In the Summer of 2017, Farm Viability staff interviewed 51 of our past and present project leaders, asking questions about where they sought funding, what they liked about various grant programs and how we compared to other funders on technical aspects such as the size of our awards, duration of our grants, and reporting requirements. The most interesting part of the discussion occurred when we asked, “What will create the most economic opportunity for New York farmers?”
This article was developed for the 2017 annual report.
Some researchers and educators felt that economic improvement for farmers would build incrementally through continuous improvement, similar to how many NYFVI projects have traditionally created positive impact at the farm level.
Many project leaders jumped to the role of technology and digital agriculture as part of the solution.
There was strong agreement that a challenging labor market is pushing the industry to labor saving efficiencies and automation. There was also concern that the current labor force isn’t prepared to manage the new technology, and that people with the right skills are in short supply. This is a sentiment we’ve heard from farmers as well.
Project leaders were excited about the potential of predictive modeling, enabled by the availability of more data, to help farmers make better management decisions. However, several did note that the scale of the farm and the skills of the farmer would be critical factors in determining “what was next”.
NYFVI staff was surprised to hear the frequency with which soil health was mentioned as an economic opportunity for farmers. It’s also interesting to note that more than one person mentioned — in all seriousness — that increased consumption of produce needed to be part of the answer.
To sum it up, four themes emerged from our discussions: Continuous improvement, technology, soil health and increased consumption of produce.
The next step was to evaluate what we had learned from the project leaders against the investments in our project portfolio. Farm Viability wanted to know, if these are the areas that are going to make a difference, how are we doing?
Projects focused on continuous improvement are a hallmark of our organization. These proposals come in on a regular basis and the ones that the farmers feel are valuable are usually able to be funded.
Work focused on increased consumption we decided to leave to others to tackle.
The soil health and technology topics were a little trickier to sort out.
On the soil health front, Farm Viability has funded a number of projects over the years, particularly in the field crops area. One project leader has been particularly successful in work that has moved the discussion from cover cropping, which can be considered an environmental practice, to winter forages, which is a business and production practice that is a win for everyone.
As for technology, Farm Viability has been funding projects in precision agriculture since 2005. In fact, when we looked back across all the proposals Farm Viability has received over the last decade we realized that we’ve funded more than 90% of the technology proposals received.
So the challenge became to receive more of these proposals. The first step was to clearly express our interest in accelerating the adoption of technology on New York’s farms in this year’s Request for Proposals.
We also came to a much clearer understanding about the need for a multidisciplinary approach to accelerate the development of this field and realized that we could play a critical role to bring potential collaborators together.
As an organization, we firmly believe that a broad network that encourages collaboration between the invaluable agricultural expertise found at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, a SUNY school as well as New York State’s land grant university, and the excellent computational scientists, software developers and engineers at other SUNY schools will help our projects create and share knowledge.
That’s why, with the 2018 grant cycle, NYFVI reached out to our traditional plant and animal researchers and introduced them to colleagues at the University at Buffalo’s Center for Computational Research. As a result, we received several collaborative proposals and are eager to see how they fare in the review process.
Data analytics are only one of the many new technologies that are being developed for agriculture. NYFVI also received a proposal from Rensselaer Polytech that seeks to use ultraviolet light to fight downy and powdery mildews in squash.
We were also pleased to see the number of Cornell proposals nearly doubled this year.
Our emphasis on technology also created agribusiness interest in our program. Four companies submitted proposals to develop new technology and tools for New York’s farmers.
At Farm Viability we’re excited about the collaboration we see building, and the number of organizations hoping to apply their expertise on behalf of New York’s farmers.