EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

New Hampshire

January 23, 2008

New agriculture commissioner meets local farmers

BRENTWOOD - Lorraine Merrill's first day on the job last month was pretty typical for a new state agriculture commissioner.

There was coffee, there were pleasantries, and there was a stack of more than 300 pieces of legislation she had to read within a week.

At least, that's the way Dick Uncles - who directs the Agriculture Department's Division of Regulatory Services - described it.

But Merrill, a lifelong dairy farmer who has never run a state agency, seemed to have done her homework when she introduced herself last night to nearly 70 students, farmers and local officials in Rockingham County.

The 56-year-old commissioner from Stratham knew some obscure facts - that Rockingham County ranks 98th in apple production nationwide, for instance, or that Rockingham has more goats than any other county in New Hampshire.

And she knew the proposed legislation - such as House Bill 1277, which would add vineyards to the legal definition of "farm."

That bill is the reason Kenny Evers, who owns Zorvino Vineyards in Sandown, showed up to meet Merrill last night.

"We want to be considered a farm right now. We grow grapes and the state doesn't consider us a farm yet," said Evers, who bought Zorvino three years ago.

The 45-year-old vintner worries that he might be governed by a different set of rules if he branches out and begins growing other fruit, such as strawberries, to use in specialty wines. Right now, his vineyard buys strawberries, but Evers has been reluctant to start growing them because of legal uncertainty.

Merrill said she doesn't think he should be worried or uncertain. But, she said, she supports the bill Evers hopes to get passed.

More importantly, though, Merrill said she hopes more people will follow Evers' career path. As generations-old farms are sold, she wants to see new farmers stepping up to keep agriculture alive in the Granite State.

That's what Evers did. The longtime construction worker was able to leave that industry and work in agriculture when he saw the chance to buy a vineyard.

"It's wonderful. When it's too cold, we work inside. When it's too hot, we work inside," Evers said of his new job.

And Merrill, who is the state's sixth agriculture commissioner since the agency was established in 1913, said the time is right for people to get into farming.

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