FSA Director: Serving NY Farmers Top Priority

10/27/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Last year, Jim Barber needed the help he spends so much time trying to give other farmers.

His fifth-generation, Schoharie Valley business —Barber Farms — lost half its income to Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee’s floodwaters. State and federal programs helped him recover, but he also had to take out a major loan to spread out the impact of financial losses over several years.

That was a personal setback.

Equally difficult, he’s had to deal with the effect of federal budget cuts on programs he oversees as New York State Farm Service Agency director.

“We don’t know what programs will look like under the new Farm Bill,” he said. “It looks like they’ll be doing away with direct commodity payments based on the number of acres you have under production. There might be more support programs such as crop insurance or disaster relief to deal with unexpected crop losses. We’ll still be here, but programs will be different when they finally pass a Farm Bill.”

In addition, once Congress passes legislation approving new programs, it takes time to write the rules saying how they’ll be implemented. So farmers could be signing up for programs that local FSA directors and staff don’t know how to administer yet.

“That’s going to be a challenge for us,” Barber said.

Statewide, the FSA is already scrambling to provide services in the wake of 12.5 percent staff reductions during the past couple years. Also, four county offices were closed this year under consolidations mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees FSA.

In New York, the FSA has lost 17 positions in the past year, Barber said, and a total of 25 since 2008.

“Before, a county director might oversee two county offices,” Barber said. “Now we have actual staff people shuttling back and forth to make up for imbalances caused by staffing shortages. In western New York, some of our people have had to relocate. It’s been disruptive to the staff to say the least. County (FSA) committee members in each county are very concerned about program delivery.

“Fortunately, we have very dedicated, hardworking staff,” he added. “Farmers really rely on them to help them receive the services the agency is designed to deliver.”

Farm programs are close to Barber’s heart for good reason. His late father, Roger, was state agriculture commissioner under New York Gov. Hugh Carey during the 1970s. One of his main accomplishments was creation of a wholesale producers security fund to protect farmers against unscrupulous buyers who tried to scam them by refusing to make payments. A mastitis prevention program was also developed during those years.

“Ag policy has always been very important to my family,” Barber said. “Farmers are such a small part of the population. We have to be concerned about these things.”

He became state FSA director three years ago, entrusting day-to-day operations at Barber Farms to his wife, Cindy, and their nephew, Jacob Hooper, a Cornell graduate who came back from Wyoming to help run the family business.

Although founded in 1857, the farm didn’t grow much until Roger Barber took over in the early 1940s. He increased the dairy herd from 30 to 150 milk cows, expanded vegetable crops and had close to 1,000 acres under production at one point.

By the mid-1990s, however, the family had to decide whether to modernize dairy operations or head in a different direction. “We had three separate dairy herds at three different locations,” Jim said. “Everything was separated. It wasn’t very efficient.”

In 2006, four years after Roger’s passing, Jim felt it was time to sell the herd.

Now the farm has 500 acres of vegetables, corn and hay, and recently built greenhouses for bedding plants and flowers. “We’ve got four high tunnels for raising winter products such as greens and lettuce,” Barber said. “There’s a very good winter farmer’s market in Schenectady.”

During spring, summer and fall, more than half their produce is sold right at the farm’s retail stand, on Route 30. In addition to farmers markets, they travel five days per week to other communities within a roughly 40-mile radius and sell goods right off the truck.

Like his father, Barber got involved with policy issues at the grass roots level. He’s been a county Farm Bureau president, was on the state Farm Bureau board, and is past president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association. He was also a founding member of a group called New York Farms that’s no longer in existence. In the mid-1990s, however, it created New York’s farm-to-school program that has become a nationwide initiative.

“We got the law passed in New York state so that a school could buy directly from a farmer,” he said.

Now he’s constantly trying to keep abreast of any changes that could keep farmers from getting the help they need, on a wide variety of fronts.

“We need a presence for farmers, a place for them to go, where people are dedicated to making sure farmers get the service they need,” he said.

To Barber, that’s what FSA is all about.

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