NNY Questions: Agricultural Development with Jay Matteson

Jay Matteson, the Agricultural Coordinator for Jefferson County Agricultural CoordinatorÕs Office at the Lucki 7 Livestock Co. in Rodman on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/NNY Business

The agricultural community is in good hands with Jay Matteson, the Jefferson County Agricultural Coordinator with Jefferson County Economic Development. Working each day to ensure that farmers have the business resources they need, and the support from local, state and federal government, Mr. Matteson is shaping agriculture for the future and does it with passion and drive. 

NNYB: Let’s start with your career. How did you get your start in agriculture?   

MATTESON: Well, actually my background is in wildlife biology; that’s what I went to school for. But my dad was a dairy farmer way back in the Depression. He grew up in the town of Scriba, in Oswego County and we had a little hobby farm. We had some beef cows, we had chickens, we had turkeys from time to time; so, we dabbled in a lot of things. He wanted me to try and get into dairy farming. I just wanted to be a wildlife biologist ever since I was a little squirt. I watched a lot of Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, so that’s what I always wanted to do and what I went to school for. But when I got done with college, I was fortunate enough to get a job with the Oswego County Water Conservation District. I got to come back home, and it was agriculturally oriented but it was also environmental stewardship. I did that for six years, did a lot of conservation education work and then I got the manager’s position for the soil water conservation district up here. Then the county asked me if I would facilitate an ad hoc committee they were forming to look at forming the agricultural coordinators position. So I agreed to do that, and never expected that I would be the person. I didn’t even apply initially because I didn’t think it would be something, I’d be interested in. But then as we were developing the position, I said to myself “I wish I wasn’t facilitating this.” But then, after we went through the first round of interviewing the candidates, they approached me and said, “How come you didn’t apply?” I told them I don’t really think it was kosher to apply for this and they said get your resume in. And so the rest has been history. I’ve been here since December 11, 2000, approaching 20 years. I never thought I’d be in any job for 20 years.    

NNYB: What are some of the biggest challenges that you’re seeing farmers face today?   

MATTESON: There is a couple of them. I will say the worst, the greatest challenge, is government regulation. The government, both state and federal, make it very difficult to do what they have to do to maintain their operations. So that’s the greatest challenge right now. The next challenge is how to adapt so quickly. Things are changing so much and we’ve certainly seen that over the last six months; things are changing so much and, you know, a lot of farm owners, they want to farm, they want to take care of their livestock. So trying to figure out how to market to do what Steve does, you know, Steve’s got got to not only know how to take care of these animals, but you got to know markets, public relations, all that kind of stuff. So I think the fact that things are changing so fast, and farmers trying to keep up with, that is a real challenge.    

NNYB: What are some of the bright spots in north country agriculture right now?    

MATTESON: The demand for local that has happened over the last six months, we’re trying to figure out how we can move quickly to help farms capitalize on that and maintain that ‘Buy Local.’ That’s a huge bright spot. If we can find a way to maintain that, at least to some degree, that’ll be huge. You know, the other bright spot is, we do dairy really well. We can make high-quality milk and we can make it in large volume. We don’t have the land, the open landmass, like Western New York does. But we have the quality of the soils, the climate and so on that allow our milk to be as high quality as you’re going to get. So capitalizing on that maintaining that, dairy industry, it’s going to change but maintaining that dairy industry is a bright spot and a challenge at the same time.   

NNYB: Is there a trend in agricultural right now that the north country has yet to embrace, but should?   

MATTESON: Interesting question. I think the trend towards people wanting to know their farmer and buy local is huge. And I don’t know that we’ve embraced it completely up here. Part of the reason is we don’t have a huge population density and we’re far enough away from the big market markets that makes it challenging to get our products in New York City. But if we can identify how to do a better job of capitalizing on the surrounding region, and figuring out how to meet what consumers are looking for, and do it in an environmentally friendly manner, I think that’s huge. And I’m not saying our farms aren’t being environmental stewards. They are doing the best they can. But we have to tell that story better than we are right now.   

NNYB: If you were to become a farmer today, what kind of farmer would you be and why?   

MATTESON: You know, I really liked hogs when I was a kid growing up on our little hobby farm; they’re great to work with. But at the same time, I think if I were going to go into agriculture right now, I would be a diverse, like maple syrup, berries, fruits, type person. When people call me up and say I have some land and I’d like to do something in agriculture with it, that’s what I’m recommending to people. I recommend they look at the berries, the fruits, those lower labor type opportunities.   

NNYB: Industry stakeholders appear to be pushing the local food movement even more as the coronavirus affects farmers throughout the country. What role are you playing in this?   

MATTESON: We are trying to drive that. When we saw the virus hit and we knew that the dairy industry was already struggling, we saw farms already dumping milk, we immediately put out videos encouraging people to buy more local milk. We have helped farms find better markets, find ways to get their products out to consumers. We’re constantly promoting new products. We are also looking right now, I’ll emphasize looking right now, at developing a labeling program. The labeling program is similar to what the Pride Of New York Program used to be and very much similar to what Lewis County is doing with Naturally Lewis – that’s a great program they’ve started there. We feel the time is right to to go ahead and and try to launch something like that. So, we’re actually working with the Thousand Islands Tourism Council, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and we’re going to be talking to some others about launching a local labeling program that won’t be just for food products; it would be for anything that is made here in Jefferson County. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time, but the time was never right. Number one, Pride of New York, I did not see any sense in trying to duplicate that program, but that’s gone away. And the New York grown and certified program is similar but that’s a very strict program, the qualifications for getting into that program are a lot higher. We want this to be a simpler program that just helps identify local products. So, that’s breaking news. And I have to emphasize we are working on it.    

NNYB: How does Jefferson County Economic Development, the Farm Credit East and the New York State Tug Hill Commission, work together to ensure the stability of agriculture in northern New York?  

MATTESON: Let’s expand that, if you don’t mind. One of the things I did when I was hired was to create what we call an ag agency roundtable. And it’s actually been used by economic development consultants; they’ve came here and studied it and have recommended it to other areas. We have an ag agency roundtable where we invite all of the players you know, Cooperative Extension, Tug Hill Commission, Soil and Water, the USDA, all of them. We meet on a regular basis; it was quarterly, but during the virus we’ve actually been meeting every other week, now we’re meeting monthly; we’re constantly communicating. The biggest thing is, is communication, working together, making sure we know what’s going on, what the needs are. And then as we identify those needs as a group, it breaks out to whoever it fits best, like Cooperative Extension or with the Tug Hill commission. We are identifying barriers that exist, and then trying to help find the resources to to overcome those barriers.   

NNYB: You’ve been working closely with Michael Lundy on his plan for the Thousand Islands International Agribusiness Park. Where does this project stand at this time?    

MATTESON: It’s under construction. He has two businesses coming in. Certainly, Cazenovia Equipment Company, John Deere dealership, that’s definitely agriculture. Eagle Beverage that distributes a good agricultural product like beer, so he is moving that along, it’s under construction and he’s getting site approvals now; he’s talking about putting in a spec building eventually. So yeah, it’s exciting, it’s happening and we’re doing it.   

NNYB: How will this benefit the north country and its agricultural stability for those that do not know about the project?    

MATTESON: One of the challenges we have identified over the years is that we’re in constant competition with western New York, eastern New York, southern New York and elsewhere. Economic development is a very competitive business and the north country doesn’t get the attention that the rest of the state does. It’s harder to attract a business up here because they perceive the distance as greater. So that is a reason we’re so excited about the project is we believe it becomes that gem, where to an agricultural business that might be looking to locate someplace in New York, we can say, “Hey, we’ve got an industrial park that is dedicated to agriculture.” It’s prepared to accept those projects that may have a hard time locating elsewhere. So we believe it’s that marketing tool for us. And then if they locate in the park, great. If they locate in the park on Bradley Street, great. We don’t care we just think it’s that diamond for agriculture that helps us recruit. And it’s going to be a long-range process. You can’t expect the park to be full in 10 years; that don’t doesn’t work that way.   

NNYB: With coronavirus shutting down schools and institutions demand for dairy products quickly diminished more than it already had. How did this affect the north country dairy farmers for the long term?  

MATTESON: For the long term it showed us where the weaknesses are in our industry. It showed us that distribution system can fall apart quickly. And that food service is a critical part of what we need to do. I think the long-term impact will be changes in how the industry handles itself, how it does business. I think long term we may see some, not restrictions, but a harder look at milk production and how milk production is handled by the cooperatives. I have a feeling that they’re going to be a lot more hands on on the volume of milk that they’re going to accept and where it goes. That’s something that some in the industry say is necessary and there’s some that say, “No, let us do it.” But I have a feeling that the virus and what happened initially really demonstrated that you know what, we’ve got to start to manage our milk supply a little bit better than we’re doing right now.   

NNYB: On the other side of that, meat producers in the north country shifted gears and began to create a greater supply for local food for residents and commercial. Will this trend of buying locally continue to develop and how will that affect our meat producers and food industry locally?   

MATTESON: I think at least for the next decade, it opens the consumers’ eyes of what they were doing. You know, the fact that 40 to 50 percent of our diet consisted of food service, not such a great thing. I think people came home; they came home to wanting to buy products from Steve Winkler buy products from Next Generation Creamery or Old McDonald’s Farm. I think that’s what they came home to. And I believe as long as we continue to move that forward and keep putting that out there that we will see that trend continuing on. A lot of it’s up to the farms, but a lot of it is up to the consumer as far as not going back to buying food from God knows where.  

This interview was conducted by Holly Boname. It has been edited for length and clarity to fit this space.