The Great New York State Fair in Syracuse is where New York’s elected officials pose for pictures with butter sculptures and sausage sandwiches, and this year was no exception as Gov. Kathy Hochul made her first appearance there in her new role. Such visits allow politicians not only to raise their profiles, but also to express support for New York’s farming and agricultural industries.
From Long Island to the Finger Lakes, farms play an essential role in feeding New Yorkers. New York farms generate billions of dollars annually – the state is a national leader in producing yogurt, cottage cheese, apples, maple syrup and more – and they have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, with essential farmworkers toiling to help the state respond to rising hunger.
This is City & State’s first agriculture-focused list, highlighting public officials, farmers, business executives, association heads, labor leaders, policymakers and others who have shaped New York’s agricultural landscape. And that includes people operating in every aspect of the diverse sector, from dairy farming to craft brewing to hemp cultivation. The list – researched and written by City & State’s Kay Dervishi with assistance from Jasmine Sheena and Jon Lentz – also emphasizes important developments over the past year. For example, the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in the state will open the door for growers and business owners to expand their presence in the state. City & State is proud to present the Agriculture Power 50.
As New York’s agriculture commissioner since 2014, Richard Ball has had his hand in just about every farming-related legislative change or policy debate in the state. He’s made public appearances to discuss farmworker labor shortages, kicked off the start of Dairy Month and touted the state’s impressive array of agricultural products at the Great New York State Fair – which his agency oversees. During his free time, the veteran farmer from Schoharie finds forward-looking ways to help the agricultural sector evolve and thrive in the face of various crises, most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although it was only in 2019 that Assembly Member Donna Lupardo was appointed to chair the Assembly Agriculture Committee, the veteran lawmaker from Broome County has long been a proponent of the state’s farming sector. She championed the state’s Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program in 2015, paving the way for a thriving new industry. She has sponsored legislation boosting the craft beverage industry – including last year’s measure allowing liquor-infused ice cream. This year, Lupardo teamed up with her counterpart, state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, on another measure easing regulatory restrictions for craft beverage producers. Hinchey, a first-term lawmaker representing an Albany-area and Hudson Valley district, also worked with Lupardo this session to pass the state’s Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act. In addition, Hinchey was a lead sponsor of legislation to make the Nourish New York farm-to-food-bank program permanent.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is known nationally for her efforts to remove sexual assault cases in the military from the chain of command, but a lesser known priority is her advocacy for farmers and farmworkers. Gillibrand is a member of the U.S. Senate’s agriculture committee and is chair of its Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Local Food Systems, and Food Safety and Security. She has sought to connect farms to food banks and provide relief for small farmers during COVID-19. As the first New Yorker to serve on the agriculture committee in nearly four decades, Gillibrand has also pushed to reform dairy pricing and support specialty crops.
While New York is known for its massive downstate population, much of the sprawling state is home to a thriving agricultural sector – which is why several members of Congress serve on the House Agriculture Committee. The two New York Democrats currently serving on the committee are Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney of the Hudson Valley and Antonio Delgado, whose large rural district is just to the north of Maloney’s. Along with Republican Rep. Chris Jacobs of Western New York, who joined the committee upon taking office last year, New York now has three committee members (and briefly had four until then-Rep. Anthony Brindisi lost his 2020 reelection bid.) The trio has joined forces on issues such as crop conservation standards, while Maloney and Delgado have pushed for relief for small farmers.
David Fisher oversees one of the largest organizations advocating on behalf of farmers at the state government level. The New York Farm Bureau emphasized the needs of the agricultural sector during the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, pushing for farmworkers to get access to vaccines and highlighting the financial struggles farms have faced. In addition to his leadership at the organization, Fisher is a dairy farmer and served on the three-member state wage board that issued guidance on overtime rules for farmworkers.
Hamdi Ulukaya already owned a small feta cheese company, Euphrates, when he came across a defunct yogurt factory for sale in upstate New York in 2005. Ulukaya, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey, took a chance and bought it, launching Chobani. The company now generates more than $1.5 billion in revenue annually and has expanded its production beyond New York to Idaho. Ulukaya has cemented a reputation as a philanthropic leader as well, having launched initiatives such as the New York City-based Chobani Incubator, which funds food and beverage product startups.
Benjamin Houlton is almost a year into his role overseeing one of the country’s top agriculture-focused colleges. Nearly 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students attend Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which also hosts robust research initiatives. As an environmental scientist, Houlton has dedicated research to understanding how a resilient agricultural system can be used to combat climate change.
The dairy industry makes up the largest share of New York’s agricultural sector, with the state leading the nation in the production of cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt. John Dickinson, owner of Ideal Dairy Farms, oversees the Northeast Dairy Producers Association’s work educating, supporting and advocating for dairy farms of all sizes across the state. The organization has lended its support to the Grow NY Farms coalition, which is pushing to keep in place a 60-hour overtime threshold for farm laborers.
In 2019, state Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens sponsored a groundbreaking law instituting new protections for New York farmworkers. While many farmers opposed the measure due to increased costs, Ramos teamed up with some of them for months to deliver food to her struggling constituents during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The food policy wonk also held a hearing this spring on diversifying the agricultural sector and “addressing food justice” and “continuing inequalities on our food systems.”
When Gov. Kathy Hochul took office, some hoped she would speed up former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s slow pace in rolling out New York’s recreational marijuana program. Her nominations of former Assembly Member Tremaine Wright to chair New York's Cannabis Control Board and of Chris Alexander to run the state Office of Cannabis Management shows the new governor means business. The pair will implement the state’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which covers recreational and medical marijuana as well as hemp. They will also ensure the law’s emphasis on benefiting communities of color that were disproportionately harmed by enforcement efforts when marijuana was illegal. Wright is not only a former lawmaker but also an entrepreneur, while she helped draft the MRTA bill as a state Senate Democratic staffer.
During his tenure as the eponymous supermarket chain’s CEO, Danny Wegman played a major role transforming agriculture in the Finger Lakes region. Under his leadership, the Rochester-based company connected suppliers, researchers and producers to one another – several family farms have credited the company with helping them stay afloat – and even started its own farm and restaurants. Colleen Wegman has carried on that work at Wegmans since becoming president and CEO in 2017.
As the CEO of Cayuga Milk Ingredients, Kevin Ellis runs an Auburn-based operation that produces nearly a billion pounds of milk annually in a variety of forms – liquid, condensed, powdered, blended and more. But beyond Cayuga County, he has frequently delved into international trade policy over the years. During the Trump administration, Ellis criticized Canadian trade policies that barred certain dairy imports that hurt his bottom line. Also, in 2015, he joined a New York delegation to Cuba in the hopes of boosting trade.
Brian Reeves is no stranger to the challenges vegetable growers face in New York state. He and his brother run Reeves Farms in Onondaga County, which produces strawberries, zucchini, squash and other fruits and vegetables. His experience as a farm owner and vegetable grower inform his leadership at the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, where he has spearheaded efforts against lowering the overtime threshold for farmworkers.
The Torrey family can trace its farming roots in Genesee County as far back as 1803. Now, alongside her husband Paul Marshall, Maureen Torrey co-owns a farm that spans more than 13,000 acres and produces cabbage, cucumbers, pumpkins and other vegetables. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she and other farmers coordinated with state Sen. Jessica Ramos to donate tens of thousands of pounds of food to New York City.
New York farmers planted about 330,000 acres of soybeans this year and more than 1 million acres of corn. These growers look to Colleen Klein, executive director of the New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association, for the latest information on public policy affecting their work. In addition to educating and advocating for its members, the association sponsors research on corn and soybean production, utilization and marketing.
Many Cabot Creamery Cooperative’s popular cheese and butter products, which are sold around the country, originate from hundreds of dairy farms in upstate New York, including those making up Agri-Mark. Agri-Mark, a cooperative of dairy farmers formed over a century ago, merged with Vermont-based Cabot Creamery Cooperative in the early 1990s. In 2003, Agri-Mark also merged with New York’s Chateaugay Cooperative and acquired its McCadam Cheese brand. This summer, Agri-Mark CEO William Beaton joined then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce the start of construction on a $16 million expansion of the company’s Chateaugay plant.
According to a report from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation released last year, New York ranked as the third-leading producer of wine in the nation in 2019. Sam Filler leads the organization’s efforts to ensure the state’s wine industry maintains its strength. Before joining the foundation in 2017, Filler was director of industry development for Empire State Development, where he served as a liaison between the state government and the wine, beer, spirits and cider industries.
After stints as a producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Farmers’ Almanac TV, Paul Leone developed TV pilots about craft beer – and while they weren’t picked up, Leone adopted a new career. Since 2013, he has headed the New York State Brewers Association, which advocates for an industry that’s now the country’s second largest. He recently called on the governor to sign legislation that would provide a temporary permit to craft brewers during the monthslong process to secure a full permit.
It’s been quite a year for the Hunts Point Produce Market’s Phillip Grant. He guided the nation’s largest wholesale produce market through a deadly pandemic that disrupted the food supply chain, reached an agreement on a new contract with striking workers and was promoted from the position of general manager to chief executive officer. “If we learned anything from this pandemic, it is the importance Hunts Point Produce Market plays in distributing safe produce to the New York region,” Grant said during a state legislative hearing in December.
Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the Nourish New York initiative last year to connect farmers and their products to food banks helping to fight growing hunger amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was Assembly Member Catalina Cruz and state Sen. George Borrello who crossed party lines and geographic divides to emphasize the importance of continuing the program. Cruz, along with state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, sponsored legislation to make the program permanent. Borrello joined Cruz in promoting the bill, which passed the state Legislature this May and awaits Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature.
The New York State Maple Producers Association represents the more than 700 members who make New York the state producing the second-highest haul of maple syrup in the country. As the association’s executive director, Helen Thomas has pushed for continued state funding of Cornell University’s program focused on maple research. She has also drawn attention to the challenges maple producers have faced as climate change leads to warmer winters in New York.
It might not be the reason some people call New York City the Big Apple, but New York nonetheless produces more apples nationally than all but one other state. As head of the New York Apple Association, Cynthia Haskins represents more than 600 apple growers statewide. She brings with her 35 years of experience working with growers, having previously managed business development for the Illinois Farm Bureau before joining the association in 2017.
As New York picks up the pace on implementing the state’s recreational marijuana law under Gov. Kathy Hochul, Curaleaf Holdings is among the companies who appear to be best positioned to capitalize on the major new market. The company, which is widely considered as one of the top multistate cannabis companies in the country, already has a foothold in New York thanks to its medical marijuana license. Curaleaf Holdings Regional President of the Northeast Patrik Jonsson oversees the Massachusetts-based company’s operations in New York and half a dozen other states.
Along with Curaleaf Holdings, Green Thumb Industries and Trulieve Cannabis Corp., Cresco Labs is one of the top cannabis companies in the U.S. And like Curaleaf Holdings, it already has a medical marijuana operation in New York, whose recently legalized recreational market is projected to exceed $4 billion. Chicago-based Cresco Labs, which closed on its acquisition of medical marijuana company Valley Agriceuticals LLC in New York in 2019, is led by Charles Bachtell, who applauded the “inclusive framework” put forward when the state legalized recreational use this spring.
Columbia Care may not be the biggest cannabis company in the country, but it’s one of the major players. The New York-based company operates in 18 jurisdictions in the U.S. – including its home state, where it already has a medical marijuana license and is among the likely contenders for a recreational one. The company, led by CEO Nicholas Vita, announced this spring the purchase of a 34-acre cultivation site on Long Island to bolster its medical marijuana supply.
Allan Gandelman got his start in agriculture as a vegetable farmer before going on to co-found a CBD processing company. As head of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association, he has advocated for hemp legislation in the state and assisted growers, processors, retailers, prospective license holders and others involved in the state’s growing cannabis industry. With recreational marijuana finally legalized, Gandelman has advocated for the state to allow small and midsized farmers to begin growing as soon as possible and to quickly establish regulations.
Feeding New York State supports 10 regional food banks across the state, in part by partnering with farmers and others in the food industry to encourage donations. For example, the New York Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers program donated more than 8 million pounds of food to the organization last year as hunger rose during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dan Egan, who previously served as a division administrator at the state Department of Health, has overseen Feeding New York State’s work since 2019.
Luis Jiménez together with several other immigrants working on dairy farms in Western New York founded Alianza Agrícola in 2016 to advocate for their needs. The group has successfully pushed for the state to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses in 2019. More recently, the organization has turned its energy toward making sure farmworkers across the state are being protected throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 300 dairy farms own the Upstate Niagara Cooperative, which produces milk, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese and other dairy products for New Yorkers. In addition to his role as general manager at O-AT-KA Milk Products, Lawrence Webster serves as the dairy co-op’s CEO. He has overseen the company’s recent expansion, which includes settling into a new corporate headquarters in Erie County and preparing to take over a plant in Batavia, a town in Genesee County.
Part of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ political persona is his shift to a vegan diet, which spurred him to write “Healthy at Last: A Plant-Based Approach to Preventing and Reversing Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses.” His experience with veganism has also shaped the policy positions of the likely next mayor of New York City. He sponsored legislation to create a comprehensive, citywide urban agriculture plan and recently released a report, “The New Agrarian Economy,” calling for community farming investments following food supply disruptions due to COVID-19.
Samantha Levy spearheads the American Farmland Trust’s efforts to help protect and preserve farmland in New York state. The organization scored a success in this year’s state budget via increased funding to its program connecting retiring farmers to new farmers. Before joining American Farmland Trust, Levy worked for U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on federal agriculture policy and for Blue Hill at Stone Barns, GrowNYC and Down to Earth Markets.
Onika Abraham, who heads Farm School NYC, which trains people in urban agriculture and pushes for cities to support the field, is a strong proponent of urban farming. She has spent more than 15 years in the nonprofit sector and honed her expertise in sustainable agriculture at the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems in Santa Cruz. As an advocate for diversifying agriculture and helping farmers of color, she is one of the co-founders of Black Urban Growers.
The next generation of farmers in the United States is relying on the National Young Farmers Coalition for training, guidance and support. Erika Rincon, who leads much of the organization’s work in New York, has worked on farms in the Hudson Valley, Long Island and Brooklyn. Rincon has also worked on food justice initiatives and currently serves as a farm-to-school coordinator for the Beacon City School District in Dutchess County.
Bethany Wallis has been with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York since 2006, educating and supporting organic and sustainable farmers across New York state. The 38-year-old nonprofit organization is active in Albany, where it recently backed legislation promoting soil health in the face of climate change and a bill restricting the use of pesticide-coated seeds, which some research indicates could hurt bees and songbirds.
The Empire State Council of Agricultural Organizations brings together associations and institutions across New York’s diverse agricultural industry under one umbrella to jointly advocate for policies. Elizabeth Wolters chairs the council and oversees its work, while also serving as deputy director of public policy at the New York Farm Bureau. The council’s policy goals this past year have included prioritizing agricultural workers for COVID-19 vaccines and giving the agricultural sector more input on the state’s rollout of its adult-use cannabis program.
Laurie Griffen chairs the board of Farm Credit East, an institution providing credit and other financial services to farmers in New York and half a dozen other Northeast states. Griffen and her husband also operate the 600-acre Saratoga Sod Farm, where they install sod, sell seed and fertilizer as well as grow soybeans, corn and barley. “I live and breathe it every day,” Griffen recently told Lancaster Farming of her work in agriculture. “It’s certainly a business for us, but it’s a lifestyle as well.”
The Minnesota-based cannabis company Vireo Health differentiates itself from its competitors as a physician-led operation, with Dr. Kyle Kingsley at the top of the corporate ladder. Vireo Health started out in Minnesota and soon after began providing medical marijuana to patients in New York through a subsidiary, Vireo Health of New York. The company is among a number of likely contenders for a recreational marijuana license in New York.
New York-based Acreage Holdings already operates in major marijuana markets in states such as Illinois and Massachusetts, but it’s likely to be in the mix for a recreational license in its own state now that it has been legalized there. Like several multistate competitors, Acreage Holdings already has been operating a medical marijuana operation after securing a license in New York. The company is led by Kevin Murphy, the founder and chair with an extensive background in finance, and Peter Caldini, who has worked in the pharmaceutical sector.
Before craft distilling took off in New York, Brian Facquet was making Bootlegger brand vodka and gin at his Roscoe-based Prohibition Distillery, which has since been renamed Do Good Spirits. While business has taken off, Facquet has also taken on the role of president of the New York State Distillers Guild, which represents licensed distillers across the state. He supports state Sen. Michelle Hinchey’s proposed legislation that would allow distillers to market and sell their products the same way breweries and wineries do.
Dan Barber’s restaurant, Blue Hill, has long been a destination of the New York City restaurant scene, but he has made his mark in a related area as well: sustainable food. After Blue Hill was invited to partner with the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in the Hudson Valley, Barber became invaluable in driving and drawing attention to sustainable food practices. Last year, he announced that he would step aside as chef and implement a diversity-driven residence program with a new chef in the kitchen each season.
The Worker Justice Center of New York speaks out on behalf of farmworkers and other low-wage workers in upstate New York while providing legal services and other forms of support. Two longtime employees, Diana Saguilán and Andrea Callan, are now heading the organization on an interim basis. Under their leadership, the nonprofit has advocated for greater COVID-19 safety measures and protections for farmworkers. In December, they joined then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in calling for stronger federal efforts to vaccinate people of color and low-income New Yorkers.
While hemp may be a small part of the overall state agricultural economy, Eaton Hemp CEO and Co-Founder Daniel Dolgin has been at the forefront of advocating for the promising industry. A veteran of the security and intelligence industries, Dolgin shifted his ambitions to more agricultural ones in 2016 when he started Eaton Hemp, which produces a number of hemp- and CBD-related products. That same year he launched JD Farms, which was awarded the first license to grow industrial hemp in New York.
Olivia Watkins co-founded the Black Farmer Fund in 2017 after discussing the lack of financial assistance available to Black farmers. With Black farmers constituting less than 1% of the state’s producers and typically earning less than white farmers, Watkins’ New York organization provides capital to Black farmers, restaurant owners and food distributors and advocates for policy changes. The issue is being taken seriously by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which released a report in August outlining avenues to improve diversity and racial equity.
The Northern New York Agricultural Development Program funds research and technical assistance for the agricultural sector in the North Country, which ranks second in agricultural sales in the state. The small grants program funds everything from production efficiency to environmental stewardship for farms involved in dairy, livestock, crops and more. Jon Greenwood, who owns a dairy farm in Northern New York, guides the program’s work alongside Joe Giroux and Jon Rulfs.
Oscar Vizcarra and his wife Melinda Vizcarra have spent decades overseeing Becker Farms, a sixth-generation fruit and vegetable farm in Western New York. They’ve spent significant time growing it into a premier tourist destination over the years, opening up a winery and brewery and offering various tours around the farm. The business has often drawn up to 100,000 visitors a year, not including the many people who have their weddings there.
John Gaus wears many hats: computer and electrical engineer, entrepreneur and organic farmer. His experience led him in 2014 to co-found Agbotic Inc., an organic farming company aiming to reimagine controlled environmental agriculture via automation, technology and environmentally sustainable practices. The company, located in Sackets Harbor, near Lake Ontario, is now expanding operations to conduct business across Europe.
Farming is in Gail Hepworth’s blood. Her farm, Hepworth Farms, has been in the family for seven generations, and she has been overseeing operations with her twin sister Amy. She has transferred her agricultural skills to focus on growing hemp, having founded Hempire State Growers, a producer of organically grown hemp that sells CBD products as well. Her hemp business is thriving, with 150 employees during peak season, but she wants the state to allow her to move into marijuana production as well.
Carie Telgen co-owns a veterinary practice in Washington County, where she cares for cattle. Her expertise both as a veterinarian and as someone who grew up on a dairy farm led her to become the president of American Association of Bovine Practitioners, which represents more than 5,000 veterinarians and veterinary students interested in bovine medicine. Telgen has been an active voice on animal care issues in New York, including opposing efforts to restrict the use of antibiotics while caring for animals.
Ben Dobson’s Stone House Grain is no ordinary farm. Not only is it an organic farm, but its operations are aimed at combating climate change through various strategies to keep carbon contained in the soil. Dobson’s efforts prompted Assembly Member Didi Barrett to sponsor legislation creating a pilot program to test so-called carbon farming. Dobson also helped launch the nonprofit Hudson Carbon to study carbon farming practices and founded Hudson Hemp, an industrial hemp company.
Dan Rao was inspired to create Assured Edge Solutions, which repurposes various produce into fruit and vegetable powders, in 2011 after he used misshapen apples slated to be discarded to create fruit powder. In addition, Rao also spearheaded the creation of the Healthier Way brand, which features products such as frozen vegetable noodles and sweet potato flour. This year, Assured Edge Solutions received local and state funding to expand its manufacturing operations at the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park.
NEXT STORY: The 2021 New York City Labor Power 100