A good pick for local food, farmers
By Sara Foss
January 13, 2014
On my drives through Schoharie County, I almost always make a point of stopping at the Carrot Barn, the popular roadside store operated by Schoharie Valley Farms.
I usually get something to eat and drink, but I’m always impressed by the mouth-watering array of fresh produce, locally raised meats and other food products, such as jams and cookies.
Last week I was excited to learn that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had tapped Richard Ball, owner of Schoharie Valley Farms, to serve as the state agriculture commissioner.
Ball’s selection suggests that Cuomo is genuinely interested in promoting local food and farmers, as well as helping lower-income, urban residents access fresh fruits and vegetables.
According to the upstate agriculture blog The Dirt, “Ball’s selection sends a major signal from the Governor’s office that diversity and marketing savvy are on the rise in New York agriculture. Several recent Ag commissioners, including (previous commissioner Darrel Aubertine), had ties to the state’s historic and long-struggling dairy industry. … This pick says that diverse, ‘buy local’ vegetable farms are increasingly important to New York’s economy, and confirms that, at least in the mind of this administration, successful farmers are no longer mere providers of bulk commodities (e.g. — milk), but rather savvy marketers who use things like CSAs, roadside stands and allegiances with retail businesses to sell their produce.”
There’s a lot more to Ball than savvy marketing, which is probably why his fellow Schoharie County farmers cheered his selection.
“He’s a blue-collar farmer,” Cobleskill diary farmer John Radliff told the Gazette’s Ed Munger. “He’s not an academic. He’s not a suit.”
I first spoke with Ball in the aftermath of tropical storms Irene and Lee, and was impressed by both his generosity and intelligence. The topic of our conversation was flood recovery and Ball’s work with the flood-relief group Schoharie Recovery. Schoharie Valley Farms was among those that suffered heavy flood damage.
Ball spoke passionately about rebuilding Schoharie County, telling me that “When you go through an event like this, it’s a communitywide pain, and there’s a communitywide need to fix it.”
In a later conversation, he spoke just as passionately about his involvement with an innovative program called Corbin Hill Road Farm that ships food produced by upstate farmers to some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. In December, when Cuomo created an anti-hunger task force, Ball was one of his appointees.
As agriculture commissioner, Ball will have a lot on his plate.
But I’m hoping his appointment will lead to more collaboration between farmers and anti-poverty groups and expand upon the state’s efforts to create new and different markets for upstate farmers. One promising item on Cuomo’s 2014 agenda is an upstate-downstate, farm-to-table agriculture summit focused on getting New York City residents to eat more food produced upstate.
It’s hard to understate the importance of food.
Last week, the Gazette reported that attendance in the Schenectady City School District has skyrocketed ever since the district added free breakfast and lunch for everyone this year, paid for by a federal program. With roughly 80 percent of the district’s kids eligible for free or
reduced-price lunch, it’s probably safe to assume that many Schenectady students aren’t getting proper meals at home. And when kids don’t eat well, they don’t learn well, either.
With Ball in charge of the state Department of Agriculture & Markets, maybe we’ll see a local version of the Corbin Hill Road project, where food grown and raised upstate is distributed to low-income neighborhoods.
My sense is that Ball wants to see all farmers thrive and ensure that all people have access to good food. It will be interesting to see how he goes about accomplishing those two goals, and I wish him luck.
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Sara Foss, a Gazette columnist, can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.