Above: New York State Agricultural Society President Diane Held congratulates Schoharie County farmer Richard Ball, recently appointed as New York State's new Commissioner of Agriculture, at the group's 2014 forum on New York agriculture. Photo from the New York State Agricultural Society's Facebook page.
Look through the roster of New York State's top agricultural officials, and you might notice they've got something in common: Cows.
Dairy cows, to be specific. Darrel Aubertine, who served as the state's commissioner of Agriculture and Markets from 2011 to last December, was a lifelong dairy farmer. The commissioner before him, Patrick Hooker, grew up working on a dairy farm. So did Patrick Brennan before him.
In New York, still the nation's fourth-largest milk-producing state despite the loss of many farms in recent years, it's no surprise that dairy has reigned supreme. But the state's newly-appointed commissioner, Schoharie County farmer Richard Ball, is more of a vegetable man. For the past 20 years, Ball has grown carrots, tomatoes, sweet corn, pumpkins, parsnips and other vegetables on 200 acres in the fertile Schoharie Valley, at Schoharie Valley Farms.
The appointment to New York's top ag job is a big step for Ball, but also for New York State's vegetable industry, which with sales of just over $400 million a year is still eclipsed by the $2.2 billion New York dairy industry. In a release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office announcing Ball's appointment, Mark Henry, head of the New York State Vegetable Growers' Association, lauded the choice of Ball to head up the state's agricultural commission:
“The New York State Vegetable Growers Association is proud and excited to hear about fellow vegetable farmer, Rich Ball’s, nomination as Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets. Rich is first and foremost a farmer. He’s watched his land flood, worked through blizzards, and watched the first green tips push their heads above soil every spring in spite of all the challenges. With the nomination of Rich Ball as Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, the New York State Vegetable Growers Association feels that 2014 is starting out on a positive note.”
Local farm advocates are pleased about Ball's appointment as well. Tara Collins, spokesperson for the Watershed Agricultural Council's Pure Catskills local-food campaign, says she's delighted with Ball's appointment.
"Richard brings a few things to the table as [Agriculture and Markets] Commissioner," Collins wrote in an email to the Watershed Post. "One, he talks the farmer language. Two, he’s not intimidated by institutional red tape. And three, he sees the broader vision of expanding New York State agriculture sales beyond his own farm and making food the economic driver of this state."
Speaking of red tape: Ball is intimately familiar with what it feels like to be a farmer on the wrong side of government bureaucracy. Collins noted Ball's Herculean efforts to get local carrots on the menu in New York City schools -- an initiative that was the subject of a 2007 New York Times story, "Local Carrots With A Side Of Red Tape."
Ball also has first-hand experience with the difficult task of flood recovery. In 2011, Schoharie Valley Farms was one of many farms in the valley to be hit hard by flooding from Irene and Lee. After the floods, Ball volunteered for the newly-formed nonprofit group Schoharie Recovery, Inc., where he served as chairman of the board. In 2013, Schoharie Recovery merged with another local flood recovery nonprofit, Schoharie Area Long Term (SALT).
Ball's appointment has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate. But if the generally positive reaction from local agriculture advocates and politicians is any indication, his appointment is likely to sail through.
In a recent interview with the Albany Times Union, Ball said that connecting farms upstate with the growing appetite for local food in New York City will be a priority for him.
"We're blessed to be farming just a few hours away from the biggest appetite in the country," Ball said. "We're on the edge of a lot of very, very positive things. As you know the interest in local food is huge. ... We're kind of in right now — local food and local farms and the opportunity to look a farmer in the eye and talk to him about what he grows."