When people are not from the Northeast, they often have a misconception of what rural life is like in this part of the country. They tend to think of the big cities, but overlook the vast amount of farmland that is some of the finest in America.
Many people have no idea of the dairy production, orchards and vineyards, the diversity in vegetable production or even the maple and equine operations that dot the countryside. Farming is vitally important to the rural economies in New York and across New England, and that is why the president of American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) spent a few days earlier this summer to get a firsthand look at what is happening here, so he can spread the news.
Zippy Duvall was elected to his new position in January after previously serving as president of Georgia Farm Bureau. He has a poultry and beef operation in his home state, but now spends much of his time in Washington, D.C., and traveling the country to learn about the issues affecting farmers.
This was his first real foray into New York agriculture, and he dove in headfirst. His tour took him throughout central New York and the Finger Lakes, into the Southern Tier and across the western part of the state.
“All the issues may be the same across the country, but they may affect us so differently in the regions,” Duvall said. “And everyone has a story to tell how that affects them in their region. It is important for me to know that firsthand.”
With New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton as his guide, the pair kicked things off with a roundtable discussion with winery owners where they discussed trade and border issues. He had dinner with county farm bureau leaders from throughout New York. They told stories of problems with regulations, the impact of the $15 minimum wage in New York and concerns about food labeling.
His tour took him through Cornell University where he met with leaders in the College of Animal and Life Sciences, saw the latest agricultural research happening at the Geneva Experiment Station and visited numerous family farms to discuss things like immigration, environmental regulations and food safety. It was an effort to better educate himself so he can educate policymakers.
“If I go up on [Capitol] Hill and talk to a congressman or senator and it’s about regulation, I need to know how those regulations are affecting farmers and ranchers in New York. I can testify to that and say I have been there, talked to them. That is a valuable thing for me to carry with me when I do this job,” Duvall said.
But he also needs the backup of farm bureau members. Often when there is a call to action on an important issue, farmers have a tendency to put it off until later. As a farmer, he understands that farmers are busy with a lot on their minds, and it’s easy to forget about making that phone call to an elected official or sending an email to the state Capitol. He said that thinking must change, especially as groups like Humane Society of the United States, AARP and others can generate millions of responses quickly to Capitol Hill. The farm bureau must be able to keep up or it will be left behind.
“That is when we become successful and that’s when we move the needle and make our lives in rural America better,” he said.
It isn’t just public policy that he is concerned about, but also public perception. Unlike any time in recent memory, consumers are taking a more active role in learning about the food they’re eating, where it comes from and how it is grown.
While some of the discussion, particularly in social media, can be critical of farming, Duvall said we need to move beyond being offended.
“We need to look at it as an opportunity,” he said.
He encouraged farmers he met on his tour to take a more active role in sharing their stories. He says there is no better place to do that than in our rural communities, where farmers work and live. They should be discussing this with their neighbors and looking for opportunities to get in front of an audience. That is a strength of a farm bureau that can sponsor a Future Farmers of America group or booster club event. They can get in front of a civic club and talk about their farm and production methods.
“What I have discovered all across America is public opinion is just as important as public policy,” Duvall said. “Farm bureau has spent almost 100 years promoting our policy, and now we have to realize that there is something just as important and that is what the public thinks about us.”
Duvall said he was in awe of the beautiful scenery in New York and impressed with the farms and innovation taking place. He was moved and overwhelmed by the people he met. Farmers in the Northeast aren’t much different from their counterparts across the country. They all care passionately about what they do and the care they take doing it, and he is happy to share those stories with people who may not realize what they have going for them and working against them in the region.
“I look forward to working hard for the farms and ranchers in this state and across America. It is a privilege and an honor, and I take it very seriously,” he said.