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Farmers, legislators make toast to successful agriculture outlook in Jefferson County

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Jefferson County dairy princess Kristia Otey lifted a glass of milk, signaling a room full of farmers, legislators and agriculture advocates to make a toast to dairy cattle that make agriculture here successful.

After the toast, keynote speakers told of how Jefferson County is on the cutting edge of agriculture as part of the county’s annual agriculture meeting Friday at the Best Western Carriage House Inn in Watertown.

Cooperation among community leaders here is an example that counties across the state should take notes on, said Paul F. “Rick” Zimmerman, former deputy commissioner for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. He said the county does an excellent job making sure the needs of farmers are heard by policymakers who shape legislation. Legislators who also made speeches included state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River and state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine.

Speakers discussed the future of agriculture here in New York state, an outlook that gave farmers plenty of hope. Mr. Zimmerman, now the executive director of the Northeast Agriculture and Feed Alliance, challenged farmers and policymakers to be messengers for the agriculture industry. He said consumers will play a pivotal role toward growing the state’s agriculture industry, and called the strong core of agriculture leaders here “a shining example of what needs to happen in counties across the U.S.”

Collaboration among farmers, consumers and legislatures will continue to play a leading role in the coming decades, Mr. Zimmerman said, because agriculture in the Northeast will continue to be among the world’s leading regions for dairy products. Within a 10-hour drive is a population of 18 million people, and a ballooning population across the Eastern Seaboard. Lake Ontario has made New York one of the most fertile areas in the country for dairy farms to be located.

What type of role will New York’s agriculture industry play in 2050? The world population is now about 7 billion people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Mr. Zimmerman said that figure is expected to climb to 9 billion by 2050. Agriculture here has plenty of room to grow.

“We have to have every tool in our toolbox at our disposal to meet that demand,” he said. “The growth of the middle class demographics will call for more protein in diets, and China’s economy will continue to grow.”

As a result, farmers will continue to be challenged to produce more dairy products, meats, vegetables and fruits. Both organic and genetically produced crops will play an important role, he said, and groups should not favor one method over the other. The state’s output of soybeans, for example, has expanded by about a million bushels in the past three years.

“It’s a project that’s been subject to disparagement, though, from (food) advocacy groups that are in favor of organic growth because they’re looking out for their own interests in the stock market.”

Mr. Zimmerman said agriculture’s future success here largely relies on the ability of legislators and advocates to bring the message of farmers directly to consumers — an area that needs improvement.

“One of our greatest challenges is developing the respect and trust of the general public, because it’s like farmers are on Mars and consumers are on Venus,” he said. “The better we do at earning the trust of consumers, the better the agriculture industry will be as a whole.”

That point was echoed by Patrick M. Hooker, senior director of industrial development for the Empire State Development Corp. Agriculture is now in the limelight in Albany, he said, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provided a venue for stakeholders to discuss legislation at his Greek Yogurt and Wine, Beer and Spirits summits. And the state has funded efforts to start food hubs and slaughterhouses in rural areas, for example, and developed legislation geared toward making dairy operations more efficient.

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