categories (refer to the NH Soil Data Dictionary for more details):
Unique Farmland is farmland other than prime that is used for the production of specific high value food and fiber crops in New Hampshire. In order to qualify as unique farmland, a high value food or fiber crop must be grown. In NH unique farmland crops may include, but are not limited to: apples, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, pumpkins, squash and tomatoes.
Farmland of Local Importance is farmland that is not prime, unique or statewide importance, but has local significance for production of food, feed, fiber and forage. Identifying these farmlands is determined on a county-wide basis by the individual County Conservation District Boards. Contact your board to find out what farms may be on this list.  
Refer to the list of resources below for additional information that can be helpful for compiling an inventory of active farmlands.

Additional Resources:

Preserving Rural Character through Agriculture (UNH Cooperative Extension)
Creating an Agricultural Commission in your town  (UNH Cooperative Extension)
Is Your Town Farm Friendly Checklist  (UNH Cooperative Extension)
UNH Cooperative Extension Agriculture web pages
NH Dept. of Agriculture, Markets and Foods - Experience NH Agriculture 
American Farmland Trust - New England