Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance’s (NEAFA) board member Janet Beken Smith grew up with agriculture in her life in Bloomville, NY. “Growing up in rural Delaware County,” said Beken Smith, I always loved animals.” Beken Smith attended Cobelskill for her undergraduate work, before going to Cornell for their Agricultural Sciences program. “I started with the equine tract when I went to college at Cobelskill, but once I took one of Cornell’s Dairy classes, I fell in love with the science behind feeding cows.” Today, Beken Smith is the General Manager at the Stamford Farmers’ Cooperative in Stamford, NY. The former Agway retail store that specializes in fertilizer blends, custom chemical applications, and operates as a feed mill. Beken Smith started as their Dairy Nutritionist 6.5 years ago, before becoming the GM 3.5 years ago.
Beken Smith got involved with NEAFA after attending an annual meeting after she started working with the coop, which was followed by helping out during a lobby day. “It’s so important to give our farmers a voice in Albany and Washington,” said Beken Smith. “So many legislators don’t understand rural America, and NEAFA does a great job representing our industry and educating those that are coming up with legislation and laws that effect our industry.” Beken Smith also enjoys the fundraising and coordination that NEAFA has with Cornell. “I love the collaboration and support that NEAFA gives to Cornell, since it’s my alma mater, and I know the great work they do within the state. When John Clark approached me about an open board seat, I was happy to join.” Beken Smith is in her second year on the board currently.
Working at the cooperative, Beken Smith sees the challenges that are facing the dairy industry on a regular basis. “The crisis that the dairy industry is facing - it’s not just a dairy problem, it’s a rural America problem. We’re a small organization with 15 employees, but those are local jobs that are important for a community to have. Sadly, we’re seeing farms become farther and fewer between, and as we try to continue growing our business, agritourism is huge part of that. People are figuring out that we’re an easy commute from New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. The Catskills are amazing and beautiful, and Delaware County is in the heart of watershed. More and more people are coming to vacation, buying second homes, getting backyard chickens, and enjoying the agricultural landscape. As a business, we’ve been transitioning towards the homesteader market. We’re seeing folks holding events on their farms, becoming an air b&b, and frankly I see it as a win win. It’s income for the farm, and helps people understand where our food comes from, and how truly safe our dairy and beef supply is in our country.”
In that vein, Beken Smith has made sure that the cooperative has embraced the buy local, eat local movement. “Right by the front door we keep a local, refrigerated case full of cheese, eggs, milk, maple milk, honey, and other local products. We see the animals that produce those products. Our farm fresh local brown eggs come from chickens that eat the egg layer mash and other feed that comes from our store. It’s the same for our dairy products. We feed the cows that make the products. And it brings things full circle and we sell them all year long. We definitely see an uptick on weekends when visitors come into the area to enjoy the agricultural tourism that our area has to offer.”
Agricultural tourism also leads to an education for all visitors to the area. “I think that it’s important to know your local farmers and where your food comes from - these are shopping choices that people can make. When I’m grocery shopping, I’m willing to look for Meyers apple juice because I know it’s made locally - and if I forget to get milk while I’m at work, I look for the 36 source code number on the bottle that tells me that it’s local, NY made milk. We need to take care of what’s in our backyard so that we can take care of our community. A local dairy’s dollar is spent $7 times over in a community. It equals dance classes, baseball cleats, an instrument for band class, etc. I think that the worries that some have over their food is prompted by fear and lack of knowledge. NEAFA does a wonderful job explaining how safe our industry really is in our country on the whole. Getting that word out and helping people understand is such an important endeavor that NEAFA undertakes.”