The Unexpected Growth of Agriculture in Kingston

From August through December, UNH’s Economic Development Academy explored the major economic issues confronting New Hampshire’s cities and towns. The academy concept, said Cooperative Extension community and economic development leader Charlie French, was to assemble some of the state's accomplished economic leaders to learn from the best—each other—and return to their communities creatively refreshed with new approaches for solving their problems.

The first story in this series told about Christine Soutter, economic development manager in Somersworth, who came to the academy for advice on attracting investors to purchase and renovate housing structures in the city’s downtown district.

This second academy story tells of Kingston’s very different economic situation, yet one just as essential as Somersworth as a community finds itself in the midst of change.

The novel and movie Jurassic Park posited the idea that despite the sometimes worst intentions of mankind, life forms may lie dormant only to spring back once conditions for survival become more favorable. "Life will find a way," said the film's chaotician.

This concept has, well, come to life in the town of Kingston and elsewhere in New Hampshire where a resurgence in agriculture businesses has surprised town leaders who thought their communities' farming days were a thing of the past.

The town of Kingston, twice the size of Somersworth in square miles and half its population—does not have that city’s struggle to reinvent a downtown zone as an engine of economic renewal. Kingston’s downtown, with its expansive common and gazebo, library, general store, and entrance to Kingston State Park, has hardly changed a bit in 100 years.

Kingston’s new economic challenge has sprung up all over its 20 square miles—in fact, its has literally taken root in the fields, gardens, and backyards that were once part of the town's thriving agricultural economy. 

Kingston Planning Board member Glenn Coppelman came to the Economic Development Academy with this counterintuitive problem: his rural community with a once thriving agricultural industry has been struggling with a sudden, unexpected increase in agriculture growth, and finds itself unprepared to accommodate those interests.

Kingston used to be “one large chicken coop,” Coppelman said. “You can walk through the woods now and see remnants of coops everywhere with trees growing right through them.” But as its large dairy and poultry farms disappeared in recent decades, Kingston looked for ways, with modest success, to bolster its tax base by attracting businesses.

Lately, though, Kingston’s selectmen and zoning and planning board members have been caught off guard when the town began to see an uptick in requests for more zoning for farming.

“My attendance at the academy is in response to two things,” said Coppelman, who runs a Christmas tree farm in town. “We’ve seen many new proposals for agricultural uses for property. At the same time, the town has expressed an interest in increasing the tax base and expanding economic opportunities.” The town has created agriculture and economic development zones in the past, but they don’t necessarily line up with all of this development energy from both angles.

“What happens when you have a new small farm owner who wants to spread manure on his fields near a new upscale housing projects?" 

The burst of agricultural interest in Kingston mirrors what’s happening all over New Hampshire, where the number of farms is on the increase. The growth, however, is not in large farms, such as the sprawling dairy farms of past eras.

“The interest is in boutique farming—greenhouses, farm stands, and accessory buildings for raising crops,” Coppelman noted. “And the Planning Board gets involved when new or expanded structures, or changes in use, are proposed. We look at site plan issues, setbacks, increased traffic, noise, hours of operation.” More farms is a good problem to have, but how does a community respond—through the government mechanisms it has in place—to accommodate these requests?

“We need better ordinances and regulations to deal with agriculture in a reasonable way. The state has already determined that agriculture is important and we don’t want to impede it. State statutes specifically prohibit cities and towns from limiting agricultural interests. But what happens when you have a new, small farm owner who wants to spread manure on his fields near a new, upscale housing project?”

Coppelman chuckles when citing this example, but he knows that the looming conflict between the interests of growers, residents, and business owners is no laughing matter.

The once-called Bakie farm in Kingston offers a clear example of the change going on. “This farm at the southern end of town went into conservation easement” when the Bakie family stopped its farming operations, Coppelman said. Putting large natural areas into easements has been a high priority for small towns in New Hampshire to prevent the rampant spread of housing developments, eating away at beautiful, open spaces that could never recover from that kind of growth.

“But some young folks bought the farm and took it over, and want to build it up again,” Coppelman said. “They’re looking at a big greenhouse, a roadside farmstand.” In decades past, that kind of initiative would have been accepted as natural and healthy and not worth a second thought. But, given that the town’s population has grown around that once-thriving farm, residents find themselves with competing interests requiring the kind of thoughtful ordinance planning Coppelman talks about.

Coppelman said the academy has given him an opportunity to talk with other representatives from rural towns about their solutions to similar problems and to think about his town planning work in a more structured way. “It helps me focus. I’m a big believer in keeping your skills sharp. The academy has brought in high quality speakers. It’s been a good blend of presentation and a chance for us to interact. They’ve done a really good job.”

And Coppelman will be taking what he’s learned statewide, as vice president of the New Hampshire Economic Development Association (NHEDA). This non-profit group, which trains economic development practitioners, has been quiet lately, but the new energy created by the Economic Development Academy has motivated Coppelman to step up the association’s training program again. “The seed of the idea for the academy got us talking about working together,” he said.

If all works out, NHEDA could multiply the effects of the UNH academy—instead of 25, there could be hundreds of leaders coming home inspired and reenergized with new ideas to keep their cities and towns economically robust.

The third and final story about the Economic Development Academy will touch on nearly a dozen unique problems brought for discussion by the academy participants.

The Economic Development Academy was co-created by UNH Cooperative Extension and the University’s Office for Engagement and Academic Outreach, hosted by UNH Manchester, and sponsored in part by the Northeastern Economic Developers Association.