Coalition Looks to Improve Farm-Consumer Connection

9/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

Farmers markets do a lot to help smaller producers connect with consumers and promote the value of locally grown food.

However, a considerable gap exists between the public and bigger farms, such as dairies, that represent more than half of New York state’s agricultural receipts.

A group called the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition is trying to close that void with events that encourage people to visit farms in their area.

“That’s what leaves the greatest impact,” said Jessica Ziehm, the group’s new first-ever, full-time executive director. “You can send out press releases and have people read about agriculture. It doesn’t really last until you get them on the farm.”

The coalition was formed 10 years ago and had undertaken promotional efforts such as billboard campaigns and a computer kiosk at the state fair in Syracuse. However, Ziehm now gives the group a visible presence in the community and industry, in addition to bringing considerable experience to the job.

She recently joined the coalition after 12 years at the state Department of Agriculture & Markets, where she served as its communications director and most recently its marketing promotions specialist. In addition, her husband’s family runs the 500-cow Tiashoke Farm in Buskirk, Washington County.

One of her first tasks will be identifying where existing farm tours take place, such as Saratoga County’s popular “Sundae on the Farm,” which attracts more than 3,000 people each Father’s Day to a different area farm. Visitors meet and ask farmers questions, tour the barn yard, have fun family activities and hopefully leave with a better understanding of general farm practices, from cutting hay to manure spreading.

Such efforts are vital because despite the public’s keen interest in where their food comes from, most people today have never had direct contact with a farm.

“There was a time when everybody had a farm or their grandparents or there was a farm on their road,” Ziehm said. “Now if you ask a kindergarten class if they’ve ever been to a farm, one kid might raise their hand.”

One of the biggest trends in agriculture is how family farms have grown in size as younger generations join the business.

“When you start adding more people to that family business, 65 cows are no longer enough to make a living for all of them,” Ziehm said.

When Bill Peck Sr., 76, got out of college in the 1950s, his family’s Welcome Stock Farm in Northumberland, N.Y., had 30 cows. Today, his sons, Bill Jr. and Neil, are partners and the farm has 650 cows.

“In dairy farming, the profit margins are so small on each individual animal that you need a lot more cows to make a living today than you did 30 years ago,” Bill Jr. said. “Before, you could support your family and put your kids through college with 60 cows. That’s not the case any more.”

Ziehm said it’s important for the public to realize that big farm operations care just as much about their animals as “mom and pop” owners — not just dairies, but other farms, too, such as poultry.

“If animals aren’t pasture-raised, some people think they must be abused,” Ziehm said. “They become a target for animal rights activists. But nothing could be farther from the truth.”

In addition to identifying and enhancing existing farm tours, the coalition hopes to start new ones in places that don’t currently have them.

The coalition has an 11-member board and is comprised of various farm organizations — the American Dairy Association, American Dairy Council, New York Corn & Soybean Growers Association, New York Farm Bureau, Northeast Dairy Producers Association and Cayuga Marketing, a group of Cayuga County dairy farmers including coalition president Dale Mattoon, owner of the 750-cow Pine Hollow Dairy.

“We all have a stake in advocating for agriculture in New York state,” Ziehm said.

What sets the coalition apart, with a new executive director, is prioritizing the industry’s most pressing issues. “It’s being able to say, this is what we have to do today,” Ziehm said.

The coalition’s next board meeting is scheduled for September in Syracuse. A date has not been decided upon.

For information, contact Ziehm at nyfarmgirl2<\@> or 518-527-3949.

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