Nov 18, 2011
N.Y. Vegetable Growers Association celebrates a century

In 1911, a small group of vegetable growers from New York state traveled to Ohio to attend a meeting of the Vegetable Growers Association of America. On the way, they discussed the possibility of forming their own organization, one focused on New York.

When they got home, they sent a questionnaire to other vegetable growers in the state, asking for their support. A meeting was called, and the New York State Vegetable Growers Association (NYSVGA) was born, said Jeanette Marvin, the association’s executive secretary.

NYSVGA began with 27 members. By 2011, the year the association turned 100, there were more than 300 members, Marvin said.

According to a 1915 statement, NYSVGA’s goals were to provide educational opportunities as well as production, management and marketing resources for growers. Another goal was to increase public awareness of the value of New York produce and to promote the state’s growers at all levels, she said.

Those goals haven’t changed.

“What they started doing 100 years ago is what we do today,” said Larry Eckhardt, who was president of NYSVGA from 1991 to 2010. The owner of Kinderhook Creek Farm in Stephentown, N.Y., Eckhardt grows sweet corn, fall decorative items, field crops and beef cattle.

In the early days of the association, growers talked about how to get greater production from fewer acres, how to grow higher-quality produce, how to attract and retain employees, the best ways to mechanize – things they’re still talking about today.

“We’ve met the enemy and know who it is.”

The difference now is that every time something bad happens – like a food safety scare or terrible weather – it seems to cost more, Eckhardt said.

“Our margins are ever so thin,” he said. “Any time an event occurs, it’s more devastating.”

Some problems, like the labor supply, have gotten worse over the years. Local labor pools aren’t as large as they used to be. Fewer people are tuned into agriculture and the work ethic it requires, he said.

“Harvesting vegetables is not a dummy job,” Eckhardt said. “It requires skill, training and a perseverance that was more prevalent 30 years ago.”

He also mentioned the swift pace of communication these days. Thirty years ago, it might have taken weeks to find out about something like a labor raid. Today, you can find out almost immediately. It’s an amazing difference, Eckhardt said.

With help from eight other associations, NYSVGA runs The Empire State Fruit & Vegetable Expo, the annual conference and trade show of New York’s specialty crops industry. Marvin is the expo’s executive director.

Half of the profits from the expo fund Cornell Cooperative Extension programs, Marvin said.

NYSVGA has cooperated with Cornell University from the beginning. The original executive secretary was a Cornell employee, said Mark Henry, NYSVGA’s current president. Henry owns W.D. Henry & Sons in Eden, N.Y., where he grows a variety of vegetables on about 300 acres.

NYSVGA started its centennial anniversary celebration during last winter’s Empire Expo, and will probably celebrate again at the 2012 expo, Marvin said.

“It’s almost as if the expo itself is a celebration of who we are,” she said.

The expo is expanding, and bringing in members from other segments of agriculture. For more information, call 315-986-9320, or email them.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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