State, nation seek to improve farmers’ earnings
By Gwendolyn Craig
New York’s top agricultural leader said he is concerned about compromising the state’s farmland for renewable energy projects, something the Adirondack Park Agency has discussed over the past several years.
Richard Ball, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets since 2014, said Tuesday he is excited about New York’s energy goals and acknowledged that farmland could play a role.
“What concerns me personally is that 60% of the land that we farm in New York State is rented or leased land, so that can present a challenge if we lose that land to developments,” Ball said.
Ball spoke with the Adirondack Explorer after kicking off the annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Saratoga Springs. The meeting was in New York because Ball is also the national association’s current president.
The commissioner said he has had productive conversations with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Ball said NYSERDA has agreed to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to the best kinds of farm soils.
When the Explorer asked if the department had contact with the APA, Ball said he looked forward to having those conversations. He highlighted workgroups the state has organized among farmland preservationists, solar companies and county planners.
The Town of Ticonderoga has seven solar projects proposed or approved, Supervisor Mark Wright told the Explorer. Ticonderoga and the Champlain Valley are where most of the park’s agricultural lands are located and where most of the solar facilities are proposed. In May, APA commissioners approved a 5-megawatt array on Old Chilson Road in the town on vacant agricultural land. It gave some commissioners pause as the fields abutted mountain vistas and passing the project meant adding 11,000 solar panels to the view.
“Let’s make sure we achieve our energy goals,” Ball said, “not on the back of agriculture.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attended Tuesday’s meeting and spoke with the Explorer about the issue. Vilsack is the 32nd secretary. He served for eight years under President Barack Obama and was appointed by President Joe Biden.
“I think we obviously honor and respect the decision that property owners make for themselves,” Vilsack said. “Folks have a decision to make, and it’s one that they have to make what is best for their particular operation and what’s best for their family. Having said that, I think we are constantly looking for ways in which we can help farmers increase their income.”
Vilsack highlighted last week’s announcement that the USDA is investing up to $2.8 billion in 70 Climate-Smart commodity projects. These involve production of agricultural goods using less greenhouse gas emissions and/or using practices that sequester carbon. Vilsack said he thinks those new partnerships may “offer new revenue streams and sources for farmers.”
“The key here is making farming as profitable, as competitive, as a renewable energy project,” Vilsack said, “and then let farmers make the right choice for themselves.”
The Explorer also asked Ball about whether he supported the state Assembly and Senate’s legislation creating a goal to protect 30% of New York’s lands and waters by 2030. There is a push for a similar goal at the national level. Ball declined to state his position on either one.
“With just about everything, the devil is in the details,” Ball said. “Let me just say that I believe in preserving farmland.”
And when asked what he thought about the controversy over a wolf killed in central New York and some environmental groups’ calls to protect them, Ball said he was not aware of that and did not have an opinion.
During the annual meeting, Ball and Vilsack discussed a number of issues facing farmers across the country from labor shortages, to the rising cost of fertilizer. Vilsack announced a new $500 million initiative investing in sustainable, American-made fertilizer. More information about the grant program can be found at grants.gov.
Ball asked Vilsack if the Biden administration was making any effort to address the problem with access to agriculture labor. Vilsack promoted the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that would make changes to the federal temporary worker program called H-2A and established a certified agricultural worker status. It also allows the USDA to provide assistance for things like new farmworker housing.