ALBANY — The state must prioritize educating younger New Yorkers in school about a career in farming or food industries to bolster the agricultural industry and its suffering workforce, officials said.
A crowd of assemblymembers listened to and questioned 23 officials and experts on state agriculture in the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday during a hearing on the state budget and assistance to small- and medium-sized farms and related small businesses to compete in the state, national and international marketplace.
New York agriculture has felt the deep impacts of the state’s declining workforce during the COVID pandemic, losing a total of 875,000 jobs in all industries statewide over the last 20 months.
Ball recently met with the commissioners of the state Labor and Education departments to collaborate on apprenticeships, internships and additional programming in schools to educate younger New Yorkers to bolster the industry workforce, state Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball said Tuesday.
“Even though I walked into a dairy plant that smells exactly the same as it did when I was 14, and it brings back some great memories, the work is entirely different,” said Ball, adding plant operators use computers to direct the flow of milk to the pasteurizer “...We need the training coming into the workforce to be able to work in those plants. We don’t have enough of those people yet.
“We need to begin to develop the thinking about a career in the food world much earlier,” he added. “But this is going to be a long-term challenge.”
About 1% of New York residents actively farm in the state, but jobs in the food system account for more than 40% of the nation’s workforce, Ball said.
“I think we need to start creating the touch points in elementary school, high school (and) prepare those people for careers in the food system — that’s a must-do,” he said.
Ball declined to publicly name a dollar amount to lawmakers for the Agriculture and Markets Department in the 2022-23 Fiscal Year budget, due April 1.
But the commissioner said the Legislature must provide funding for climate support for farmers, additional processors and support for permits, the Farm to School program, transportation and distribution.
“I don’t think we have a choice — I think we have to tackle them all, because collaboration and holistic thinking is what’s required right now,” Ball said. “There’s no shortage of things to think about, but if it’s not now, when? And if not us, then whom?”
The state department is looking at agricultural practices to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help reduce the industry’s environmental impact, the commissioner said.
The department will continue to study soil health, he added.
New York State grown and certified has more than 3,000 crop producers participating on over 750,000 acres — much of which provides critical components to the Nourish NY program that provides surplus agricultural products to needy communities and food banks.
The state has about 100 U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat processing facilities.
“Until we increase the number of slots of processing in the state, we’re not going to fix the problem,” said Ball, adding the state department has requested additional funding for expansion from federal officials.
“USDA has reached back out to us,” he said. “We need the food safety expertise. We need the labor. We need issues around the cost of expansion addressed. ... It’s not just a matter of throwing money at it — it’s going to take a more thoughtful approach.”
Officials also noted the lack of women and people of color in the industry, citing hurdles in access to farmland and capital.
“It’s very important that we make sure that your farm community represents its population,” Ball said.
Assemblymember Didi Barrett, D-Hudson; and Assemblymember Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, who chairs the Agriculture Economic Development and Farmland Protection Subcommittee, sat at the front of the room questioning witnesses through late Tuesday afternoon.