Monday, June 25, 2012

Chobani, High Tunnels, and the Database

I can't believe I have been here for almost a whole month! It has been really nice working with everyone, and the atmosphere is great, very open communication, and people care about what is going on each day so they can keep track of each other. I spent a lot of time last week on the database that our office uses on filemaker pro. The database contains a lot of different information from profiles of state Senators and Assembly-Members, to Congressmen, to Cornell staff, as well as event information, issues we deal with and people who work on them, letters we write, on all sorts of people we frequently connect with. My project was to update and add profiles for all of the New York Senators and Assembly Members, in addition to Congressmen. I visited each of their websites and got updated contact information, photos, committees they are on and issues they are involved in. It was interesting to see just how long some people have been in office and the districts that they represent. While it was not the most exciting project, it also helped me learn more about the people we are working with and connect the names with faces.

On Friday I went on a trip with Lee to Chenango County for a Chobani lunch and celebration of the dairy industry in the county as well as highlight the past successes and future plans of Chobani. The food was delicious, and of course we had chobani yogurt parfaits with berries and granola. The 2012 Chenango County Dairy Princess made a short speech, as well as Ken Smith from Cornell Cooperative Extension. Finally Hamdi Ulukaya, the President, CEO and Founder of Chobani spoke. It was really wonderful to hear the Chobani story and the focus that they have on job creation, dairy farms, and economic development that benefits the area. Hamdi grew up in Turkey, and his family had sheep and cows and made yogurt and cheese. He came to the U.S. to learn English and go to business school, and started a feta cheese company. Hamdi talked about taking out an SBA loan buying the Kraft plant in 2005 that had been closed for a long time. He seemed to really focus on the importance on everyone in the operation and talked about the first year of operation with his first employees and selling yogurt to one grocery store. It took a year and a half until they got the perfect cup of yogurt and they launched the prodcut in 2007 calling it Chobani which means shepherd. It was amazing to hear that Chobani is now the number three brand of yogurt in the country that ships 1.7 million yogurt cases weekly to stores around the country! This year they are even an olympic sponsor, and Hamdi is taking five of his original employees who have been there with him since the beginning to London with him. It is nice to hear a story of a company with a great product being so successful, and how he understands the products connection to farms. He mentioned how the company is just a link in the chain, with milk coming from cows on dairy farms and then being processed and made into yogurt and then the supermarkets and consumers and that many people do not see these links between the food they eat and the farms it comes from.

The second half of the day Lee and I traveled out to Norwich Meadows Farm  which is about 80 acres total, with only some of that in production. They are totally organic and actually sell 90% of their product in New York city. We were there to learn more about the 4.5 acres of high tunnels they were growing food in. It was incredible to see, just rows and rows and rows of these hoop houses with everything from swiss chard to strawberries to artichokes inside!

High tunnels (aka hoop houses) are unheated, semi-permanent structures made out of steel hoops and covered in plastic. They are sited on field soil, and usually have roll up side curtains for passive ventilation, and they are cheaper to build then greenhouses. We learned about how water and manpower were really the largest limiting factors to using high tunnels, but they offer season extension and protection from pests and inclement weather. They have been using high tunnels for many years, and so we could see some of the first ones they used, and how they changed the over the years with spacing and length and design. They have been very inventive and focused on good management.

It was really interesting to hear one of the partners talking about how intellectually demanding farming is, especially since he is a doctor during the day. He felt that the farmer has to be a jack of all trades, and must be an economist, biologist, agronomist, soil scientist, manager, businessman, etc. It really is a demanding job! I really enjoyed seeing the farm and was amazed at just how many different crops they grew. They even had their own bee-hives and made honey!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Farm Visits and the Farm Bill

It has been really fun exploring Albany and finding places to eat, play, and hang out like Washington Park, Bombers, The Daily Grind and Nia/Yoga Studio. A friend from Cornell is here for the summer too, so its really nice to have someone to hang out with (the pic is from dinner at El Loco). Friday was an excellent day! Lee and I traveled to three different farms in Schoharie County with a few other people from Soil and Water and Cornell Cooperative Extension. They are putting on a sort of seminar/class/training to educate new employees about agriculture and conservation. As part of the training, people will travel to these three farms and learn from the farmers and educators. 

The first farm we visited was a small dairy, conventional, and they grow all of their own hay and had Holstein cows. They had a really interesting manure management system with a lagoon and a pump and it is something they will talk about a lot during the training. The farm had three very adorable dogs running around. Also! We had to wear plastic boots on each farm for bio-security reasons to make sure we did not transport anything from farm to farm. They are pretty funny looking, they make a lot of noise when you walk around, and they are like a mini sauna on a hot day, but they are necessary. 

The second farm was a very very small dairy (they were milking about 35 cows) and they were only a few years into production. They are totally organic and mostly grass fed cows, and what was interesting is variety in the types of breeds they had like Dutch Belted mixed with Holsteins and Jerseys. They sold their milk to a co-op and also a yogurt company in the area. It was a gorgeous farm, and the family was definitely working really hard to make it happen, but they seemed happy. It was interesting to hear the story of one owner who had worked as an occupational therapist and was intrigued by the links between the kids problems and their diets. Many of them were on gluten fee or dairy free or sugar free diets, and she wanted to get back closer to the source of food and become a producer for her own kids. 

The third farm was called Sap Bush Hollow Farm  and I found their operation to be the most interesting. They do completely grass-fed meat, including lamb, beef, pork, and poultry. They are in a super hilly area and they graze the animals on gorgeous pastures that are super steep. They have a license to do all of their own processing and meat cutting for the chicken, and it was really cool to hear the steps in the process. They have a great business model, with a premium product, at a high (but totally appropriate) price and they do mostly direct marketing. Some of their customers come from other states even, and there was one story of a woman from CT coming three times a year and filling her car with meat for her family and friends. So awesome. They have a gorgeous farm and happy animals and a really great set-up for selling at home. They also sell wool and organic honey, candles, soaps and other products they make with the animal products. They also had a llama and an alpaca to guard the sheep. Sweet. 

Being on all of these farms reminded me of why I am so interested in agricultural science and the policy behind it. These people work so hard every day and most are doing it because they love it. Of course there are ups and down, like when one of the dogs on the first farm swam across the poo lagoon, or on the second farm when they realized they had a lot of pasture that needed to be rejuvenated (seed and soil wise) or on the last farm when one of the beef cows got out and was lost for three days. I love the simplicity in the way of life, and getting to be outside all the time. So I have also been trying to keep up with the Farm Bill (S. 3240) news because its up for reauthorization and it sounds like its moving pretty slowly through the process. Currently there are 247 proposed amendments that need to be sorted out and the big issue is making sure the bill moves forward. For 2012 it is called the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act. I found a really great visual after reading an NPR article about the Farm Bill, and it outlines some of the issues with the legislation pretty well - here it is.  The farm bill is an omnibus bill that started after the great depression with FDR during the New Deal Programs. It has evolved over the years into a multi-faceted piece of legislation that has over 1000 pages and 15 different titles that cover everything from food stamps to crop subsidies to conservation programs and international food aid. In my opinion many of the issues we are dealing with in this country - obesity, lack of jobs, over spending, are all interconnected. Our current food system does not support the crops that nutritionists recommend for us to be healthy - mainly fruits and vegetables - and like the woman on the second farm noted, we are also dealing with insurmountable health impacts of our diets. We have huge environmental issues cased by farming practices that ignore the earth, we have monocultures and associated issues with resilience on farms. When the Farm Bill first came around, people grew many crops, and used some fertilizer, and now people grow one crop and use much more fertilizer. Additionally we have fewer and fewer farms and farmers with more focus on yield. As our food becomes less and less local, and we lose our connections with farming, there is less knowledge and awareness of farming and where our food comes from. When have a system where the biggest most money making farms get the most subsidies and those that make the least and need it get the least subsidies, it is definitely broken. The last farm we visited really gave me hope because they are thriving and doing well by the animals and the earth, and giving customers a product that they can't get other places. One thing that I know I hope to do in life is help people become excited about food, to know where it comes from, how to cook it, that it can bring so much joy to our lives. If you want to learn more about the Farm Bill, there are some amazing resources out there - Food Fight: A Citizens Guide to the Food and Farm Bill is GREAT, their website has some good basic info. The American Farmland Trust also does a lot of great work, and they have a website dedicated to farm bill information. Grist also has some great articles.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

NY Farm Days and Settling In

My first weekend in Albany was good! There was the Art on Lark festival with music and food and awesome art and also the Capital Pride Parade and Festival down Lark St. on Saturday. It is a really hard transition from Cornell and living with 7 of my best friends, to being in a whole new city and no knowing anyone. It is hard to figure out how to break in to a new place, trying to find the good restaurants and bars, good places to run, pick-up soccer games, how to get to the co-op, how does the bus work, what's the best bakery and cafe? Its a process! My house is lovely, and my roommate is great, she works for the Department of Environmental Conservation and its been interesting to learn about her experience there and get to know her. One thing I will have to work on this summer is a plan for after August ends, and there are so many options! I have some pretty diverse interests in policy, agriculture, natural resources, and maybe education. Of course there is a lot of overlap with these subjects, but its hard to figure out my strengths and interests and things I like and don't like and what experiences I feel would help me along the way. This internship is a really great opportunity to learn more about government and policy with a New York State focus and Cornell specific work. It is nice because though I have graduated and left Ithaca, I am still thinking of Cornell every day.

Yesterday was Dairy Day here on Capital Hill in the Legislative Office Building by the Assembly Minority.  There were Dairy Princesses from various counties, a former NY Giants running back (Joe Morris), and representation from various groups like Organic Valley, Farm Bureau, Dairy One, Hood, and more offering information, ice cream, cheese, yogurt, milk and other dairy related goods. Staff members of State Assembly members were scooping out ice cream for hours to long lines of people. It was really nice to see Organic Valley there because one of my good friends at Cornell has a dairy farm that is a member and they do really great work. Its a dairy farmer co-op with about 1400 members nation-wide.

It has been interesting seeing the last two weeks of session and trying to get the three bills moving. The healthcare bill is having hard time moving through, but the police officer residency bill has passed the Senate and will hopefully go through the Assembly soon. The pistol shooting/safety course bill has moved through both houses which is great and now just needs the Governors signature. Part of our job is talking to important people in various offices to make sure they are familiar with the issue and bill and can help it move forward. Today I also had to deliver about 12 letters to different Senators and Assembly Members, and it was an adventure seeing all the different floors of the Legislative Office Building and the Capital Building too. At the top of one staircase there was some beautiful painting on the walls and cool windows.

I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my bed and my mattress, and looking forward to tomorrow. Lee and I are going on some farm visits! Yay! I am excited to get to enjoy the nice weather, and dress down. Who knows, maybe I will even break out my Carhart overalls.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Busy End of the Week

Thursday I learned about the three experiment stations that Cornell has, which are integral in the research that Cornell does. The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva has been around for over 125 years! It became part of Cornell University in 1923, and includes over 700 acres of land, orchards and vineyards. The research they do there includes: horticulture and research in production of fruits and vegetables, food safety and food science, entomology and IPM, viticulture, and and plant pathology. They also do extension work to make sure the producers and consumers and food businesses are up to date on research. Then there is Willsboro Research Farm which is located along Lake Champlain and was donated to Cornell is 1982. This farm has a wide range of research projects going on with dairy, fertilizer, renewable energy, greenhouses, wine grape trials, organic research, and forage production. There is an automated weather station that provides important information on air and soil temperatures, light, precipitation, and wind.  Finally there is Uihlein Farm located in the Adirondack Mountains which is dedicated to potato research and seed stock production. There is also a laboratory and greenhouse on the farm that is used for breeding programs and produce about 65 varieties of potatoes for distribution to seed growers.

Lee also introduced me to a new project I will take over for New York Farm Days. This event was started ten years ago by Secretary Hilary Clinton, and continues with Senator Kristen Gillibrand. It is held in Washington, D.C. and typically features over 50 exhibitors sharing farm fresh products and wines. Last year Cornell features its Apple Breeding Program and served three new apple varieties. This year our focus will be on two new raspberry varieties that have been introduced, as well as high tunnels. My job is to design our table layout and write the informational posters for the table and communicate with the professor in charge of the research. It will be exciting to figure it all out!

On Friday Zoe and I headed to New York City on an early morning train to attend and help run the Symposium and MOU Signing for the Kwara State Agricultural Modernization Master Plan (KAMP) at the ILR conference center in Manhattan. First of all it was my fourth time in the City, and goodness it is so overwhelming! So many people and tall buildings and crazily enough I ran into an old friend from high school who is living there and auditioning for shows to pursue a career in theater. It was a crazy coincidence to run into her a diner where Zoe and I had breakfast.

The ILR center was recently renovated, and it is lovely inside, a perfect location for the afternoon. It was really wonderful to learn more about Nigeria and the Kwara state which is one of the most innovative agricultural states in Nigeria. They have developed a five-year transformational agricultural modernization master plan to help establish Kwara as the agricultural hub in Nigeria. Cornell is partnering with Kwara state to help implement the plan. There were over forty attendees to the event, and there was a large delegation from Nigeria of government officials, professors, and more as well as Cornell University professors and administrators. It was a very busy afternoon, followed by a wonderful dinner and celebration at the Hilton Hotel. It really felt like a wedding with fancy food and people toasting and celebrating the work that has been done for this project. There was a huge cake in addition to dessert that was delicious, butter shaped like roses, and many courses. A Nigerian comedian spoke and though I couldn't understand all the jokes, there was a happy feeling all around. There was also Nigerian music, which was really neat.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bills, Bills, Bills

I will be spending this summer working in Albany, NY as a Policy Intern with the Cornell Office of Federal Government Relations. Over the next couple months, I will be immersed in all the projects the office takes on, and will have the opportunity to sit in on legislative meetings, working on research projects, social media, and organizing and attending field trips to various places and any other miscellaneous jobs that are needed. Yesterday was my first day on the job and its great! The office is a lovely five minute walk from my apartment on Hudson Ave.

 I started the day off getting settled in at my very own desk, connecting to the Internet, finding the bathroom, and befriending the coffee machine. Pretty quickly I learned about some of the work the office is doing with three bills for Cornell. The first is bill A10204 (S.7436) which is being brought in to exempt students in gun safety and proficiency courses from certain provisions of law. It was interesting to learn how this process went, from identifying the issue, to getting the bill together, and following it through the chain of government till it is passed. The next bill I learned about is bill number A10400 regarding the Cornell Police employees, many of whom do not live in Tompkins county for various reasons. Finally there is a bill (S.7314-A) that has not yet been introduced that aims to help Cornell provide excellent health coverage to its students through allowing it to so self-insurance. This would save students about 6-8% of the cost of current coverage which is $1,776. It provides the same consumer protections, oversight and approval process that insurance companies are required to operate under. Yesterday I went all around the Capital Buildings here in Albany with Zoe Nelson, who is a State Legislative Associate and talked to various people in the Senate and the Assembly to gain more co-sponsors for the bill. It is an absolutely gorgeous building, really full of history and different types of architecture. There are some really neat exhibits up and the place is full of history to explore. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of wearing new shoes that had not been broken in, and had to deal with terrible blisters the whole time, but it was still an adventure going around the building, trying to find people, and meeting with each one about this bill.

The rest of this week I will be working more with Zoe to get this bill going, and on Friday we head to NYC for the Agri-Investment Symposium and MOU Signing Ceremony of Kwara State Agricultural Modernization Master Plan. It will be over 40 people and I am very excited to see what its all about. Its amazing that NYC is only a two and a half hour train ride away. I am so happy to be working with such awesome people this summer - Charlie is the Assistant Vice President and also has a twin brother, they are both very good at Ping Pong - Lee is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Specialist and I think I will learn a lot from him this summer - finally Paula is the Administrative Assistant who seems to keep everyone together and has a really great spirit and style. I am excited for the rest of the week to come!