Richard Ball grew up on a farm and always knew he wanted to be a farmer.
But he didn’t anticipate becoming commissioner of the state’s leading agriculture agency.
Ball, who owns and operates Schoharie Valley Farms in the town of Schoharie, said he never thought about being head of the Department of Agriculture and Markets until he received a phone call from the governor’s office.
“I have been farming all of my life. I was active with the New York Farm Bureau, active here in the community and paid attention to agricultural issues,” said Ball, 61. “I guess it was noticed because the
governor’s office called and asked if I would come in and talk about the position.”
He accepted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s offer because he sees it as an opportunity “to do some good” and “be a voice for other farmers across the state.”
Ball has been operating his own farm for more than 20 years. Schoharie Valley Farms is rich in history, so rich, in fact, that Ball often finds relics from the Revolutionary War in the soil.
“We find arrowheads in the soil all the time. There were three different eras of Indian occupation on this farm,” he said. “We even found musket balls and a button off of a British military coat.”
In 1780, an army of Loyalists and Indians attacked the Old Stone Fort — located a half-mile from Ball’s farm — during the Revolutionary War. At the time, the farm was known as “the bread basket of the revolution,” he said.
Ball said his 200-acre farm was one of the first in the area to grow vegetables. Nearly half of the produce is shipped to New York City; the rest is sold at the farm’s Carrot Barn or sent to local grocery stores.
The Carrot Barn was built in the late 1980s, before Ball purchased the farm in 1993. The barn serves as Ball’s personal store, where he sells his own vegetables, as well as products from other farmers in the county.
“We added local milk from a farm just up the road from us. We also have local yogurt, butter, eggs and cheeses,” Ball said. “We sell local meat from several farmers in Schoharie, too. It helps those farmers out and gives our vegetable customers another reason to shop here. It has been a great success.”
The store is known for its carrot cake, carrot cookies and carrot soup, but the Carrot Barn offers a lot more than carrots. This month, the store is featuring its asparagus sandwich — a local favorite.
“I have some customers who come in here every day and eat an asparagus sandwich for lunch,” said Ball, whose two daughters run the Carrot Barn. “It’s out of this world. My daughter used to make it for us when she was a kid.”
Ball’s property is on a hill off Route 30. In 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene hit the area, some of his land was spared from flooding; the rest was submerged under 18 feet of water.
The farm was one of only a few places in the town that had electricity immediately following the storm. Some residents visited Ball just to use his bathroom and buy food.
Ball also used his greenhouses as storage space for donated clothes, offering a place where those who lost their belongings in the storm could pick out clothes.
“We emptied what was left in the greenhouses, and we filled two greenhouses with clothes and bedding,” he said. “We had about 50 volunteers working and sorting everything. It was really heartwarming.”
Ball typically wakes up each day at 5 a.m. and meets with some of his employees to lay out a game plan for the day. Then he heads to Albany or New York City or to visit farms across the state.
“I will give the crew assignments every morning,” Ball said. “Like today, we are planting tomatoes, harvesting asparagus and also plan to plow. Then I put a tie on and head to Albany or on the road somewhere in the state.”
Ball has served as acting commissioner since January, when Cuomo nominated him for the position. He was recently confirmed for the permanent position by the state Senate.
One of Ball’s priorities as commissioner is to connect upstate farmers with the downstate market, providing them an outlet to ship and sell their products to New York City residents. Ball said he is also tasked with overseeing the inspection of greenhouses and farmers markets, monitoring food safety and ensuring that state institutions use local products.
“The department is also a voice for agricultural people,” he said. “We listen to what worries farmers and what is important to them. It goes both ways. We have a number of initiatives under way to grow the industry.”
On Wednesday, Cuomo announced $20.5 million in state aid for farmland protection efforts. Municipalities, counties and not-for-profit conservation organizations can apply for individual grants to fund projects on area farms.
The process to apply for funding has also been made easier, with the number of documents required to complete a project reduced. Ball said the goal is to streamline the entire process and get money to farms quicker and easier.
“We want to be more streamlined and more efficient in the way state government regulates farmers,” he said. “We want to get rid of duplications and make sure we treat people with respect and be more business friendly. The goal is to encourage farmers to stay here and grow more.”
Ball said he is excited to dive into his new role while continuing to grow his farm in Schoharie.
“The local food business has become very popular. We need to help that push forward because it’s great,” Ball said. “I’m happy to say my farm is growing, and I want to help other farms grow also.”