NYS’s new Ag Commissioner Ball aims to boost opportunities for upstate farmers

CEW-MR-2-NY Ag comissioner2by Pat Malin

LIVERPOOL, NY — Richard Ball’s fruit and vegetable farm in Schoharie County seems to give him a good view of the landscape of both upstate and downstate New York.

The Town of Schoharie is situated in the Southern Tier, south of Canajoharie and east of Schenectady. More significantly, Schoharie Valley Farms is just 36 miles west of the state capital, where Ball will soon be commuting to his new job.

“The gap between upstate and downstate has become starker than ever,” said Ball, who has just been named commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. His goal is to narrow that gap, while increasing opportunities for farmers from upstate and downstate to collaborate and reach more consumers.

Ball’s nomination by Governor Andrew Cuomo was not totally unexpected, but the timing was fortuitous. It came late in the afternoon of Jan. 9 as Ball and his wife, Shirley, were attending the second day of the New York State Agricultural Society’s 182nd annual meeting and agricultural forum at the Holiday Inn near Syracuse. He had just enough time to prepare an address to an audience of about 400 people, including farmers, educators, state and local agricultural agency officials, businesspeople and ag supporters, plus a select group of young people.

“I got good advice on my way up (to the podium) from Pat Hooker,” quipped Ball, referring to his friend who served as ag commissioner from 2007-2011.

Ball is a prominent leader in local, state and national agricultural circles. Although in early January he met with the governor to discuss becoming commissioner, he admitted he isn’t sure how he came to be Cuomo’s final pick. The previous commissioner, Darrel J. Aubertine of northern New York, was appointed after Cuomo took office in January 2011, but resigned last October to take another state job. James Bays served as interim commissioner until Ball took over.

Pending approval by the state senate, Ball will become the Empire State’s 28th ag commissioner since 1884.
“He is a lifelong farmer and advocate for farmers,” said Diane Held, president of the state agricultural society, in introducing Ball. He received a standing ovation both before and after his speech.

“I believe the governor understands that agriculture drives the state’s economy, and that he understands (agriculture) is a business and wants it to succeed,” Ball told the crowd.

He was previously tabbed by Cuomo to serve on the New York State Anti-Hunger Task Force along with Dr. Kathryn Boor, dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS).

Through that committee, Ball helped create a unique social venture (the Corbin Hill Road Project) between a group of upstate farmers and community groups in New York City to deliver fresh, local produce to Harlem and the Bronx.

Ball has also served as vice president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association and held numerous positions with the board of directors of the New York Farm Bureau. He has held key positions with the American Farm Bureau too.

Ball made several references to Cuomo’s state of the state address, which was delivered the day before his appointment. Cuomo noted that the upstate economy lags behind not just behind New York City, but behind the rest of the nation, as well, and it’s vital to help upstate communities climb out of their economic stagnation.

“The governor realizes that the upstate economy can’t grow without the help of agriculture,” Ball commented. “Farmers are the economic engine in the state.”

Among the highlights of Cuomo’s speech that Ball said will appeal to farmers were reductions in business and inheritance taxes, lower utility rates, water conservation and more emphasis on clean, renewable energy.

Ball said the governor recognizes that a plethora of government and agricultural agency regulations have given farmers the feeling “that our industry …is under siege.”

Through his active involvement in agricultural and community groups, Ball demonstrated he wasn’t operating his farm in a vacuum. He has continually given back to his community, most notably in 2011 when he served as chairman of Schoharie Recovery, Inc., a non-profit formed to help his neighbors recover from the floods and destruction of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. During his address, he recalled the considerable amount of state and federal aid that helped rebuild the town.

He also has served as past president of the Schoharie County Chamber of Commerce and serves on the board of directors (and past president) of the Schoharie County Farm Bureau. He is president of the Schoharie Valley Association, and is the representative for Schoharie County on the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council.

Ball, 61, grew up in the Catskills, where his grandfather ran a small “hillside” family dairy farm in Greene County. Although his parents had careers outside farming, he credited them with nurturing his love of agriculture.

“I caught the (farming) bug on top of the hay wagon,” Ball said in a later interview. “I remember walking the cows up the road, going to the creamery. Milk was in cans then.”

When he was 18, he chose to move to Exeter, near Warwick, RI, to take a job on his paternal grandfather’s crop farm. “I found a home there and a job I loved.” He started out as a laborer and during his 20-year tenure worked his way up to operations manager. He returned to New York State in 1993 with his first wife and three children, determined to own and operate his own farm.

He said he preferred growing crops and vegetables rather than going into dairy. “My first goal was to make a living, pay the bills, to make it work,” he explained with a laugh.

Ball and his present wife, Shirley, own the 200-acre Schoharie Valley Farms on State Route 30, just north of the village of Schoharie. The farm produces a wide range of vegetable crops, small fruits and greenhouse crops for both retail and wholesale consumers. Through their on-site farm market known as The Carrot Barn, they ship fresh vegetables to brokers and restaurants from the Schoharie Valley to New York City.

Considering his mission to become an active commissioner and travel widely throughout the state, Ball said he hasn’t decided on the future direction of his farm, but he will discuss with his children his plans to “expand their roles” on Schoharie Valley Farm.

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