OSSIPEE – Carroll County is gearing up for the start of pick your own blueberry season this weekend. Meanwhile, the commissioners are hoping to find $20,000 to fund a study that would determine what could be done with hundreds of acres of county agriculture land which commissioner Mark Hounsell believes could be a hedge against a "food shortage."
For the second year in a row, the county is offering pick your own blueberries off of County Farm Road. This year, the blueberries will be sold between 8 a.m. and noon Saturday and Sunday at the rate of $4 per quart. Farm manager Will Dewitte said he's sprucing up the blueberry area.
"I want it looking nice for when the people come to pick berries," he said.
The blueberry sales is only projected to raise $750 in revenue or so and would not come anywhere near paying for the land study. What to do with the county lands has been a contentious issue for well over a year.
In 2016, the county delegation, a group of 15 state representatives, slashed last year to the tune of $90,000.
The farm can produce hay, cord wood and campfire wood, along with timber, blueberries and vegetables. Inmate labor is used. The delegation members who voted to cut the farm's budget claimed it competes with local growers among other complaints.
County commissioners formed an advisory committee to study the farm. Last year, the panel reported that on an annual basis, farm operations reduce Department of Public Works cost by about $37,833.
This year, in addition to blueberries, the farm is continuing to produce hay and is doing wood processing on more limited basis.
At a heated meeting in February, lawmakers passed a farm/DPW budget of about $217,000. They removed $10,000 from the DPW and placed it in a contingency fund for the purposes of funding a feasibility study that would help county officials identify the best use for the land. The delegation has to approve any expenditure to be paid for from that $10,000 fund.
At Wednesday's commissioners meeting, chairwoman Amanda Bevard (R-Wolfeboro) gave an update on what's happening with respect to the county agriculture land.
She said most of the members of the former advisory committee were "burned out" and now there's a new committee that will be looking at what can be done with the county's land. She said the committee includes herself and county residents Steve Knox of Albany, Dale Drew of Conway, Sandra Brocaar of Madison, and Susan Gaudette from Wakefield. Bevard said she would like to find another member who comes from a town north of Conway which are Bartlett, Jackson, Chatham or Hart's Location. She hopes to have a delegation member. She would also like someone with a conservation or environmental background.
Bevard has the authority to appoint members.
The previous committee had come up with a request for the proposal for an agricultural land feasibility study and she wants the new committee to review the RFP before they put it out.
"If anyone else has any out of the box ideas they can certainly put it in writing and submit it to us," said Bevard. "The committee would look at it."
Bevard suggested some land could be put aside for county residents to use for recreation.She thought of that because Carroll County residents told her that they can't use Diana's Baths because of the lack of parking.
"It would be nice maybe if the people in the county had a place, just open to the county residents, that they could walk and hike and for bike paths."
County Administrator Ken Robichaud said the county has between 750 and 900 acres of land.
Commissioner David Babson said the commission and the delegation need to work together on figuring out where to focus. The delegation, he said, has final say on how the $10,000 can be spent.
"As it stands now, we could do all the work and they could say 'no,'" said Babson. "We are just chasing our tail."
Commissioner Mark Hounsell agreed that the commissioners "kind of stuck" because the a feasibility study will cost at least $30,000 and the delegation has only set aside $10,000. The $10,000 was expected to be put toward matching funds.
"I don't think we as a board can give a single direction because I'm opposed to expanding farm operations," said Hounsell. "My feeling with the county land... is it's a valuable asset in that there seems to be considerable evidence that a food shortage is in America's future. So we should be careful we don't tie up the land that makes it impossible to do other things."
Hounsell said he would like the public to weigh in on what the land should be used for and also to contribute money towards the match.
"Their inability to do so underlines the reality that a county operated farm is not in the best interest of the county," said Hounsell. "That doesn't mean a farm isn't in the best interest of the county."
Babson and Hounsell gave Bevard their blessing in regards to finishing the RFP and for finding matching funds. She planned to report monthly on her progress. She hopes to present a draft RFP to the commissioners by October.
"Anything that gets us going in a direction would be helpful," said Babson.