LIVERPOOL, NY — “Collaboration” represented the theme of the day at the 185th Annual Meeting & Agricultural Forum of the New York State Agricultural Society recently. One of the day’s panel discussions, “Fostering Collaborations Through Educational Institutions”, certainly continued the motif as leaders from educational organizations shared their thoughts.
One panelist was Cheryl Thayer, local food distribution and marketing specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension Erie County’s Harvest New York program. She said to facilitate the state’s booming dairy food processing industry — largely fueled by the yogurt boom — her organization’s primary emphasis has homed in on workforce training.
She said by offering workforce training developed on campus to dairy plants throughout New York, Cornell has provided a link between processors and Cornell to “address specific issues, questions and challenges,” Thayer said.
In other areas of ag, such as livestock processing and marketing, connections with Cornell have helped producers address challenges with production and marketing, such as learning how to process safely, cure meats, and identify bottlenecks in the processes. Part of this is planning processing facilities for safety, efficiency and animal comfort.
Thayer views her organization as facilitator to bridge resources of Cornell to individual farms. Such collaborations can make the difference between family farms dying or succeeding. One way many family farms have reinvented themselves is by developing and introducing farmstead items made from currently produced or new products. Craft based beverages — such as beer, cider and wine — represents one recent trend among farmstead goods.
“A lot of legislation has passed lately for craft beers,” Thayer said, “but not a lot of coordination in the supply chain.”
By partnering with farmers and institutions, her organization hopes to open new markets and supply chains so farmstead brewers can obtain both the ingredients and buyers they need to thrive.
For example, Thayer found growers that wanted to sell wholesale and buyers that wanted to buy local goods.
The group helped organize the Western New York Food Hub to link growers with people seeking to buy food wholesale.
Helping producers become Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certified is also an integral part of Thayer’s program since many buyers seek GAPs certified producers.
“They have been able to diversify product lines and are moving more organic goods,” Thayer said.
Local farm-to-school programs also move more produce, as growers can directly sell to their school districts as well as participate in educational outreach programs.
The next panelist was Heidi Mouillesseaux-Kunzman, senior extension associate with the Community and Regional Development Institute (CaRDI) in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University.
She said her department has worked upon attracting and retaining local youth in agricultural employment.
“There is a disconnect between businesses and high school graduates,” Mouillesseaux-Kunzman said. “The businesses say they don’t have a labor pool and the high school kids say there are no local jobs.”
By introducing 10-week internships, Mouillesseaux-Kunzman said more young people can better learn what agricultural businesses are like and tend to more readily find long-term employment at local ag-related businesses. They can also ensure that they have found the particular type of ag-related business for which they want to work.
The hosts receive low-cost, eager workers; access to the latest information and ideas; the possibility of post-internship employment; and strengthened relationships with faculty.
Each week, the internships involve working four days at the business and spending one day in community engagement, interviewing community leaders about their thoughts on agriculture and food supply.
Mouillesseaux-Kunzman’s group began programs in Batavia, Syracuse, Ithaca and Amsterdam, NY. Challenges to the program included housing and transportation and funding for interns; however, “the potential return in terms of collaborations is big for industry, students and communities,” Mouillesseaux-Kunzman said.
Bruce Wright, the next panelist to speak, serves as professor and John Deere Tech coordinator and master technical instructor in Agricultural Engineering Technology at SUNY Cobleskill. He said his program began when SUNY Cobleskill was approached about how its curriculum could be modified to train students to become John Deere employees. Twelve to 20 students annually complete the program, and of those, 50 percent are hired as John Deere employees. Others go on to pursue other employment, including farmers who can expertly use John Deere equipment.
Training students to specific equipment makes sense to Wright, considering some costs nearly a million dollars and is tricked out with GPS and can transmit information to the Cloud.
“Why would you want to hire people with no skill?” Wright posed.
He said the technology is changing so quickly that some older producers rely upon newly trained employees to help refresh their memory each season as to how their equipment’s software works and to keep them up-to-date on changes in it.
Wright said between the 1930s and 1990s, agriculture experienced few changes in technology. But between the 1990s and 2000s, technology advanced more than it had in the past 60 years of agricultural development, and the same phenomenon occurred in the past 16 years.
“If we had to educate students on that equipment without collaboration, we couldn’t do it,” said the final panelist, Chris Nyberg, dean of the School of Agriculture, Sustainability, Business and Entrepreneurship at Morrisville State College. “Collaboration isn’t a good thing; it’s necessary.”
The school offers a 15-week internship that allows students to “see what it’s like over a period of time.”
Nyberg said most of the students in the ag program “have multiple job offers before we hand them their diplomas.”
Morrisville has brought back its Food Science department, which last functioned 20 years ago, thanks in part to New York’s craft beverage boom. The school has begun a brewery on campus and is partnering with two farmstead breweries for internships. The business owners serve on Morrisville’s advisory board.
The New York State Agricultural Society and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets co-sponsored the 185th Agricultural Forum, which ran from Jan. 4-5.