Richard Ball spent 20 years learning how to farm and the next 20 years building his own family farm in the rich soils of Schoharie County, nestled between the Mohawk Valley and the northern Catskills of upstate New York. . And since 2014, he has led policies and initiatives as commissioner of the State Agriculture and Markets Department.
For the next year, however, his work will have a much broader and far-reaching impact as the 2021-2022 president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. He was elected to this position at the group’s recent annual meeting in Louisville, Ky.
NASDA is a non-partisan, not-for-profit association that represents elected and appointed commissioners, secretaries, and directors of departments of agriculture in all 50 states and four U.S. territories. As chairman, Ball will guide the implementation of the group’s priorities and policies adopted at the 2021 annual meeting.
He recently discussed his goals, concerns and prospects for agriculture for the coming year:
What is the most pressing agricultural problem for New York and the Northeast? With the population density along the East Coast, everything is tied to the food system. As we look back on COVID-19, what we have learned, what we have seen, and what we can do best is going to be central to our concerns. There has been an intense disruption in the food supply system, particularly in the northeast, where farmers at one end of the food chain have lost market share and consumers at the other end have not. access to food. That was a really big deal, so there’s a lot of analysis going on in New York City, New England states, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
We need to have a very responsive and resilient food system. We don’t want to depend on another part of the world for food if we are going through something like this pandemic again. It is very important in everyone’s mind. It’s not quite in our rearview mirror yet. We are still grappling with some of these issues.
What steps can we take to improve things? It will be complicated because it will involve a lot of things. We have connected our food system here in New York to emergency food providers such as food banks, pantries, and people who provide food to shelters.
We have a good relationship with the food banks, but they had capacity issues, as well as processing and packaging issues. Food banks are looking for family units and shelf life ingredients. It is impossible to distribute things with the current model.
We need to rationalize packaging to make it more family-friendly retail size units, not 100-pound boxes and 50-pound cartons of things that traditionally entered the food system through warehouses and restaurants. And there are all the labor, distribution, and trucking issues that come with it. It will be a big challenge, but I think we’re up to it.
How serious is the agricultural labor shortage? It is no secret that there are labor issues. There are not enough workers, not only on our farms, but also in our dairy plants, our food factories, our restaurants and our distribution networks. There is a huge workforce challenge. We have to try to solve this problem because we don’t just need strong backs and strong willed bodies. We need technical skills because the work on our farms, dairy plants, and food processing facilities is much more sophisticated today.
It’s not just about loading pallets, pushing things and lifting things. There is a tremendous amount of technical know-how involved in cleaning our dairy plants – managing from a computer screen to do a lot of things that need to be done.
What can be done to advance immigration reform in the coming year? At NASDA, we have a very strong policy and commitment to immigration reform. We don’t have enough workers in the United States, certainly in the Northeast. We have had a failed immigration system in the United States for so many years, and Washington is reluctant to tackle it. Unfortunately, we are now allowing a black market in “coyotes”, especially on the Mexican border, to make a lot of money by getting people to work.
We are not trying to make them all citizens. But we need legal status for people who want to come here to work and return to their country of origin and take care of their families. There are some very good laws that were passed in the House and are now in the Senate. Unfortunately, this is a very polarizing question. This is going to be an important Level 1 policy issue for NASDA.
NASDA is very concerned about threats to free interstate commerce. Please explain. This is an emerging challenge. Recently, some states, on the initiative of voters and by referendum, have passed laws requiring that animals (chicken, beef, pork) be handled and treated in a certain way in order for a farm in that state to sell the product. produced in this state. For example, chicken may need to be raised without a cage, and livestock cannot move through the supply chain until they reach a certain age or a certain percentage of their life expectancy. was reached.
Some states are starting to pass laws like this, sponsored by animal welfare activists. They are forcing that on their producers. In California, they are trying to impose that on producers in other states who want to import product into California.
So it becomes a concern. They restrict the ability of a producer in New York or any other state to ship product to California if they do not meet guidelines. Many commodity groups see this as an interstate trade problem. You tell me that I cannot ship my products to your state because you have passed this law. That is the question, and it is going to be debated in the courts, unfortunately.
Post writes from eastern New York.