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Column: Lessons learned at a New York farm conference

Bt corn

I was born and raised surrounded by farms in Wading River, but if you think that makes me the ideal reporter to cover agricultural issues, you’re wrong.

So when my editor approached me several weeks ago about attending the New York Farm Bureau’s Food and Farm Experience in Waterloo, N.Y., you’ll have to forgive me if I cringed a little. Don’t get me wrong, I happily accepted the assignment. And as a cub reporter working for a media group that prides itself on its coverage of agricultural issues, I welcomed the challenge.

I just secretly hoped nobody would find out that I don’t know much about farming.

Then, at 8:30 a.m. Friday, the conference began with my worst nightmare: a quiz to designed to gauge our knowledge of agriculture. I quickly began randomly circling answers with one hand as my fingers remained crossed on the other.

Up next was an icebreaker, an activity I decided long ago to avoid at all costs. I’d rather watch the New England Patriots win a football game while feeding my dogs — two other things I hate being subjected to — than see a glacier melt between myself and a total stranger.

In this particular instance, everyone stood up in front of the two dozen people in the room, introduced themselves and then had to grab a food product and place it on a table marked for products produced in New York State, or another one for products made elsewhere. (Yay, another quiz!)

I blindly placed a jar of Welch’s grape jelly in the “Originated in New York pile” and ended up being correct. Move over farmers, there’s a new expert in town.

Next, we participated in a true-or-false presentation about common agriculture “facts.” Each person was given a card and had to decide if the information on it was fact or fiction. My card said it took 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. That’s false (it’s actually less), for all you lay folk out there who didn’t minor in grain-to-beef mathematics.

At a panel held later, three speakers discussed technology and agriculture, mostly focusing on genetically engineered crops and the meat industry. Following the presentations, the panelists and some audience members engaged in a short but emotionally charged debate on GMO use.

One man was clearly emotional as he showed a picture of his grandchildren, who he said he willingly feeds genetically engineered foods. With only three hours’ worth of agriculture information under my belt I was overwhelmed, but the panelists had a convincing argument — namely that this technology could safely and sustainably feed the world’s population.

Next, we toured the Geneva Experiment Station, a division of Cornell Cooperative Extension. We learned about a bunch of jobs I never knew existed, such as grape breeding, an occupation that consists of studying grapes to decide which traits produce the best wines. We also heard about positions at the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship, a laboratory where people can bring their products to test how well they’ll do on the market and where willow farming takes place.

We ended the first day with a stop at Muranda Cheese Company in Waterloo. Here, we got a tour of the cow barns and were treated to a cheese tasting. Unfortunately for me, I’m one of seven Americans who do not like cheese. I am told I missed out.

Dinner was held at Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee, which had a stunning view of Seneca Lake and the adjacent vineyards. If you’re lucky enough to follow me on Snapchat you’d know. We also got a tour of the wine cellar and learned about the winemaking process at Glenora, which produces about 90,000 bottles per year on site.

During dinner we heard a presentation about chicken and its history as a food source. Because the winery was generous enough to provide an open bar and fancy enough to serve small portions, I can’t recall a single other detail about this particular segment of the conference.

On Saturday, we visited Rodman Lott & Son Farms in Seneca Falls, among other places. Mr. Lott, who I believe was the son, spoke of his family’s farming practices. They harvest corn for pig feed and soybeans that they then ship to Asia. A big component of Lott’s farming is using genetically engineered organisms. He even said, “To not use Bt [genetically modified] corn is anti-progress.” He compared Bt corn to an iPhone and organic corn to a landline telephone, describing both the Bt corn and iPhone as improved technologies designed to help humans. Starting to notice a trend here?

We ended the day at the hotel, with more presentations focused on the public’s perception of food safety, which included the advocacy of GMO use, the federal government’s overseas farm worker hiring process, and growing hops, the newest agriculture craze.

Before the conference, I was aware of the controversy surrounding GMO use, though I didn’t have a strong opinion about it. Everyone the Farm Bureau invited spoke positively about genetically modified crops, stressing the importance of creating food that doesn’t require the constant use of pesticides, along with the increased quality of the engineered crops. Comprehensive studies by scientists at the University of California Davis have found that GMOs do not pose a threat to human health.

The conference speakers did seem to discount legitimate reasons to avoid GMOs. One reason may be that you prefer the taste of heritage or heirloom tomato varieties. Another may be that some bioengineered foods have been modified to withstand high levels of herbicide application.

As a journalist, it made me uncomfortable not to hear this other side of the story, although the lack of information presented won’t dissuade me from eating genetically modified foods. After the conference ended, I headed straight to one of the few restaurants I was already familiar with in the Finger Lakes region: McDonald’s.

The author began her career as a reporter with Times Review Media Group after graduating from SUNY Geneseo in May. She can be reached at [email protected].

Photo: Bt corn from Rodman Lott & Son Farms. (Credit: Nicole Smith)