Tom Lewis, FaHN VISTA sat down with Margaret Ball, Agriculture Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tioga County (CCE Tioga) to learn more about her work and the different projects that CCE Tioga is currently involved with.

Cornell Cooperative Extension associations operate throughout New York and have a presence in every county in the state. According to their website the mission of the extension system is to, “put knowledge to work in the pursuit of economic vitality, ecological sustainability and social well-being.” CCE Tioga runs a variety of different programs that cover diverse subject areas such as agriculture, 4H youth development, gardening, nutrition, and family development. Each of those areas has many different functions, roles, and projects associated with them. The majority of my conversation with Margaret focused on their agriculture programing and CCE Tioga’s role in the local food system.

The role of agriculture in Tioga County:

According to Todd Schmit, Associate Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, agricultural industry in Tioga County (including production, support services and manufacturing) has a total direct output of $261 million, employs more than 860 people and contributes $79 million (6.24%) to the Tioga County GDP. Margaret stated that, “Tioga county has quite a diversity of types of farms and different products. Almost anything you can think of there are at least a few places in Tioga County that produce it, and quite a range of sizes of farms. There’s a multigenerational farming community and also a lot of folks getting into farming, trying to start up new operations. There are also folks who have lived elsewhere and have moved here trying to set up a nice rural lifestyle.”

Last summer, CCE Tioga hosted four Cornell undergraduates who carried out an interdisciplinary research project called Our Farms, Our Stories. With support from CCE Tioga staff and Cornell advisors, the students documented stories, contributions, and needs of farmers in Tioga County. They interviewed farmers and community leaders, participated in local cultural events, and quantified agriculture’s contribution to the Tioga County economy. Our Farms, Our Stories results are available on the CCE Tioga website, including a 20-minute video, reader-friendly profiles of 14 Tioga County farms, and a comprehensive written report.

On the Tioga County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan:

“Tioga County updated its Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan in 2015 and the County is funding part of my position to help coordinate the implementation of that plan.” Margaret added, “New York State Department of Ag and Markets offers funding to counties to do these plans. Basically it’s a chance for many diverse stakeholders who have an interest in farming issues to come together and discuss priorities.”  She added, “Some of the most important work moving forward will involve working with local and regional economic development organizations – securing sources of grant and loan funding for Tioga County’s agricultural businesses.” A few goals of Tioga County’s Ag Plan are: to achieve sustainable growth in the agricultural economy, attract new and beginning farmers to the agricultural sector, maintain adequate access to quality farmland, and improve communication between farmers, rural land owners and public agencies.

Margaret stated, “Right now I’m working with Tioga County Economic Development and Planning, Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Chamber of Commerce on a campaign to change the narratives around agriculture in the county. Even though agriculture is such an important economic driver in Tioga County, there are still some disconnects between the farming community and the economic development and business folks. We’re starting to discuss the intersections of agriculture and business in the county in multiple media outlets.”

Other agriculture projects and events that CCE Tioga is working on:

Margaret stated that one successful annual event that CCE Tioga is involved with is Sundaes at the Farm. “The idea is to get the general public on to a farm to see what it is all about and to have fun.” She said, “Last year it was at King Dairy Farm in Spencer and we had over 700 people come on to the farm.” Last year’s event had several different features including tours of the milking barn, kids activities, and of course free ice cream Sundaes! The Tioga County Agricultural Resource Group organizes the event, of which CCE is a member.

Tioga County also holds other events that promote agriculture. CCE Tioga hosts a “Taste of Tioga” dinner each year to highlight locally produced foods. Collaborative groups promote agriculture through the Tioga Farm Trail and the County Fair. The Fair added a new building dedicated to agriculture last year. Margaret also added, “there are a lot of people working to build the presence of agriculture at the County Fair. We have a strong 4-H program at CCE, a new Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter at Spencer Van-Etten High School, and agricultural classes in at least two school districts.”

On Margaret’s role as an Agricultural Development Specialist:

“My job is to basically do whatever I can to support economic viability of farms in Tioga County. Farms means anyone who is producing farm products for sale, everything from large scale dairy farms to small back yard bees, or someone who wants to get into farming and doesn’t know where to start.” Margaret also added that she works to host educational workshops for farmers and get them connected to beneficial resources.

On the local food system:

While discussing the local food system and agriculture in Tioga County, Margaret spoke about the importance of farm labor. She stated, “Labor on farms is an important challenge to consider right now, especially with immigration enforcement and the average age of farmers continuing to increase. Finding ways to plug young people into the agriculture labor force is a big challenge that needs some serious collaboration and creativity.” She also added that land access and start-up capital for people who are trying to become involved with farming are issues that need more attention.

On the importance of the Food and Health Network in the local food system:

Margaret stressed that she believes FaHN’s work is important. She added that, “there are so many different pieces in the puzzle in food systems and each of us is just doing our tiny part. The more we can network and understand different sectors, the better off everyone’s work is going to be. I think FaHN does a really great job of making those connections.”