by Troy Bishopp
SYRACUSE, NY – At the annual New York State Agricultural Society meeting, it’s tradition to hear from the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner on the state of agriculture. “This is probably the best and one of the largest networking opportunities in the country. The opportunity to renew friendships has been special to me for many years. Things I learned here inspired much of what my farm is doing today,” said the Schoharie County farmer and Ag Commissioner Richard Ball.
This year’s forum highlighted ag census indicators, industry perspectives, energy opportunities and an advocacy roundtable interseeded with award presentations, a Taste of NY buffet and some singing and storytelling from YouTube sensations the Peterson Farm Brothers. The day’s enthusiasm carried over in the commissioner’s remarks as he opened with a quote from Prince Charles: “Agriculture holds the key to the improvement of public health, expansion of rural employment, enrichment of education and the enhancement of quality of life.”
“In spite of all the things there are to worry about today, our story is a pretty great one. I am proud and grateful for the opportunity to continue as your commissioner and tell that story, to advocate for you in Albany and to work side by side with you – our farmers, our producers, food and beverage businesses and our partners in agriculture and education to further our mission to grow our shared industry,” said Ball.
“Many of the governor’s State of the State proposals will have a great impact on agriculture, especially as we continue to work through uncertainties on the federal side and in the marketplace,” Ball continued. He stressed the power in working together as one. “Collaboration is our common thread and only as a team, instead of working in silos, can we improve. The list of issues facing us – labor, immigration, climate change, infrastructure, trade and confusion in Washington – is daunting at times, but we must try to build a consensus to address them.”
Ball saw weather challenges and the loss of dairy farms, trade and a stable workforce as the top concerns. Although a bit light on details, he discussed trade: “We all know how critical our open markets are. Forty-eight percent of what we produce in New York is exported. Our two largest trading partners are Canada and Mexico. About 25% of fresh apple exports go to Mexico, and New York alone exports 17% of its milk supply to Mexico. We have a possible solution in the USMCA trade agreement, which will provide greater export markets for our dairy farmers.”
Ball also talked about moving the needle in the Farm to School Lunch Program and expanding the NY Thursdays program to schools throughout the state while supporting a pilot program to replace individual-serving milk cartons with bulk milk dispensers in school cafeterias, improving taste, reducing waste and saving energy and transportation costs. Since 2015, the state has committed over $4.8 million to help hundreds of school districts serve New York products and to connect farmers to new markets.
“We’re also working with our partners, our Milk Marketing Advisory Council and the Dairy Promotions Order Board, to improve the way we deliver and present milk and dairy products to today’s schoolchildren,” he said.
“Probably one of our biggest limiting factors in the growth of agriculture today is the availability of a legal and stable workforce,” Ball noted. In New York, 2020 saw the new Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act take effect. This is the most sweeping change in farm employment history and farmers are faced with a huge educational challenge to get their farms and farmworkers up to speed, as well as clarity on some of the fundamental language currently in the new law.
“This lack of clarity, unintended consequences and only recognizing two classes of workers [owners and farm workers] is very problematic for our industry,” said Tonya Van Slyke, executive director for the Northeast Dairy Producers Association.
“This is of great concern to our entire ag community, to the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Labor and to the Governor’s Office. We are talking daily, and I remain committed and optimistic that we will get this right,” Ball said.
The Ag Commissioner touted the tripling of the Current Income Exclusion, which reduces taxable income and liability for thousands of farmers, and making the Investment Tax Credit, which is currently only available for new businesses, refundable for farming operations. He talked about the governor’s proposal that “reimagines” the Erie Canal, so farmers near the waterway have reliable access to water in the event of a drought and during the critical growing season.
The success of the Farmland Protection Program was discussed, which has protected 300 farms and more than 75,000 acres since the inception of the program. As part of the successful program, the state also launched its Dairy Transitions Program to help dairy farmers diversify or transition their farms to the next generation and keep land in agriculture. New York State awarded more than $30 million to dairy farms in 2019, which will protect an additional 15,000-plus acres.
The hemp industry is a new venture that has grown exponentially in New York. There are more than 20,000 acres of registered hemp production across the state and more than 400 growers taking part in the research program. “As we move ahead, we envision great things to come for the hemp industry in New York State, with truly phenomenal research being done in the areas of CBD. We are proposing the creation of a new Center for Global Cannabis Center for Science, Research and Education, and we are working with Cornell on seed varietals and identifying optimal growing conditions for successful hemp yields,” said Ball.
The craft beverage industry continues to provide opportunity for diversification on farms. Several proposals to further cut red tape for craft beverage producers and make it easier to do business are on the table. The New York State Grown & Certified Program continues to thrive as it prepares farmers for the future of food safety requirements. In three years, the program has grown to over 3,000 participating farms, representing over 775,000 acres.
The Department of Ag & Markets is looking at a pilot program to improve the state’s readiness to handle the most serious livestock diseases using radio frequency identification device (RFID) technology at all New York livestock markets.
Lastly, the commissioner talked about the governor’s unprecedented investment in the NYS Fairgrounds, and shattering prior attendance records. “The governor has a vision for the fair, and agriculture benefits, as it remains central to the fair’s mission through education and exposure. As the fair continues to grow, so too will the number of people who get to know New York agriculture. And getting people to know New York agriculture, to know you, will be critical to our future – and to theirs,” Ball stated.
“We will continue to see volatility in our markets, and we will continue to see some weather challenges. We have good land, good resources and great talent. Some of the best producers in the country are here. The best land grant system for ag education is here. The biggest marketplace in the world is here. We are New Yorkers and we will not allow fear to stand in our way. I believe we are up to the challenge. Our profession is noble, our cause is correct. I look forward to working with you to advance our future,” emphasized Ball.
For the full audio of Commissioner Ball’s speech, go to nysagsociety.org/about-the-forum.