Jessica Ziehm knows farming.
She grew up on a dairy farm and is married to a farmer. She spent 12 years as spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. Now Ziehm will take her knowledge to the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition, which recently tapped her to serve as executive director.
The decade-old organization has never had a full-time executive director before, and Ziehm said that part of her job will be to increase the organization’s public profile and make it more active.
The New York Animal Agriculture Coalition advocates for farmers throughout New York, working to build public support for modern agriculture practices and make people more aware of what farmers do and how farms work.
“Consumers today are more and more interested in where their food is grown, but we’re at a point in time when people are so far removed from farms physically and socially,” Ziehm said. “Now when you go into a school, rarely do kids even raise their hands when you ask them whether they’ve ever been on a farm.”
The farms of today do not always resemble the farms of yesteryear, Ziehm said. Many of them are larger, as farmers have scaled up, although some have gotten smaller. At one time, her husband’s dairy farm, Tiashoke Farms in the Washington County town of Buskirk, numbered just 55 head of cattle; today it has 500.
“Things have changed in the industry,” Ziehm said. “People don’t necessarily recognize farms as farms anymore.”
NYAAC hopes to rectify this via a new project Ziehm referred to as Rural Neighbors. This effort will entail educating people who live near farms about what these farms do. One possibility is to encourage farms to open up to the public; a possible model, Ziehm said, is the Sundae on the Farm program in Saratoga County, which gives people the chance to visit the dairy farms there.
“We want to try to help farms in different areas of the state put together events like that,” Ziehm said. “We want to try to make it easier for farmers to communicate with neighbors. We believe that farmers are in the best position to communicate that they care about land and animals.”
In 2010, the coalition conducted a survey assessing public attitudes toward farming. Respondents lived within 10 miles of an active dairy farm in six communities, Auburn/Cayuga County, Avon/Batavia, Rochester/Ontario County, Black River/Watertown, Potsdam/St. Lawrence County and the Hudson Valley.
The survey found that 81 percent of respondents had a favorable perception of dairy farming, a 4 percent decline from 2009, and that 87 percent of respondents believe that dairy farms have a positive impact on the state and provide residents with benefits, which also represented a 4 percent decline from 2009.
Respondents were a bit more mixed about other types of farming, such as poultry, veal, turkey and swine, with fewer than half saying they had a favorable impression of those types of farms. Many described poultry, veal, turkey and swine farms as “dirty, not well run and have a foul odor,” and ranked animal welfare/quality of care as a top concern.
Ziehm said that few people realize that 99 percent of New York’s farms are owned by families, rather than factories or corporations, and that one of NYAAC’s goals is to make the wider public more aware of this.
“If people see larger farms, sometimes they have agricultural concerns,” Ziehm said. “But farmers live where they work, and there are very strict guidelines that they have to follow. Just because they have 200 animals versus 50 doesn’t mean they care about them any less.”
The coalition was founded by Cayuga Marketing LLC, the New York Farm Bureau and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association. Today the group is made up of representatives from those organizations, as well as the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council and the New York Corn & Soybean Growers Association, which recently joined NYAAC.
Beth Meyer, director of communications for the American Dairy Association, said that the association joined NYAAC because it’s “important for agriculture to work together.”
Tom Overton, director of PRO-DAIRY at Cornell University which seeks to increase the profitability and competitiveness of the state’s dairy industry, serves as adviser to the NYAAC board. He said that NYAAC is trying to “raise its profile, and Jessica is the right person to do that, given her experience in agriculture and the public sector.”
“We live in a society where an increasing number of people are less connected to where their food comes from,” Overton said. Regarding hiring a director, “We see it as a way to foster that knowledge.”