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Proposed legislation would force IDAs to pay more attention to agriculture by amending state law


When it comes to talking about agriculture, state lawmakers are skilled at touting the industry when they speak to crowds of farmers. But do they truly walk that talk?

Not according to legislation recently introduced in Albany. Co-sponsored by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, the bill would amend a definition in state law so that industrial development agencies make agriculture projects a priority for economic development — suggesting that the industry has not been given its due by some lawmakers in the past.

Leaders in Jefferson County said agriculture is a priority on which counties always should be focused. For example, agriculture has long been a high priority for the Jefferson County IDA, which is guided by an agriculture subcommittee composed of industry leaders. But the county’s model hasn’t been adopted by other IDAs and localities in the state, which often sweep agriculture efforts under a rug.

“This bill shows how little people in Albany know about agriculture compared with other places in the state,” said Donald C. Alexander, the agency’s chief executive officer. “The bill suggests that it isn’t taken as a high priority, when it’s one of the primary industries that drives the economy. Agriculture expansion projects create jobs and add to the tax base, and we should be able to help as a county. This should also be a priority in Lewis County, St. Lawrence County, Franklin County and Essex County.”

Now making its way through the Senate and Assembly, the bill simply would add “agriculture” to the definition of economic activities that IDAs may undertake. Agriculture would be defined to mean “the production of any agricultural, horticultural, floricultural or aquacultural products of the soil or water that has been grown, harvested or produced within the state.”

Mrs. Ritchie, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, contended that Jefferson County’s agriculture program should be viewed as a model for other counties to follow. She described the legislation as a catalyst to expand economic opportunities for farmers, calling it “an additional tool to help promote job growth and boost bottom lines.”

“Farm folks across the state say Jefferson County is a shining example of how IDAs can help promote growth and expand opportunities for the farming community,” she said in a prepared statement. “If IDAs could be utilized in the same manner statewide, it would certainly help improve the agricultural industry as a whole.”

Jay M. Matteson has steered the agriculture industry in Jefferson County since December 2000, when he was hired as a full-time agricultural coordinator. The industry has evolved here over the past decade due to the program’s efforts. Morris North Star Hatchery moved into the Jefferson County Industrial Park in Watertown in 2008, creating about 20 jobs. And Great Lakes Cheese in Adams finished an $86 million expansion project in December 2012, adding a 143,000-square-foot production space and creating about 25 jobs. The agriculture program also helped create the Thousand Islands-Seaway Wine Trail in 2005, which now features eight wineries.

Counties should to be proactive in their approach to grow agriculture, Mr. Matteson said, and he hopes the state bill will spur IDAs to take a “stronger look” at their efforts to do so.

“As I look across New York state, lawmakers don’t recognize the importance of agriculture as an economic engine in communities — they focus on smoke stacks, high-tech centers and big-box stores. We need to look at agriculture at the production and farming level, the place where the most opportunities rise. You won’t necessarily grow 30 jobs at a time when you assist a farm, but they send products to plants that create jobs, then ship those products across the country and world,” Mr. Matteson said.

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