Economist says agriculture has been ‘resilient’ through pandemic | Business

WATERTOWN — Agriculture’s output in much of the north country went up by roughly 12% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to an agriculture economist and Cornell University associate professor who gave a presentation to farmers on Friday.

Professor Todd M. Schmit said he’s still trying to wrap his head around the increase from 2019 to 2020 in the agriculture economy in Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Oswego and Lewis counties. Mr. Schmit gave a presentation to a group of farmers at the Hilton Garden Inn on the economic contributions of agriculture to the Northern New York economy.

Toward the end of the presentation, he said the output of agriculture in the four counties went up 12% in 2020 compared to 2019. Jobs went up 2%, and labor income went up about 38%. While other industries saw significant decreases across the board, agricultured, according to Mr. Schmitt.

“Agriculture was resilient in the economy and facing these structural changes,” Mr. Schmit said. “I found that fascinating.”

These might shock many, and farmers in the room increases listening to the professor almost paused before accepting that conclusion. There might be more context to these numbers, they said, like how some of the increase is likely due to relief payments or subsides for lost milk in 2020.

“I think the story is not written yet,” said Doug Shelmidine, a farmer in Belleville. “I think you have to wait for them to do the final analysis, but generally, agriculture fared better through 2020 than anybody expected it to.”

Those increases could be from how spending changed in 2020 as well, and how it was difficult to find food in markets so people went directly to producers.

“I think what it shows on the surface is that in 2020 people couldn’t find stuff in the stores,” said Dave J. Zembiec, CEO of Jefferson County Economic Development. “They were going to local growers, farmers markets or meat producers. It kind of increased local spending to smaller, locally owned businesses.”

It could also be the fact that many industries during the pandemic could afford to slow down, while agriculture had no choice but to continue.

“While the mentality out there was to lock down and close your doors, agriculture didn’t have that opportunity,” said Ron Robbins, an owner of Robbins Family Grain and North Harbor Dairy. “It had to keep going and actually maybe maybe double down a little bit.”

The numbers indicate a better year than many were anticipating in March 2020, Mr. Schmit said.

“There’s something here given the nature of your agricultural food systems that promoted a more resilient adjustment to changes that were happening in the face of COVID,” Mr. Schmit said. “I’m not saying COVID was good, but this was unexpected.”

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