Northeast Agribusiness & Feed Alliance
The health of agriculture is integral to all corners of the U.S. economy, from the food-supply chain to employment. Oftentimes the Midwest gets most of the credit, but the Northeast also has a diverse crop mix and is a source of strong agricultural production. Producers such as dairy farmers, crop input specialists and feed manufacturers in the Northeast keep this multibillion dollar sector moving. Providing industry oversight, the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance (NEAFA) strives for the proliferation of agriculture, serving as the collective voice for agricultural businesses, cooperatives, suppliers, dealers, lenders and other agribusinesses that support the farming industry throughout the Northeast
Originally named the Northeast Ag & Feed Alliance, NEAFA was formed in 2004 when two longtime organizations came together: The New England Grain and Feed Council and The Eastern Federation of Feed Merchants. The two groups joined to harness their collective strength, roots and industry experience dating back to the early 20th century.
Joining in collective strength
Amid industrywide consolidation in recent years, NEAFA has restructured to look out for the best interest of its members, the majority of which are small- to medium-scale producers, feed manufacturers, dealers and suppliers and leaders in the local agribusiness community. NEAFA’s mission is threefold in terms of collaboration with other industry organizations, ongoing education and advocacy efforts. NEAFA’s reach covers all six New England states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, as well as New York.
Rick Zimmerman has served as the organization’s executive director for the last nine years. “Our leadership realized industry consolidation was inventible and that the changing face of the agribusiness community in the Northeast required out-of-the-box thinking by well-established, longtime organizations serving primarily the feed industry,” says Zimmerman, who holds a degree from Cornell University in agricultural economics and animal science. “In 2004, we finalized our merger to create NEAFA to better serve our multistate membership across animal agriculture. This partnership reflects how the animal agriculture industry has grown throughout the Northeast.”
Zimmerman joined the association in 2007 and has helped shaped NEAFA into the body it is today. In 2014, as part of the organization’s 10-year anniversary, “Agribusiness” was added to the name to represent a diverse scope of work and leadership in support of a variety of agricultural companies.
“When we’re talking about agribusiness, we’re talking about more than our traditional roots in serving feed manufacturers, dealers and suppliers,” explains Zimmerman. “We’re going beyond that and into the agronomic input community as well [seed fertilizer, chemical] and our membership ranks also include farm credit and agricultural banks that are a significant part of the agribusiness community as well. We still serve a wide range of family-owned agribusinesses. The more regionally based companies, often owned by families in the Northeast, are a very important part of our membership.”
Zimmerman brings years of related experience to NEAFA from formative years on his family’s dairy farm in western New York to more than 30 years in professional public policy on behalf of agriculture. “My professional goal has been to help advance the growth and development of the agricultural industry here in the Northeast,” he says.
Passionate about the issues that matter to local agro-producers, Zimmerman served as the director of government relations for the New York Farm Bureau for 16 years. “Following this role I served as deputy commissioner for the Department of Agricultural Markets in New York for seven years,” says Zimmerman. “I had the ability to administer a number of programs that I had previously lobbied while at the Farm Bureau.”
In addition, Zimmerman also runs his own public policy business and has since 2006. “We serve the agriculture industry as registered lobbyists and we represent NEAFA and other organizations,” he says.
Focused efforts in education
“Unlike many organizations, our board of directors is highly engaged in the activities of the alliance,” says Zimmerman. “Much of the board’s work is accomplished in focused committees that further our three-part mission: advocacy, collaboration and education. We’re fortunate to have a lot of active participation within various committees, which have resulted in our recent accomplishments and will be vital as we move forward with our strategic goals.”
NEAFA’s Education Committee is chaired by Rick Grant, president of the board of directors. The primary purpose of this committee is to get major educational programs off the ground. “One of our major, annual events is the Herd Health and Nutrition Conference,” says Grant. “This focuses on nutrition and dairy management and the conference has traditionally been held in Syracuse, New York, and central New England.”
NEAFA’s Education Committee is one of the largest of all focus groups. “It incorporates people from all over the education sector in New England, from colleges to land grants. We have 20 members on this committee,” notes Grant.
Grant says hot topics in recent years have been addressing various dairy cattle nutrition questions and improving herd efficiency in terms of minerals, vitamins and proteins. “Another concern is how to maximize nutrition management with a minimal impact on the environment,” adds Grant.
The education committee also rallies around NEAFA’s Land Grant Institutions, such as Cornell University. “In the last year, we’ve helped add two new faculty members in the Department of Animal Science at Cornell,” shares Zimmerman. “We raised more than $1 million from the agribusiness community to leverage Cornell funds sufficient to support two tenured faculty positions for their entire professional careers. We’re committed to support this Faculty Renewal Program because we know these faculty members will serve the industry for generations to come.”
In partnership with the national affiliates — the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) and the National Grain and Feed Alliance (NGFA) — NEAFA also connects members to interactive online educational tools, such as webinars. NEAFA recently hosted a series of webinars on changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The three-part series included training, which aired to 24 viewers at four locations throughout Vermont and New York. Each of the three webinars qualified for two continuing education credits by the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists.
Fundraising for today and tomorrow
Supporting programs and initiatives that make a difference in the industry and local communities is an important priority for the NEAFA. The Good Works Committee, chaired by Chip Hyde, heads up a majority of the alliance’s charity fundraising efforts. The committee hosts the annual Golf for Good Works Tournament, held last year June 26, 2015, in Verona, New York. The tournament raised more than $10,000 to support agricultural educational programs and NEAFA hopes to go above and beyond that figure in 2016.
A major recipient of the dollars raised is the Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge, a competition that prepares college-level dairy students for successful careers in the field. NEAFA is a proud annual sponsor of this event. “Over the last seven years, we’ve awarded more than $75,000 to 4-H groups, various FFA organizations and winners of the Dairy Challenge,” says Zimmerman. “Our interest is in supporting programs that involve upcoming generations and potential future ag leaders coming up through the ranks.”
“We are trying to put emphasis on youth in agriculture,” adds Hyde. “They are the future of the industry and they will be the professionals, CEOs and managers down the road.”
Attracting younger generations is such a critical issue in the industry, so much so that NEAFA has based its annual meeting around the theme of youth in agriculture. The board of directors’ annual meeting and forum for members will take place February, 2 and 3, 2016, in Albany, New York. The theme for the 2016 annual meeting is “Agriculture’s Workforce: Who Will Meet Our Needs?”
Speakers will focus on various aspects of the workforce requirements for tomorrow’s agriculture industry. “The annual meeting will draw about 200 people from across the United States and Canada who will be attending for the excellent program and networking opportunities,” says Zimmerman.
“Last year our discussions focused on the impact of mandatory GMO labeling and proposals to control and ban GMO seeds,” recounts Zimmerman. “This year we’re focusing on the labor needs of the future and there will also be smaller seminars for specific topics such as transportation issues and the Food Safety Modernization Act. We also have invited a farmer-agribusiness panel to discuss the labor issues from their in-the-field perspective.”
“Damian Mason, a well-known speaker in many agriculture circles, is going to be closing the conference,” adds Zimmerman.
More room for rail
One issue the annual meeting will discuss is the daily transportation and logistical issues producers and feed manufactures face in New York and New England in getting their products to market. In April 2015, NEAFA launched its Transportation Committee, now chaired by Blake Lutz.
The Transportation Committee was created in order to address poor rail transport and convince state governments to reinvest in infrastructure to allow for high-capacity trains to travel along the region’s short-line railroads. To that end, the Transportation Committee is also working to launch conversations with rail industry leaders to improve the quality of service currently provided to mills in the Northeast.
“The Transportation Committee is working to understand the new requirements for truck and rail shipments to be in compliance with FSMA,” explains Lutz. “We’re also helping mills and other shippers involved the agribusiness industry comply with state and federal Department of Transportation regulations. We’d eventually like to organize a webinar for this DOT training.”
The committee also works within the rail industry to explore infrastructure changes that may allow large-capacity cars. “Currently many of those lines are restricted to small-capacity cars,” says Lutz. “We’re working to identify a way to better discuss rate concerns with the Surface Transportation Board for small-volume shipments that are common in the Northeast feed business. Overall, it’s an effort to collaborate with the truck and rail providers to ensure dependable, efficient and cost-effective transportation of agricultural commodities to our Northeast Corridor.”
Advocacy on the legislative front and key collaboration
From thruway tolls and road restrictions to tonnage taxes and registration fees, NEAFA is working to limit unnecessary mandates and regulations that plague producers and the greater agribusiness community. The Government Relations Committee, led by Art Whitman, has been a big player in the NEAFA’s advocacy efforts. “We connect with organizations throughout the northeast, such as the Farm Bureau, the Animal Ag Alliance, Northeast Dairy Producers and more, to make it easier for our members to get their voices heard through key leadership,” says Whitman.
The Government Relations Committee works on both the state and federal levels to address issues, such as immigration reform, access and labor, to stabilizing dairy farms through Farm Bill programs. The GMO labeling battle has been a huge issue for the committee. Last year the committee helped defeat a mandatory GMO labeling bill in New York through an active broad-based coalition. NEAFA supports farmers’ use of science-based practices and crop production technology, such as genetically engineered seed, for the production of quality food.
Success wouldn’t be possible without collaboration among committees and various facets of NEAFA. The Communications Committee, chaired by Jenny Mills, is essential in this process. “Our purpose is to communicate issues to the membership as well as to externally represent agricultural messages to the greater public,” says Mills.
The Communications Committee accomplishes this through print media, social media and NEAFA’s quarterly newsletter and monthly emails going out to members. “Collaboration is a big part of what we are doing,” stresses Mills. “We are trying to work with a lot of different organizations across agriculture in the Northeast and nationally. We want to communicate why the health of agriculture is so important and to make sure our challenges to this are heard.”
“The neat thing about our membership is that it spans several generations,” adds Mills. “This means we have to use a broad range of communications to speak to all of our members, through emails, newsletters, Facebook and blogs. In addition, we reach out to the general public to help with building understanding and trust between our industry and consumers.”
Day in and day out, the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance is bringing to light the important role agriculture plays, not just for individual families and farmer’s bottom lines, but for the good of everyone across the Northeastern states, the country and the world.