Public invited to carpool

New cooperative revving up in area

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Sunday, March 29
PETERBOROUGH — Need a ride? This new venture may help.

A regional transportation cooperative is mobilizing volunteers and linking human service organizations to make sure people in the Monadnock Region can get where they need to go.

And the recently formed Contoocook Valley Transportation Cooperative, which straddles parts of Cheshire and Hillsborough counties, isn’t alone.

Several regional and state organizations are working together to fill public transit gaps in rural parts of the state using a model dubbed “community transportation.”

Organizers of these programs, which rely on volunteer drivers and networks of carpoolers, say they will save businesses and workers money, help the environment and increase transportation services for elderly and disabled people.

The Contoocook Valley Transportation Cooperative covers 13 towns, including Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Greenfield, Hancock, Jaffrey, Peterborough, Rindge and Sharon.

The Peterborough-based cooperative, headed by Executive Director Rebecca L. Harris, earned its nonprofit status with the state last September and is housed in a near-empty office in a nondescript business park on Route 202.

But if things go the way Harris envisions, the office will soon be a bustling hub for transportation in the region with a phone bank staffed by volunteers and a Web site for people to post ride requests and offers.

The fledgling cooperative, which is paid for by grants from federal and state agencies including the N.H. Endowment for Health, the N.H. Charitable Foundation and the U.S. departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services, is in the process of building a network of volunteer drivers, according to Harris.

The program offers rides to people for errands including grocery store and pharmacy visits and medical appointments.

The cooperative keeps a list of volunteers in the communities, such as Jinette M. Jenks of Bennington, who signed up to give rides last week. It contacts those who have offered up their services when someone is in need of a ride.

Jenks, a home-provider for the Greenfield-based Crotched Mountain Foundation, decided to volunteer as a way to get involved in the community.

She and 24-year-old Hannah Nowicki, who is wheelchair-bound and lives with Jenks, will team up to provide rides in their community.

Jenks said she has been looking for community service options for herself and Nowicki. When she heard about the volunteer driver program, it sounded ideal.

When someone in the area needs a ride, Jenks said she’ll drive and Nowicki will ride along and get to meet people in the area.

“If we do lots of trips to the hospital and grocery store, it’s a good chance for people that need a ride and Hannah’s really social so she’ll love talking to them,” Jenks said. “I wanted her to see that all of us can find something to do in the community.”

The idea for the volunteer driver network sprang from a regional steering committee started in 2006 that had been researching transportation options in the region, Harris said.

As it began discussing needs for the area, the steering committee looked at a lack of transportation services for the elderly and people with disabilities.

“The demographics of the state are shifting and the baby-boom bubble is shifting toward retirement, while there is a growing population of disabled people that is expected to continue, with more veterans returning to this area,” Harris said.

And by focusing the cooperative’s services on the eastern side of the Monadnock Region — which she describes as Monadnock Community Hospital’s catch-area — Harris said it is helping an underserved population.

“It’s on the border of two counties, so there are services coming from Keene, Manchester and Nashua,” Harris said. “But it’s on the fringes of all these areas, so it’s this section that tends to get forgotten a lot.”

A 2007 study by the Monadnock United Way highlighted the region’s lack of transportation options. It was listed as one of the greatest and fastest growing needs by community leaders and human services agencies.

The United Way study showed transportation moved to the second-most urgent need, after affordable housing, for both human services agencies and community leaders in Cheshire and Hillsborough counties. It was up from fourth among community leaders and third among service agencies in a 2003 study.

Harris said by building a network of volunteers that is linked to agencies, including the American Red Cross and Disabled American Veterans, that already offer transportation services, the cooperative aims fill the need.

But it goes beyond the elderly and disabled.

The faltering economy has left many working families struggling to pay the bills and high gas prices, which climbed to more than $4 per gallon last summer, haven’t eased their pain, Harris said.

While public transportation options available in urban areas, including commuter bus and train lines, probably aren’t practical for rural areas in the state, the cooperative is working to create a rideshare program to increase carpooling.

The program, which will cast its net across the entire Monadnock Region, offers co-workers and neighbors a way to find people with similar driving routes and schedules to share rides, Harris said.

The cooperative is also beginning to tap employers in the region to offer incentives to workers for joining the program.

Businesses would pay the cooperative for employees to sign up for the program, where they can access a Web site to post ride requests and offers. Involvement in the program would benefit employers by drawing prospective employees looking to work for companies with cheap transportation options, Harris said.

Harris is also working to link the regional cooperative to a decades-old state rideshare program run by the N.H. Department of Transportation.

Joan Clinton is coordinator of N.H. Rideshare, which began in the 1970s, and has more than 1,500 participants.

Many of these carpoolers work in Concord or Massachusetts, but the program spans the state and is also reaching out to more businesses for participation, Clinton said.

By partnering with regional transportation organizations, including a well-established program in Lebanon and new groups in Concord and Peterborough, the program can garner a larger pool of interested residents and increase the chances of matching up people with similar commutes, she said.

A third program by the Contoocook Valley that is just getting off the ground is a shuttle that provides rides to rotating community suppers in Antrim, Bennington, Francestown and Hancock. The cooperative began testing the program last year and is running a similar shuttle in Peterborough, Harris said.

One day, it could expand to include shopping shuttles that would offer routes to local supermarkets and pharmacies, Harris said.

Harris said her hope for the cooperative is not only to improve transportation in the region, but also strengthen community ties.

“Our motto is ‘Transportation for Everyone,’ and I think it’s important that whatever people’s motivation, whether environmental reasons or to save money, there is an option for them,” Harris said. “And by getting out and sharing your car with someone, people can get to know each other.”

uTo learn more about any of the Contoocook Valley Transportation Cooperative’s programs call 877-428-2882 or visit www.cvtc-nh.org.

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Sugarers still hurting from ice storm

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Saturday, March 07
When Benjamin T. Fisk of Temple visited the sugar bushes where he runs about 4,500 maple taps earlier this year, he was surprised by the damage caused by December’s ice storm.

“There were a lot of tops of trees that came down and crashed through the tubing,” Fisk said. “There were tubes on the ground, covered by a couple feet of snow and then ice packed on top of that.”

Fisk, a maple producer who runs Ben’s Sugar Shack — one of the largest maple houses in the region — decided he couldn’t get back up and running this season at most of the 13 sites where he usually taps maple trees for sap used to make maple syrup and sugar, and instead rented space in Newbury, where he set up about 3,000 taps.

With balmy 40-plus-degree weather predicted this weekend that could put the maple sugaring season in full swing, maple producers in the eastern side Monadnock Region that was hardest hit by the storm say they don’t know yet how much damage from the ice storm will hurt their profits.

Twenty-year-old Fisk, who started tapping for sap 15 years ago after a class field trip to a sugar house piqued his interest, says he may have to close his business if he’s not able to make enough syrup this year.

“This was my whole income and if I don’t produce what I’d been expecting, I don’t see how I can keep going,” Fisk said.

Last year, he produced about 1,040 gallons of maple syrup and had been shooting for 2,000 gallons this year. Now, he’s hoping that, between the few taps he was able to repair in Temple and the new ones he drilled in Newbury, he’ll produce at least 1,000 gallons, Fisk said.

Steven R. Weber, who runs Railroad Express Sugar House in Harrisville, said his sugar bush was also damaged by the ice storm.

Weber spent the last two months working whenever he had free time to clear debris left from the ice storm and reconfigure the 270 taps in one of his sugar bushes.

Like Fisk and many other maple producers, Weber attaches a network of plastic tubing to trees, which allows the sap to run together into larger tanks, rather than collecting in buckets at each tree.

Most of his tubes had been knocked down by fallen limbs and buried under snow and ice, and Weber said he spent about $300 to replace some tubes and other equipment too badly damaged to reuse.

He estimates about 10 percent of the maple trees he used to tap are irreparably damaged.

“The crowns have completely broken off or there’s only a pole left, they look like telephone poles,” Weber said. “Some may still make it, but I think that most of those will die.”

Weber and Jaffrey maple producer David E. Kemp, who runs Yankee Maple, both said the trees on east-facing slopes took more of a beating than other areas.

“I don’t know if that’s the direction that the storm came in or what, but the east-facing slopes seemed to be hit the hardest,” said Kemp, who runs about 1,300 taps on five sections of land he leases around town.

Kemp estimates he, too, lost about 10 percent of his maple trees to the storm, and spent a lot of time at the end of December clearing debris and replacing lines of tubing damaged in the storm.

While it typically takes about three minutes per tap to drill into the trees and repair any lines at the start of the season, this year Kemp estimated an average of about 15 minutes per tap.

Last year, Kemp made about 300 gallons of syrup and, with demand high, he would like to be able to make more.

“We have people already waiting for this year’s crop,” Kemp said. “The world market for syrup has increased because more bulk producers are buying it.”

Donald A. Upton, a Jaffrey maple producer who runs Monadnock Sugar House, sells his syrup to local stores and restaurants and also ships it around the country through online orders at the company’s Web site, which he set up after winning Yankee Magazine’s best maple syrup in New England last year.

“The demand for syrup just kept growing, so I needed a way to market and sell outside of the sugar house,” Upton said.

A small producer who made about 70 gallons of syrup last year, Upton said his sugar house is fully operational this season, despite ice storm damage to some of his more than 300 taps.

“It just took a lot of extra work, expense and time trying to repair everything,” Upton said.

Meanwhile, Bernard W. Webber, owner of Webber’s Sugar House in Marlborough, said he was lucky not to have sustained much damage from the storm.

“I’m right on the edge of everything and was extremely fortunate,” Webber said.

While most of the 800 trees he taps were unharmed by the storm, Webber did lose a maple tree he estimates was more than 200 hundred years old and measured 5 feet in diameter.

“It’s sad when you lose a tree that old and large,” he said.

Most of the producers in the region say it’s too early for predictions, but some said they are hopeful that, despite storm losses, the season will turn out well.

“We went into the fall with a good amount of water in the trees and the precipitation amounts have been good, so that helps,” said Weber of Harrisville, who made a batch of syrup last weekend, a couple weeks earlier than his first boil last year.

And Fisk, who made about 25 gallons of syrup last week, said he’s holding out hope that a good season will help pull him through an otherwise tough year.

“The winter’s been excellent,” Fisk said. “There’s been a lot of cold weather and snow, which is just what we need.”

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.