Keeping his roots

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From farmer to commissioner of agriculture & markets

When Richard Ball got a call asking if he would consider being the Commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets he was, in a word, “shocked.”

Ball, the 61-year-old owner of Schoharie Valley Farms and the affiliated Carrot Barn country store, had never held a government post before. In fact, he had never had a job outside of agriculture.

“I began working on a farm when I was 18 and have never done anything else,” he said. “So I got the call and I said ‘let me call you back in a few days’. I had to walk around and think about it for a while.”

Ball had spent about 20 years learning how to farm, and another 20 running his own vegetable farm in Schoharie. He planned to spend his next two decades transitioning his business to his children and grandchildren. He realized that as State Commissioner, his support for the next generation could extend beyond his own family, to farmers all over New York.

“That is kind of a wonderful opportunity, and that is why I decided to do it,” he said.

Ball became Acting Commissioner in early January, and is awaiting confirmation by the State Senate. In a statement announcing the appointment, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he “embodies the proud tradition of farming” in New York, and would bring “fresh ideas and strong leadership” to the department.

It is an important job. There are about 35,500 farms in New York, covering more than seven million acres and employing thousands of people. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the value of agricultural products sold in the state totaled $5.4 billion in 2012. The state ranks first in the country for cabbage production, second in apple production and third in milk production.

“Agriculture is the biggest economic engine upstate, and the upstate economy won’t really thrive until agriculture does well and continues to do well,” Ball said.

He said the opportunities available to New York farmers are many, but so are the challenges. Farms are small businesses, and must deal with all the same issues – taxes, labor costs, fuel costs, etc. – that any small business does. They are also at the mercy of the weather, more so than most businesses.

As agriculture chief, Ball will focus on the things he can do something about, such as opening doors for food products grown, raised and produced in New York.  He sees huge untapped markets in urban areas, the “food deserts” of the inner cities where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited. The biggest opportunities lie in New York City.

“Here we are just a few hours away from one of the biggest appetites in the world, and we need to take better advantage of that,” he said. “We need to do a better job of marketing ourselves in our own state, of connecting the dots between upstate and downstate.”

In his State of The State message in January, Cuomo announced plans for a summit to discuss ways to do just that.

Ball also shares Cuomo’s goal of making sure New York agencies, institutions and businesses are buying New York when possible. Last year, the state cap on agency purchases of New York grown products was raised from $50,000 to $200,000, and programs such as Pride of NY and Taste NY were introduced to promote New York goods.

This year, Cuomo announced the state’s first Interagency Task Force on Agriculture, made up of both government officials and farmers, to work on removing barriers to the growth of the state’s farming economy.

“I believe we are on the edge of pretty good things, between the task force and the procurement policy, and getting more New York products into the hands of more people,” Ball said. “These are things I am excited about and eager to be part of.”

But there is more to securing New York’s agricultural future than opening up markets. According to the USDA, which in February released the preliminary results of its 2012 Census of New York Agriculture, the average age of farm operators in the state is 57.1. This is up almost a year from the 2007 census, and continues a “long term trend of steady increases.”

It is therefore one of Ball’s goals to educate younger people, even those in urban and suburban areas, on the opportunities in farming.
 
“We have across the state a number of farmers who are looking to retire and don’t have another generation there,” he said. “If we can give these older farmers a way to retire, by connecting those young farmers with them, then that will ensure the viability of our farms in the future.”

This is a particular passion of Ball’s, because he was once a young man with an interest in agriculture and no farm to inherit.

He grew up around farming. His maternal grandparents had a dairy farm in the Greene County town of Halcott Center, and his father worked in the dairy processing industry.

“I think the seed got planted through by grandparents,” he said. “[Their farm] was a great place for me as a little guy to first experience cows and riding on the hay wagon and stuff like that. With my dad working in dairy plants, I got to meet farmers and talk to farmers. So early on, it was clear to me that agriculture was just a good thing to do.”

His family moved about quite a bit, taking him from Schenectady to Rochester to Ohio and eventually to Rhode Island, where he graduated from high school. Because there was no family farm for him to join, he walked up the road to a neighboring vegetable farm, knocked on the door and asked for a job.

“That is how I began as a farm worker,” he said.

He would work on that farm for the next two decades, eventually taking on the role of operations manager.

But he still had a soft spot for upstate New York. So when he took his oldest daughter to visit Cornell University, they stopped to visit a farm for sale in Schoharie.

“The wheels started turning in my head,” he said. “They wanted to retire and I thought here was my chance to come back home.”

The 200 acre Schoharie Valley Farms, off Route 30, produces a wide range of vegetables and small fruits. The property includes cold storage facilities, greenhouses, a packing facility and The Carrot Barn, a popular store and restaurant that sells not only Ball’s freshly-grown produce, but local beef, dairy products, baked goods, deli products, flowers and gifts.

Ball is likely to have someone to pass the farm onto. Between them, he and his wife Shirley have seven children—three of whom work on the farm—and 16 grandchildren.

“So we have three generations on the farm,” he said. “The grandkids are pretty young most of them, so they are still in the ‘tractors-are-fun, playing in the dirt, digging up potatoes in the field’ stage, but there has to be a farmer in there someplace!”

Ball may have been shocked when Cuomo selected him as the next commissioner, but he had been building his reputation in the agricultural community for some time. He has held positions with the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, the Schoharie County Farm Bureau, New York Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau.

He is also past president of the Schoharie County Chamber of Commerce, president of the Schoharie Valley Association, and chairman of Schoharie Recovery Inc., a non-profit formed to help recovery efforts from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

He has clearly earned the respect of his colleagues.

“Rich is first and foremost a farmer,” said Mark Henry, president of the Vegetable Growers Association. “He’s watched his land flood, worked through blizzards, and watched the first green tips push their heads above the soil every spring in spite of all the challenges.”

And despite the challenges, it is a world Ball highly recommends.

 “That is part of my mission here, to make sure [farming]is a viable alternative for people,” he said. “Because it certainly is a great, great life.”
 

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