What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Jay Matteson

You may hear new terms applied to agriculture and farming, “regenerative” or “restorative” agriculture. These terms are cropping up, describing new thought processes on farming methods that have been around many decades and the importance of soil to our environment. It is important to think about soil before we dig into what these new terms mean. 

    Soil is different than dirt. Dirt is what you find on the kitchen floor after the kids come in from playing outside. Dirt is what your big furry friend leaves on your clothes after excitedly running through the mud puddle to greet you when you get home from work. Yes, dirt is those misplaced remnants of soil that you now must clean up. Soil is a critically important natural resource that is part of our ecosystem. It helps clean our environment, capturing carbon from the atmosphere or filtering pollutants out of water as the water travels through the ground. Soil is the primary resource we use for growing our food. Soil types can vary from well drained sandy soils to poorly drained muck soils. In your backyard, you may have two or three, or more, different soil types, left by glaciers, floods, decaying plant matter and eroding rock types. Soil is 25% water, 25% air, 45% minerals and 5% organic matter. Remove any of these components and you are back to dirt. And good soil takes a long time to make. An inch of topsoil takes approximately 100 years under natural conditions. That is why preserving prime farmland is so important. Once you cover it with a house or pavement, it will take generations to replace. 

    In addition to the components of soil, good healthy soil is its own ecosystem. Soil is a system of living, once living (organic) things, air, water, and minerals, all interacting in balance to maintain inter-relationships with each other. Small microbes break down minerals and organic matter, providing nutrients for bigger living things in the soil. Small animals, such as earthworms, help break down more organic matter into nutrients, feeding the soil. Plants grow within and on the soil, using the nutrients, capturing carbon, and sequestering it. When the plants and animals die, they go back into the soil as organic matter. The healthier the soil ecosystem, the better soil can play its role in our environment and our human systems. Healthy soil also has better capacity to store water, reducing the impacts of heavy precipitation and providing water to the environment during dry times. 

    Good, healthy soil is important to agriculture. The healthier the soil, the more we can grow food. The healthier the soil, the more carbon is removed from our atmosphere, reducing global warming. The non- agricultural community is awakening to regenerative, or restorative agriculture. For many decades, the agricultural industry has been working to improve soil quality. 

    Decades ago, deep tilling the soil was commonplace. Dragging big plows into the soil layers to break up the soil and prepare it for planting happened every year. The fields did not look right if they were not properly “fitted” for planting. Over the years, farmers recognized that it was not necessary, and not good for the soil to deep till it every year. Farms began adopting minimum till and no till practices where the soil surface is barely disturbed. Yes, there are times when farms still must deep plow a field to break up old sod or to break a hard layer (hard pan) of soil beneath the surface that is preventing drainage. But using minimum till or no till practices saves on fuel expenses and is better for the soil ecosystem. 

    Cover cropping is another practice farms have been slowly integrating into their practices. Instead of leaving the soil surface bare in between plantings, allowing erosion to occur, and not adding organic matter back into the soil, farms now plant “cover crops” to protect and further enrich the soil. These crops might be seedings of grasses that are then turned into the soil just before planting, or radishes that grow deep roots adding organic matter to the soil and providing deep pores for air and water to enter the soil systems. In addition to farms using cover crops to restore soil fertility, they spread animal manure to bring nutrients back to the soil after harvesting their crops. Using animal manure versus chemical fertilizers is better for the soil and its ecosystems. 

    Regenerative and restorative agriculture, new terms applied to what agriculture has been doing for decades. Our farms continue to work hard to improve their techniques and there is always room for improvement. Generations of farmers have always been looking to the future and worry about being good environmental stewards of the places they call home. 

What Will Agribusiness Look Like Following The Pandemic?

Alyssa Kealy

It is quite hard to predict what the future will look like after the pandemic, especially when the end of the public health crisis itself cannot be predicted. The dairy industry is no stranger to unpredictability. Farmers are subject to volatility all year long, from fluctuating milk prices, variable weather conditions, new regulations, etc. However, the coronavirus pandemic caused dairy market disruptions that nobody could have predicted. This exacerbated the challenges already faced. With the rapid closure of schools, restaurants, and many other businesses, there was a sudden loss in markets for milk. As I mentioned in my last article, milk production does not have an off switch. Thus, some creativity and quick work were needed to find a place for dairy products. 

    The pandemic put a spotlight on the fractured food supply chain and thus provided opportunities to reconfigure the connection between Upstate New York farms and downstate consumers in need. With excess product from upstate farms and hungry families downstate, it made perfect sense to connect the two. Over the last several months, Northeast Dairy Producers Association, along with partners such as the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, NY Corn and Soybean Growers Association, Senator Jessica Ramos, and many upstate farmers coordinated food deliveries to NYC through the Nourish NY Initiative. Products delivered included thousands of gallons of milk and other dairy products, pallets of fruits and vegetables, New York potato chips, and even coloring books and crayons for children. 

    The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided opportunities to reinforce the farmer-to-consumer connection virtually. Farmers have been doing a stellar job sharing their day-to-day with consumers at home via social media platforms. This is as important as ever since the pandemic has restricted face-to-face outreach. Interested in what farms are up to? Missing the infamous Dairy Cow Birthing Center at the New York State Fair? The New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (NYAAC) has the next best thing with the “Dairy on the Moo-ve” Initiative. Simply by following NYAAC on social media, you can visit farms from the comfort of your home. A few weeks ago, I was on location with NYAAC, who highlighted two Jefferson county farms- Murcrest Farms and Porterdale Farms. You can view videos from these visits here: www.facebook.com/NYAnimalAg videos/?ref=page_internal. Keep an eye out for other New York State farms featured here throughout the fall! 

    After almost seven months from the beginning of the pandemic, the dairy industry has seen a few silver linings, including enhanced appreciation for agriculture as part of the ESSENTIAL framework of our nation and improved farmer image. In a recent article published by Gallup, Farming Rises, Sports Tumbles in U.S. Industry Ratings, farming has jumped to the top of the list of positively viewed U.S. business and industry sectors for the first time in 20 years! Farming now has the highest positive view of 69 percent, an 11-point increase since last year. This is likely due to recognition of farmer dedication to providing vital goods to Americans during the pandemic. You can read the full article here: https://news.gallup.com/poll/319256/farming-rises-sports-tumbles-industry-ratings.aspx 

    So, what does the future look like? There is no crystal ball to look into, but you can be assured that dairy farmers will meet whatever comes next with vigilance and resilience. 

FFA Continues To Grow Nationally

Jay Matteson

I remember, as a young kid, thumbing through a binder full of old family photos. I came across a photo that was labeled, “Lyman” and had a face circled on the photo. It was from the early 1940s and a sign on the wall behind this group of students read Future Farmers of America. “Lyman” was my dad and he grew up on a dairy farm in Oswego County in the Central Square area during the depression. I asked my dad what was Future Farmers of America? He didn’t say much other than it was a leadership organization for farm kids. I’m not sure what ever happened to the farm but my dad married my mom and spent many years as an electrician in the Oswego area. I never thought about Future Farmers of America again. 

    Growing up in the Oswego area I never heard anything more about Future Farmers of America. Attending Oswego High School in the mid 1980s, it seemed the push was to drive kids towards college for business or teaching careers. I was the odd ball as I wanted to pursue wildlife biology. After I attended college I returned home and worked with the Oswego County Soil and Water Conservation District. Even working for the Soil and Water Conservation District for six years, I never heard about Future Farmers of America. It was not until I moved to Jefferson County and became the director of the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District that I heard about an organization called FFA. 

    I quickly learned that FFA was the new name of Future Farmers of America. The name had just been changed to better reflect the nature of the youth organization and that not all participants in FFA go on to become farmers. I was very surprised that in all the years, since I first saw my dads photo, I never heard anything of the organization. It was a great surprise! 

    FFA is very strong in Jefferson County and the north country. When I first came to Jefferson County there were five FFA programs in Alexandria Bay, Belleville-Henderson, Carthage, Indian River and South Jefferson school districts. Although there are slight differences between each districts FFA programs, there are strong similarities in each. FFA uses agriculture as a foundation to help students build tremendous career and leadership skills. It is very hands on and very active! FFA welcomes students who aspire to careers such as doctors, scientists, teachers, bankers, business owners and farmers. The opportunities through FFA are many. Nationally, there are FFA opportunities at the middle school, high school and collegiate levels. 

    As I began learning about FFA, I was very impressed. I quickly discovered that these students were busy! In addition to their traditional classes, these students were growing things, building things, writing business plans, traveling to regional, state and national events and providing service to their communities. I learned that I could call upon FFA students to help me with events and know that when the iconic blue and gold FFA jackets showed up, I had a group of volunteers that I could depend upon to the get the job done right. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to know and develop strong friendships with many FFA students across the north country. I’ve watched them go on to become business owners and farmers, journalists and teachers, financial advisors and veterinarians. Many are now leaders in their communities. 

    Today there are six FFA chapters in Jefferson County. Watertown School District started an FFA chapter a few years ago that is beginning to thrive. I just saw a report that National FFA hit a record in membership with 760,113 student members in 2020. That is a nearly 60,000 student increase from 2019. Incredible, especially given the circumstances of 2020! The top five student membership states are Texas, California, Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma. In 2020, the organization has more than 115,831 latino members, more than 40,000 black members, and more than 12,000 members who are American Indian and Alaska Natives. Fifty one percent of members are male and forty four percent are female. FFA chapters exist in 24 of 25 of the largest cities in the United States. Since 2017, FFA chapters in NYS have grown by 30 percent. The largest FFA Chapter in New York State is located in New York City. 

    It is fantastic to see a valuable student organization growing in these days where so many of our youth programs struggle with declining enrollment. If you are interested in learning more about FFA visit the New York FFA website at www.nysffa.org or the national FFA website at www.ffa.org or contact your local high school to learn about FFA. 

Food Distribution Programs And Webinar Series See Great Start

Jay Matteson

The impact of the shutdown of our economy to dampen the impact of the COVID 19 disaster has hit every single person. Businesses have temporarily and permanently closed their doors. Many people were temporarily unemployed or lost their jobs. There were significant disruptions in our food supply system. As we have heard many times. We are living in an extremely rare time where a global pandemic has impacted every single person in the United States and had a devastating impact on our economy. Many people, in the low income to middle income sections of our population, began experiencing challenges in finding food. 

    At the national level, we saw President Trump, the U.S. Congress and the United States Department of Agriculture work together to create the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). One section of the CFAP used federal funds to begin buying food products from farms and food processors and working through local food distributors to provide free food to people in need. This program is a success. Jefferson County Economic Development has worked with American Dairy Association Northeast to set up the logistics of multiple food distribution events. Our largest to date saw 1,800 vehicles at Salmon Run Mall go through the distribution program. There have been events at Salmon Run Mall, Jefferson Community College and Clayton Arena. Every vehicle, while supplies last, receives at least two gallons of milk, a box of precooked meat products, a box of produce, and a box of dairy products. Unfortunately, the demand is greater than the supply of food boxes and they run out before the milk. Renzi Food Service based in Watertown, Glaziers packing in Potsdam, and Upstate Niagara Dairy Cooperative, provide the aggregation and distribution assistance. HP Hood in LaFargeville provides some of the dairy products in the boxes. 

    At the State level, Governor Cuomo, the state Legislature and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets created the Nourish NY program to help ensure local food banks have enough food on their shelves to help local people, and also provide food distribution events. State funds are used to purchase New York state food products to give to food banks and distribution events. Lucki 7 Livestock Company in Rodman, Sharps Bulk Food in Belleville and Great Lakes Cheese in Adams have participated in the Nourish NY program providing locally produced food to food banks as far away as Long Island. 

    Because so many food products and businesses from Jefferson County are involved in the two food distribution programs, we are roughly estimating a total economic impact of the two programs to date of $18 million as the dollars coming into local companies and farms for the purchase of food products ripples throughout Jefferson County and NNY. This is a nice “charge” to our local economic engine, with agriculture as its foundation.  

Agriculture Webinar Series Off to Great Start 

    Jefferson County Economic Development started a monthly webinar series in June inviting speakers to participate who have an opportunity to look at agriculture through a broader lens than we might experience locally. We call the webinar series, “Road to Recovery, The Path to 2025 Farmers’ Luncheon Series”. On Aug. 27, we have Mr. Thomas Sleight scheduled to speak. Mr. Sleight is former chief executive officer for the U.S. Grains Council and has traveled the world working on foreign trade programs and opportunities benefitting U.S. agriculture. 

    The Farmers’ Luncheon series is a live webinar scheduled for the fourth Thursday of every month at 12 p.m. The webinar is not a typical slideshow presentation with questions at the end. Instead, I sit down at the table, remotely, with our guest and have a conversation about the various topics we wish to discuss. The program is highly interactive, and the audience can submit questions in real time which I try to include into the discussion. To learn more, visit www.agricultureevents.com 

Milk is Back!

Jay Matteson

For too many years, fewer and fewer Americans were drinking milk. There were many more choices for consumers to quench their thirst than ever before and honestly, the dairy industry had not done a good job of keeping up with marketing their product in a modern, exciting manner. The old white jug had lost its appeal. The previous administration in the White House changed the school lunch program removing whole and 2% milk options and forcing schools to offer only skim milk. This change reduced the desire by children to drink milk. 

    Then the Coronavirus disaster set in. Food service businesses closed their doors. According to an April 3, 2020 article written by P.J. Huffstutter on Reuters website, the closure of food service businesses – restaurants, schools, and fast food restaurants sent a shock wave through the dairy industry. Plants that manufacture dairy products used in food service are not easily converted to retail manufacturing. With the onset of Coronavirus shutdown of food service businesses, the outlook for dairy initially was very dark. American diets typically consisted of 35 – 40% food service purchases. Dairy products are extensively used by food service to add flavor and nutrition to many products. The Virus also disrupted distribution systems and plant workforce. Dairy cooperatives told their member farms to dump their milk because there became a tremendous glut of milk on the market. Dairy Farmers of America estimated at one point that 3.7 million gallons of milk a day was being dumped. 

    At the same time, people did not know what to expect when told to shelter at home. Store shelves emptied of food, paper products and milk! People were buying two gallons at a time and freezing it, just in case. It appears that consumers turned to what they knew was very healthy, satisfying and comforting, milk. According to an article published online on June 15, 2020 on the AgDaily website, from March 9 to March 22, 2020 fluid milk sales increased by 45,000,000 gallons compared to the same period in 2019. Plant based beverage sales in the same period increased by approximately 7.9 million gallons. This was huge news for American dairy farmers. 

    Those of us in the agricultural industry saw the initial demand for fluid milk and were hopeful, but worried that after the initial run on the grocery stores, consumers would return to old habits. Consumers, however, appear to want nutritious and tasty milk and dairy products back in their diets! Ag Daily reports that from March 23 to May 31, 2020 fluid milk consumption increased by nearly 60,000,000 gallons compared to the same period in 2019. Plant based beverages increased by just over 10,000,000 gallons. Also noticed was consumers were trending to whole and 2% milk. Many enjoy the taste and satisfaction of whole milk compared to skim milk. 

    It appears, when difficult times arose, the American consumer came back to a food product they knew was wholesome, nutritious, and tasty – milk. In Jefferson County, we saw two dairy farms begin bottling their own milk. Next Generation Milk from Grimshaw Farms and Old McDonald’s Farm Milk from North Harbor Dairy Farm were an instant hit. Both operations had difficulty keeping up with demand. When a very local option became available to consumers, they swung quickly to supporting local dairy as much as possible. I can personally testify that my 19-year-old son will travel out of his way to make sure we always have milk from both farms in our refrigerator. Most times, he pays for it! 

    The dairy industry will still have challenges with balancing supply and demand fluctuations. Our dairy farms are coming off five years of difficult prices for their product. But if the demand for dairy continues to grow as people realize what they have been missing, perhaps we will see a brighter future for our dairy farms and the American consumer. Thanks to consumers, we see a path out of this current quagmire we are in. We are looking out to 2025 and building a path forward. 

    Welcome home, America! 

Economic Effects: The Farm Labor Bill

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY/NNY BUSINESS

[Read more…]

Agriculture Adapts: Farmers shift to selling direct to customer

John Peck, owner of Peck Homestead Farm in Carthage, hoses off his pigs as they roll around in their pen on the farm. SYDNEY SCHAEFER/NNY BUSINESS

[Read more…]

Progressive Dairy Farming

Alyssa Kealy

Dairy cattle are much larger than the typical companion animals, and they are more technically savvy. I am not saying that cows carry around smartphones, but they do interact with technology in their day to day lives. Technology in dairy barns is not necessary to keep the cows in touch with their friends (they prefer to socialize face to face or muzzle to muzzle), but to focus primarily on cattle health, comfort and production. 

    Here are several examples of technology you can find on progressive dairy farms: 

  • Fit Bits: Dairy cows wear pedometers and/or activity pendants around their neck. This tracks their activity, which can be indicative of overall health. If a cow’s device is showing abnormal activity patterns, such as she didn’t get up to eat, this can be a red flag for the farmer to give her a closer look. Activity monitoring is a proactive process because it allows those caring for the cows to see abnormalities before they become clinical symptoms of illness, which could prevent serious health issues or the need for treatment in the future.

    RFID (radio frequency identification) tags- These are the ear tags worn for identification; they are so much more than a monogrammed earrings. Today, ear tags have radio frequency that communicates with the farm’s dairy computer program, like Dairy Comp 305, to keep a profile for each cow with data like her breeding dates, any medical treatments, due dates, etc. as well as communicates with parlor systems to track milk production. Essentially, cows carry their medical records with them! 

    Moocall– This technology was designed specifically for cows about to give birth. A small meter gets fastened around the tailhead and based on contractions and muscle loosening; it will send a text the farmer when the cow is about to calf. With these alerts, farm staff will be able to respond to any needs of the mother and calf. 

  • Robotics: Some farms are taking technology to the next level and replacing manpower with robotics. Examples include robotic milking systems and feed pushers.

    Robotic milking systems- Cows can enter the individual stall at their leisure, are fed grain/supplements, and finished milking within minutes. Whether it is the snacks or the relief that milking often brings to the mammary system that keeps cows loitering around the robots, waiting for their next turn. Since manual labor isn’t needed for milking, this system gives farm staff even more time to focus on cow health and facility hygiene. 

    Robotic feed pusher- Cows can even have a robotic waiter help serve them food. Farms often feed once a day which means a big pile is distributed and meant to last throughout the day. Sometimes, as feed gets eaten and pushed along by muzzles, feed can get pushed just out of reach. Farms can use a skid steer to push the feed, or high-tech farms use a robot to travel along the feed area and push the food closer to the cows throughout the day, ensuring they always have access to fresh food. 

    Dairy farms that have larger cow numbers are turning to a different style of milking parlor, literally. Rotary parlors allow 100 cows to be milked at once on what is essentially a merry go-round equipped with milking equipment. Cows get on the rotary and go for about a 5-minute ride while getting milked, sanitized, and then meander back to their barn. This is a very expensive technology, however as farms grow and agricultural labor becomes sparser, farms are choosing technology to fill voids on the farm and ensure cows get the best, most efficient care, possible.

It’s Meeting Season

Alyssa Kealy

Winter has arrived and the holidays have come and gone for another year, which means its “meeting season”. This term is fondly used by farmers and agribusiness professionals in reference to a time of year, January-April, in which there’s plentiful opportunities for travel, networking, learning and strategizing at meetings and conferences. Agriculture is such a dynamic industry in which weather, procedures, and even regulations, can change overnight. This calls for continuous education each year to keep abreast of new and exciting research, best management practices, consumer preferences, and new legislation. 

Here is a highlight of one conference coming this spring: 

Presented by Cornell CALS PRO-DAIRY and Northeast Dairy Producers Association (NEDPA), the Northeast Dairy Management Conference is a dynamic conference for all progressive dairy farmers in the Northeast. This biennial event, previously known as the NEDPA Conference, will continue to be a high-quality program with a slightly different name, yet the same mission – providing the latest information related to current trends and topics in the dairy industry through dynamic and informative sessions to re-energize businesses and improve performance. 

    The theme for this year’s conference is “Focus on the Future” and sessions will feature diverse topics such as on farm technology, protecting your brand, and environmental issues updates, as well as several presentations on navigating the changes, brought about by the new agricultural labor legislation. In addition to gaining invaluable information for dairy operations, you can also interact with other farmers and industry professionals from throughout the Northeast and beyond. 

    Some of the presenters at the 2020 conference include Jay Waldvogel – Dairy Farmers of America, Steve Bodart – Compeer Financial, Phil Plourd- Blimling and Associates, Cheryl Jones – University of Kentucky, Julio Giordano – Cornell University, Chuck Palmer – Michael Best and Friedrich LLP, Emily Stepp – National Milk Producers Federation, Karl Czymmek – Cornell CALS PRO-DAIRY, Chris Wolf – Cornell University, Tom Wall – Dairy Coach LLC, and Rich Stup – Cornell University. 

    Additional conference highlights include sponsored pre-conference presentations, NEDPA Annual Meeting, Exhibitor trade show, Popp Award Presentations, Labor panel, and networking dinner. To learn more: https://prodairy.cals.cornell.edu/conferences/ne-dairy/ 

    Is your farm or agribusiness interested in receiving industry updates all year round? Consider joining the Northeast Dairy Producers Association today. With your membership, you will receive timely industry updates via e-newsletters, social media, website and a quarterly newsletter. In a recent survey of our current membership, the e-communications were one of the most valued benefit of membership. NEDPA has dedicated staff that are available to support member farms and as part of the NY Dairy Issues Team, provide assistance with crisis management. Along with its industry partners, NEDPA serves as a voice, a resource, and a network for the dairy industry in the Northeast. To learn more, visit: https://www.nedpa.org or email me at alyssa@nedpa.org 

What is a payment in lieu of taxes?

Jay Matteson

A Payment in Lieu of Taxes or “PILOT” is an economic development tool that may mean the difference between a business locating in your community or locating somewhere else in New York State or the United States. The use of a PILOT brings about a gain in the tax base and usually more jobs. A PILOT helps grow the local economy by helping an existing business grow or a new business to start up in a community. 

    The PILOT works by allowing for a “managed” increase in taxes for the business. Let’s use an example to make this clear. A new business comes into the community and buys an acre of land. Prior to the business opening its doors, the acre of land brings $1,000 of tax revenue to the community. After the business opens its doors, let us say the full taxes on the higher-valued property is $20,000. To help the business get started and better manage its initial startup expenses, a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement is negotiated. The PILOT may last for 15 years, under which the business would pay 25% of the higher tax assessment for the first 5 years (an additional $5,000/yr.), 50% ($10,000/yr.) for the next 5 years, 75% ($15,000) for the last five years, and then ramp up to the full tax of $20,000 in year 16. This is all new money for the community. The business started out on year one paying more in taxes than was collected before the business opened it doors. More tax revenue for the community. By year 16 the company was paying full taxation on the property. If the PILOT had not been employed, the business may not have started or may have decided to locate elsewhere which equals no increase in the tax base or local jobs. 

    This was a simple example of how a PILOT may be set up. The PILOT helps the company manage its tax increases over a negotiated number of years. The following is a real example of a PILOT negotiated with Great Lakes Cheese Company in Adams in 2007 when they began considering building a new cheese plant. Great Lakes was considering moving the plant to western New York and was receiving pressure to do so. Jefferson County Economic Development stepped in and helped the company by negotiating a 20-year PILOT because of the size of the project and the number of jobs created. As you review the graph, you’ll see the taxes paid by Great Lakes Cheese went up $35,000 the first year of their project and then over 20 years the taxes have gone up in a manageable manner. Great Lakes Cheese built their $86 million dollar plant next to their old plant in Adams. This created jobs, brought new revenue into the community and supported the dairy industry in Northern New York. 

    The Jefferson County Economic Development is responsible for managing the tax incentive tools such as a PILOT. Jefferson County Economic Development staff will work with affected municipalities, such as Jefferson County, a local school district and other municipalities to negotiate the PILOT with the project developer. The goal of Jefferson County Economic Development is to create a win – win situation for everyone involved. The community wins by supporting the expansion of the existing business and adding jobs or through bringing in a new business creating new jobs, new opportunity and a stronger tax base. 

    PILOTS may be employed to assist with traditional business start-ups such as manufacturing and service industries., as well as to attract renewable energy projects – all of which can bring thousands of dollars to local communities. In Jefferson County PILOTS are not available to small retail business, retailers, or food establishments. PILOTs are a good tool to use to grow our local communities.