An organization formed 20 years ago in New York continues to help consumers understand why farmers do what they do.

Eileen Jensen, executive director, New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (NYAAC), explained that the organization began in 2003 when a group of farmers came together to figure out how to deal with negative headlines regarding dairy farming.

“NYAAC began as an organization that was very reactive, reacting to negative stories,” said Jensen. “We’ve shifted gears over the last 20 years to become a positive, proactive organization that talks about what dairy farmers and other animal agriculture farmers in New York do.”

Jensen grew up on a dairy farm in the Finger Lakes region. “I never imagined my grandfather or father would ever be told to tell their story,” she said. “That’s one thing we do – encourage and motivate farmers and give them the time and resources to tell their story.”

But one story about a single dairy farm isn’t enough. While many farmers have similar goals, each operates differently. NYAAC emphasizes the differences between dairy farms in a single community. “The more voices we have, the better off we are,” said Jensen. “It’s going to take more than one person telling a positive story to change perceptions and make a positive impact.”

The more farmers explain the “why” behind what’s done on farms, the better. “The ‘why’ is important,” said Jensen. “Why cows and calves are separated, why corn is planted in one field and not another. The challenge comes when we don’t talk about the ‘why.’”

Jensen noted that anti-agriculture activists have big funding and loud voices, so it takes a strong organization to hold the fort. “Let’s take a page out of their playbook and talk more about what we’re doing,” she said. “Let’s make connections with our audience and find shared values within our local community members. That’s where we can have impactful, transparent conversations right on the farm, right from the farmer’s mouth.”

One important lesson the organization has learned is that people are interested in hearing from farmers. This is why NYAAC strives, through all of its programs, to give farmers a voice. There are ample opportunities for farmers to learn how to tell their story, discover what works best for them and where they are most comfortable. Some farmers have found a voice through social media; others enjoy providing on-farm tours.

“Once a farmer finds their voice in a specific realm,” said Jensen, “we try to capitalize on that and help them shine.”

NYAAC is responsible for initiating the highly successful birthing center at the NYS Fair. “When the birthing center started 10 years ago, our board of directors took a leap of faith,” said Jensen. “They believed this project could change the perspective of the New York dairy industry. We believe it has, and that’s why it has continued to be successful for 10 years.”

Jensen said the board believed in the project and stood behind the decision to start the program. While not every conversation at the birthing center is positive, the majority are. “People have a changed perspective,” said Jensen. “Conversations have an impact on visitors both near and far.”

Livestreaming activities at the birthing center has allowed an even wider reach, including those unable to attend the fair as well as interested people across the nation. Jensen said the key to the success of the birthing center is the people – the volunteers who provide care for the cows and farmers who are there to talk about their farms. Additional volunteers include sponsors of the birthing center and those who represent the dairy industry.

NYAAC bridges the gap

Dale Hemminger, a dairy farmer from Hemdale Farm in Seneca Castle, talks about some of the newborns at the state fair’s birthing center. Photo courtesy of NYAAC

NYAAC is currently in the process of selecting farms for the birthing center, each of which will provide six cows. Each cow is due to calve during the state fair, so 36 cows will give birth during its 13-day run.

Many adults and children have only seen a cow in a photo, so seeing a live cow is a new experience. “We see people realize ‘This is a cow,’” said Jensen. “Providing this opportunity to not only see a cow, but also meet a farmer, is mind-blowing to some of our visitors.”

Some visitors have been avid birthing center fans for a decade. They keep journals of every calf born and keep in touch throughout the year. “Sometimes they visit the host farm after the fair,” said Jensen. “We have changed their minds about the industry and they then become part of the army of advocates as community members.”

Although those who staff the birthing center receive a variety of questions, Jensen said the number one question is “Why do you separate cows and calves?”

“Because we do that at the birthing center, we talk about it,” she said. “We’re open and honest about it. Farmers explain what they do on their farm and why. There’s a lightbulb moment when people understand. We also talk about environmental sustainability, crop production, animal health, nutrition and dairy products. We don’t stray from any questions at the birthing center.”

Conversations usually begin with one simple question that leads to deeper discussions based on interests in the industry and dairy products. “One thing the volunteers have learned is to be open, honest and transparent,” she said. “They have also learned about the folks who visit us – it isn’t that they aren’t educated, they just haven’t had the opportunity to learn about agriculture up close and first-hand. We have to be that face at the state fair. People come to see baby calves, but what keeps them there is the people. That’s what we take pride in.”

To continually enhance the birthing center experience, NYAAC has added new components over the years. “We send text messages when a cow’s water breaks or we see feet,” said Jensen. “That way people can enjoy the rest of the fair and wait for a text.”

There are 8,000 names on the text message list, some of whom have not actually visited the fair in person. Text messaging has boosted the event’s social media presence, which has allowed organizers to provide more information about the industry.

Jensen has seen the dairy industry come a long way in 20 years. “Farmers have become an army of advocates here in New York State,” she said. “Those are the farmers who are passionate and understand the impact telling their story can have on their business, their farm, their family and communities. However, despite more farmers who are willing to share their stories, there’s still a lot of work to do to build an army of positive advocates for the industry.”

Visit NYAAC online at

by Sally Colby