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Executive Council gives Ag Commissioner Shawn Jasper another 5 years

One councilor raised concerns about the commissioner's “poor bedside manner.”
Executive Council gives Ag Commissioner Shawn Jasper another 5 years
Councilor Joe Kenney (right) voiced concerns about Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper’s demeanor and leadership before voting against his reappointment. Jasper was approved for a second term. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

With two members citing serious concerns, the Executive Council voted 3-1 on Wednesday to give Shawn Jasper another five-year term as commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, Markets, and Farms.

In a second vote, the council unanimously confirmed Lori Weaver, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, to fill out the term of outgoing Commissioner Lori Shibinette. Councilors cited the overwhelming support they heard for Weaver during her nomination hearing.

The Jasper vote included an abstention from Councilor Janet Stevens, a Rye Republican, who said she had too little information about the department’s response to a state audit conducted prior to Jasper’s term.

Councilor Joe Kenney, a Wakefield Republican, cast the lone no vote, citing farmers’ fears of retaliation if they disagreed with Jasper. Kenney also voiced concerns about the inactivity of the State Agriculture Advisory Board, which hadn’t met during Jasper’s term until just before his nomination hearing.

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Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Concord Democrat, voted for Jasper but said she did so “with reservations.” Like Kenney, Warmington raised concerns about Jasper’s “poor bedside manner” but also noted that three quarters of the people who contacted her about his nomination said they supported him.

Warmington said she expects Jasper “to listen to all options whether he agrees with them or doesn’t agree with them.”

Jasper’s confirmation came after a rocky hearing before the council last week. Dozens of farmers attended, both to support and criticize the commissioner.

Detractors raised issues around Jasper’s personality, accusing him of being hostile to farmers whose ideas he disagreed with.

“I was disappointed with the ability of the commissioner to listen and work collaboratively with his constituents in the dairy industry,” said Deb Erb, who co-owns Springvale Farm in Landaff, a dairy farm. “He was not open to changing his mind and he was not open to listening.”

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Beth Hodge, a Hinsdale dairy farmer, said she had received “the most combative email I’ve ever received in my life” from Jasper after she voiced concerns with the progress of the dairy premium bill, which she felt needed changes to boost participation.

Jasper’s response left Hodge demoralized, she said. “I do not believe he truly supports all the farmers in the state,” she said.

When Jasper sat for questions at his hearing last month, some executive councilors grilled him about his attitude. Kenney urged Jasper to treat the farmers as customers.

Jasper responded: “I can’t promise you that if someone is yelling at me I will have a smile on my face.” He said that he regretted some of his interactions and would work to be more collaborative if reconfirmed.

I can’t promise you that if someone is yelling at me I will have a smile on my face.

Others in the industry, including the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation, supported Jasper’s reappointment. Rob Merrill of Merrill Farm Dairy in Concord, said that he had been skeptical of Jasper in his first year in office given his relative lack of farming experience. But he said Jasper showed a willingness to learn during a visit to Merrill’s farm and brushed up on the intricacies of the profession.

And Merrill said Jasper worked quickly to get federal aid to dairy farmers during the outbreak of COVID-19.

“Shawn Jasper went to bat for the agricultural community very fast,” Merill said.

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The very existence of Jasper’s hearing was unusual; the council usually does not set hearings for commissioners seeking reappointment to their roles.

Jasper was first appointed to the post in 2017, after the council voted 3-2 to confirm him. At the time, he served as the Republican House speaker; he resigned his legislative seat and speakership after the council approved him.

In making his case to be commissioner in 2017, Jasper cited his experience on his family poultry farm, which his family owned from the early 1900s to the 1980s, and noted that he had taken over some of the business roles from 1979 to 1983, when he was in his twenties.

But Jasper did not have a smooth path to confirmation the first time around. Two Republican councilors voiced skepticism about that experience. Jasper did not work directly in the agriculture industry after 1983. He is currently president of the Jasper Corporation, which was founded in 1958 and owns self storage facilities

Citing those concerns, Kenney and Councilor David Wheeler voted against Jasper. He was confirmed after the two Democrats at the time, Andru Volinsky and Chris Pappas, joined with then-Republican Councilor Russell Prescott to vote him in.

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This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. (The headline on this page was added by Granite Memo.)