Agribusiness: 2021- The Year of Localism

Jay Matteson

Goodbye, and good riddance to 2020.  You have cost us much economically, socially, and personally.  Most of us lost or knew of someone we loved or knew fondly during your 365 days. Those we lost may not have died directly because of the virus unleashed around our tiny planet, but our ability to let go, to mourn, to endure the loss, was abruptly halted by something we could not see but knew it was here and must be avoided.  It became difficult to say hello, and more difficult to say goodbye. 

Many of our businesses closed their doors permanently.  According to a Sept. 28 column on the Fortune website written by Anne Sraders and Lance Lambert, nearly 100,000 businesses “threw in the towel.”  I doubt the information in the article contained data on farm closures.  We know in Northern New York there were several dairy farms that closed. People were laid off work.  In a matter of weeks our region went from a problem of not enough workforce to fill open jobs to thousands going on unemployment.  The agricultural industry, because food is essential to everyone, kept its doors open, or at least tried.  Weaknesses in the food supply chain were laid bare by coronavirus. Food processing companies could not keep up with demand, and especially the change in product demand as our nation went from “food service” buyers to “cook at home” buyers within weeks.  We saw huge lines form at food pantries. Here in Northern New York, we saw 500 cars get in line hours in advance of food distribution events.   

Socially, 2020 was the “Year of the Mask”. In 2019 a person walking into a bank with a mask on would have been greeted by law enforcement officers as they exited the bank. In 2020, a person walking into a bank not wearing a mask would be greeted by those in the bank with disdain and frustration.  The year 2020 certainly brought an abundance of change to every person’s life.   

It is said the best way to work through change is to go through a process of letting go, then transition quickly to the “new” way or settle in to the new “normal”. This final step in dealing with change could be called “renewal”.  2021 will be a year of transition and renewal.   

In agriculture, with the change from food service diets to cook at home diets, there was a “silver lining.”  According to a survey by GlobalData conducted July 8 to 12, 2020, 52% of the consumers they interviewed worldwide claimed locally sourced ingredients were significantly more important or their top priority because of the Covid – 19 pandemic.  The report also indicated that 40% of respondents in each age cohort placed the same importance on locally sourced ingredients. In 2021, we look forward to a continuing demand for local foods.  We see a continuing demand for local meats and are trying to ramp up our ability to produce enough local meat and our processing capacity of livestock.  Our transition to this change must be an increased capacity for marketing those local products to the public.  The public is looking, the industry must help them find local products.  We are working with several potential meat processing projects, hoping that at least a few gain momentum.  

2021 will continue to see challenges for our dairy industry.  Milk production nationwide is up approximately 3%, which is significant.  This could suppress milk prices paid to farmers.   It will be important for the incoming administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to continue the trade work started by President Trump.  We saw improved trade agreements increase demand for U.S. milk and hopefully that demand will continue to increase as other countries see their economies rebound once they begin to emerge out from the pandemic. Jefferson County Economic Development will continue our efforts to attract new dairy processing capacity to our region. 

As we look forward to 2021 and what it holds, I suggest we name 2021, “The Year of Localism.”   It was local people and local businesses that banded together in the face of unknown disaster to get us through 2020.  We found ways to help each other out as best we could.  We turned to local foods to get us through tough times. Our communities recognized the importance of supporting our local economies first. In 2021, we must not let our focus turn away from localism.  We can rebuild our lives, our schools, our economies, our communities by focusing on localism. 

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. 

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 or the national FFA website at 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 

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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.

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.