by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Especially in light of the pandemic, rural economies often struggle for stability during weather crises. Building resilience into the rural economy can help farms endure through tough times.

Ronnie Coffman, professor of global development, international professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of International Programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, and New York State Ag Commissioner Richard A. Ball presented “Regional Agrifood System Needs: Transitioning Rural Economies” as part of the recent Grow-NY Summit.

“We think about the global food system and how New York fits into it,” Coffman said. “The global food system is in a pretty challenging situation. A majority of the foods, particularly the grains, we’re producing on this side of the world are shipped to the other side of the world, which is not a sustainable situation.” He wants to keep food production local to its consumption.

Ball noted the advancement of Mexico compared to three decades ago, when a third of their population lived in poverty. “Now they’re a powerhouse in agriculture, 30 years after entering that agreement,” he said, referring to NAFTA.

He believes that success in agriculture can translate into success as a society. “We have to be global partners,” Ball said. “New York State has realized we need to keep this alive. We need a food supply chain that’s resilient and responsive and rely less on other parts of the world for what we need in New York State.”

Coffman said subsidies present a big challenge. “In New York, we’re nicely positioned,” he said. “Good water, good green power with wind, solar and hydro. We have a lot of advantages, but subsidies bring peculiar competitions. You have water subsidies in the West and transportation subsidies for things on the other side of the country.”

Much of the grain raised in New York is for feeding animals. Coffman said the likelihood of other means of producing proteins is increasing. “In Singapore, they have chicken nuggets without any chickens and milk in a stainless steel vat without a cow. These are the technology changes that are coming,” he said.

Ball remains more New York State-focused. He praised the state’s farmers and land as some of the best. “We rank in the top 10 of over 30 commodities nationally,” he stated. “We have arguably the best land grant organization in the nation – and possibly the world.”

He hopes that farmers will learn from the pandemic that the market does not completely know New York – and that it should.

“It’s the perfect place for the future of green power,” Coffman said. “I think that will be the secret of competition.”

Ball said that the state has “the most aggressive goals for climate change. We know climate is affecting us today and we have an aggressive plan. We have an opportunity to make sure rural New York is a participant here. We’re at the table. We cannot just lessen our impact but sequester carbon and farm in a good way and be part of the solution.”

He views parts of the problem and solution to include waste, transportation, housing and power. They all intersect with agriculture.

Coffman hopes that plant breeding can continue to provide solutions for resilience in agriculture. “I’ve always been a great advocate of plant bereding and I think the outlook is bright for anyone interested in the field,” he said. “The extraordinary power of computing and what it allows us to do with the genome. We have extraordinarily powerful tools, about doubling in power every 18 months. The future is bright for plant breeding and the motivations of organisms to produce proteins beneficial for society.”

Ball recalled the advances in agriculture since his grandfather’s day as a dairyman. “Making a living took all day,” Ball said. “If he could see some of the things we’re able to do with efficiency!”

Although climate change brings additional pests and challenges, he added that “we have learned so much scientifically about good breeding and good seed stock” and working with the environment.

“Going through COVID-19 and that bright light that it shone on the food system showed some weaknesses,” Ball continued. “Some lost 50% of their marketplace that went to foodservice, to the consumer who had a hard time finding products.”

He thinks New York’s emergency food systems and good relationships with farmers helped the population in general demonstrate resilience through the worst of the pandemic.