Much to farmers’ dismay, sweet corn among bear necessities

Farmland with a tractor in the background
Farming is hard work, and hungry bears don't make it any easier. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Kristen May is anxious about bears, and she’s not alone.

Along with her father, Howard Hatch, she farms 200 acres in North Haverhill. It’s a dairy operation, and the family farm also grows corn used for feed. They have a dairy stand that attracts visitors who come to eat ice cream. But over the years, their fields have attracted another kind of visitor that is much less welcome: local bears who come to snack on the corn growing in their fields.

Hatch said the bear damage can be as much as three to four acres on a plot of land the family leases down the road from where they live. The corn is worth $800 to $1,000 per acre, and the monetary loss is substantial for the family operation.

The 200-acre plot usually sees less damage because there’s more human activity, which deters the bears. But they can still see up to an acre of damage at that part of the farm.

Last year, there was quite a bit of damage, May said, but it varies from year to year. There has already been a lot of bear activity in town so far this year, and May is waiting to see what that will mean for their crop.

Hatch says the problem with bears has gotten much worse over the years. He started farming in 1957 at age 12.

“I can remember when bears weren’t even an issue with corn,” he said. But now they are a perennial problem for farmers.

“We have to live with the damage,” he said.

Across New Hampshire, the damage bears inflict on crops can vary widely, with the state paying out anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 a year. When bears have trouble finding berries and nuts to eat, they’re more likely to turn to corn crops.

Hatch said he’s never gotten a penny from the state, in spite of a law that has been on the books since 1895 to help farmers who have incurred bear-related damages. He has tried applying for those funds in the past, but his application wasn’t accepted because of a stipulation about bear hunting. The landowners Hatch leases from don’t allow it. He has also tried crop insurance but hasn’t had luck with that either.

At this point, he’s discouraged but accepts that it’s a loss he has to take.

The 1895 law may soon be updated, however. Language in the budget proposes a few changes, including a minimum damage amount of $250 and a stipulation that only farmers could apply for the state money so that people who are raising livestock or crops as a hobby wouldn’t apply.

Rob Johnson, the policy director at the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation, said the state received a claim from a non-farmer and realized the requirements needed to be tightened for fear of putting the program in jeopardy. But the updates wouldn’t change the stipulation about bear hunting that has kept Hatch from receiving reimbursement for damages.

The update also strikes language, including about damage inflicted on crops by mountain lions. While people continue to report mountain lion sightings, state officials have not found evidence of their presence in the state for many years.

The bear problem, however, is still widespread.

“I think most any farmer who grows corn has experienced it,” Johnson said. “It can get quite severe.”

“It’s quite frustrating for farmers,” he added. “You put a lot of work into a crop and then it can be destroyed.”

Johnson worked with the Department of Fish and Game and the governor’s staff to update the statute. He said this law is the state’s way of recognizing that bear damage happens, and that the state has a responsibility to help farmers when it does.  

Bears widen their search for food in poor food years, according to Mark Ellingwood, the wildlife division chief of New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. If drought conditions persist into June and July, that could affect berry crops and bears might stray into corn fields looking for food.

Ellingwood said bears do the most damage to sweet corn.

“They have discriminating taste,” he said. “They take full advantage of foods that satisfy their interest the most. The sweetness is an attraction.”

Bears will also go after chickens and rabbits. The Connecticut River Valley, which has some of the state’s best farmland, tends to be an area that’s vulnerable to bear damage.

While the state money can help farmers in a pinch, “the farmers themselves would much rather have the sweet corn,” Ellingwood said. “I think it’s a net loss for them.”

Farmers rarely get as much in a claim as they would if they were able to sell the crop. Bear populations today are “appreciably higher” now than they were at the time the law was put in place. Ellingwood estimates there are now 5,500 bears living in the state. That number has been as high as 6,000. And Fish and Game receives anywhere from 400 to 900 complaints in a given year about bear activity.

In 2019, 30 percent of complaints were related to garbage and dumpsters, another 30 percent had to do with chickens and poultry, and 14 percent were about bird feeders. Ellingwood said other common issues arise from beehives, fruit crops, and occasionally livestock.

“Bears have a wonderful nose,” he said. “They’re very good at finding food.”