Video: State officials learn about drought impact

Stephen Borgna and John Christensen
From left: Tom Eskildsen, District Technician, Yates County Soil & Water Conservation District; Don Tones, Owner of Clearview Farms; Sen.Tom O'Mara; Sen. Patty Ritchie, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee; and N.Y.S. Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball.

Local lawmakers and state officials held an agriculture forum at Prattsburgh Central School Tuesday and toured several farms throughout Steuben and Yates Counties to grasp the many issues that are facing local farms and producers throughout the area.

Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats, and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, were joined by Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Watertown) and state agricultural commissioner Richard Ball. A representative from Rep. Tom Reed’s office, as well as officials from the Cornell Cooperative Extension and other agricultural organizations were also present.

“Agriculture industry in our state is so important,” Palmesano said during the panel. “We have to do everything we can to try to protect it.”

Farmers and growers who attended the forum expressed concern for their crops and yields in the face of a summer drought that has stricken the area. Harvests of many local crops, including potatoes, dry beans and corn, have been affected.

The hot summer has also taken a toll on the products produced by dairy farmers.

“I think the drought conditions that we’re having here this summer is really specific to this area of the state,” O’Mara said.

At Wallace Farms in Avoca, the summer drought has led to issues with its bean and potato fields, especially those in the hills where irrigation is challenging.

“There’s hardly any irrigation up on these hills,” Wallace farmer John Wallace said. “Just not possible.”

That, combined with the hot summer climate has led to drier ground this summer and lower yields, he said.

Following the forum meeting in Prattsburgh, O’Mara and other panelists toured Wallace’s potato farm in Avoca, Damin Farm’s large family dairy and corn farm in Prattsburgh, and Don Tones’ Clearview Farm, one of the largest vineyards in the Finger Lakes region, on Stever Hill Road in Branchport.

On the tour, panelists learned first hand from farmers of the scale of this year’s losses. Tones expects a 20 to 25 percent loss in the grape harvest, but the drought stress put on the vines may impact how well they survive the winter. A harsh 50 percent loss projected in both the potato and bean harvests pales in comparison to the 80 percent loss of the corn crop. This loss of silage and grain means dairy farmers will be forced to buy feed for their herds, thus raising the price of all dairy products, says O’Mara.

Producers also expressed that they’ve been hit hard by low prices for their goods, as well as from foreign competition in labor and exports - conditions they said have set the domestic agriculture industry on a downward trend.

Speaking in front of the panel, dairy farmer Gina Blakemore of Sleepers Ridge Holsteins in Horseheads said her farm has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses due to several factors.

“Our concern is that our first generation dairy farm will be our only generation dairy farm,” Blakemore said.

Among her concerns, Blakemore said the glo-bal economy is one of the most pressing threats to domestic producers.

“I think that your competition from overseas is something that really is threatening the dairy industry,” she said. “There absolutely should be no reason why people are buying butter from foreign countries. There’s plenty of butter here.”

“Our agricultural economy grew up as an export economy,” one farmer said. “And that’s not happening right now.”

“My income off of farm-work sales this year is going to be about 20 percent what it was last year,” semi-retired agricultural equipment salesman Richard Warner said. “Because there’s no money out there to buy stuff. It’s a magnitude of a problem that this country’s got to face - New York state isn’t going to solve the whole thing.”

Officials said they are weighing possibilities and options to ease the burden on farmers and provide the industry with a boost.

“We”ve got to deal with climate change. We have to understand some resiliency; things we need to advance,” Ball said. “Using a different kind of crop on a different kind of land; maybe it’s a different kind of rotation; maybe it’s earlier season crops that might have more drought resistance - we’re looking for different varieties. All the things are on the table.”

“Agriculture is our number one industry in the state,” O’Mara said. “We’re looking at ways that we can hopefully help out through some assistance to help weather this drought crisis that we have.”The legislators will examine creating a state relief package, but won’t know the scale of that relief until November or December, says O’Mara, after the harvest figures are complete.

O’Mara added, “We’re going to look at ways to how we can help farmers with capital investments to help deal with the climate resiliency,” by improving and expanding irrigation, and exploring flash flood mitigation techniques.

Aug. 31, Gov.Cuomo announced the federal government’s drought disaster declaration for 26-counties, which includes all of the counties O’Mara represents: Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tompkins, and Yates. As a result of the designations, farmers in these areas could be eligible for assistance, including emergency loans, from the U. S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. Additionally, Ball has been joining state lawmakers and other farm leaders to conduct on-site assessments throughout the state, and is working with Cornell University experts to study the outlook for recovery.

“The crop insurance helps,” Wallace said. “It at least softens the damage a little bit.”

Other farmers said these programs are not a long term solution.

“Borrowing more money isn’t the answer,” one farmer said.

Addressing the panel, Ann Damiani of Damiani Wine Cellars said such programs merely slow the bleeding.

“It’s a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound,” she said.

A video of the panel can be viewed at 

Includes reporting by John Christensen