Harvest of generosity:  Cornell alums recognized as Alliance for Science ‘Farmer of the Year’

By Chris Knight

December 18, 2020

As hunger rose in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Rick and Laura Pedersen responded by sharing the bounty of their farm with their local food bank in upstate New York.

“It’s distressing to think about that many people in our community that need food,” says Laura Pedersen, who with her husband, Rick, co-owns Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, NY.  “I just feel good that for us, we had a decent growing year. I feel like it’s our duty to give back as much as we can, because we’ve been fortunate compared to many other people in other businesses.”

The couple partnered with community activists to donate 93,600 pounds of produce to people in need, engaging food distribution hubs in the spirit of giving. In this way, the Pedersens have joined other smallholder farmers across the United States in helping food banks meet an extreme increase in demand due to the pandemic and ensure there’s food on the table for those facing hard times.

In recognition of their generosity and dedication to farming, the Pedersens have been selected as the Cornell Alliance for Science 2020 Farmer of the Year. The award was established in 2015 to honor outstanding smallholder farmers across the globe.

In addition to their generosity, the Pedersens have been innovators in New York agriculture, with Rick emerging as a leader in hops production in the northeast. Laura was a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent for vegetables for many years before the farm required her full attention.

“The Pedersens have been dedicated community members,” says Sarah Evanega, AfS executive director. “They succeeded in developing a viable and productive family farm, which is difficult in these challenging times.”

The Pedersens, who grew up in the Finger Lakes, met while spending a beautiful summer working at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station — now referred to as Cornell Agritech — in Geneva, NY.  With their family roots in agriculture, the couple’s magnetic pull back to the land led them to a decades-long partnership and a career of producing healthy food while helping others along the way.

After graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, they started a small farm in 1983. Today, they manage a 1,000-acre farm that includes 800 acres of certified organic farmland.

“I’ve always liked the outdoors and been a gardener,” says Rick, before correcting himself with a chuckle to say “had been a gardener. We don’t have a garden anymore. It’s a farm.”

The farm’s remarkable growth over the past 30 years depended largely on the demand from restaurants in urban centers like New York City.  As 2020 began, the Pedersens were getting by all right. But their resilience and adaptability as farmers would soon be tested.

The spring brought COVID-19 lockdowns on dining and the resulting restaurant closures disrupted food market for farmers and consumers nationwide. The initial shock left food banks overwhelmed, grocery stores cleaned out, restaurants shuttered and farmers facing an enormous surplus.

This stressful new reality required a pivot, Rick recalls.

“The bulk of our products went to New York City into the restaurant trade,” he explains.  “That basically went in half or less.  With the government programs for food assistance through the COVID programs, we were able to sell quite a bit of squash and kale, particularly into food banks all over the country — actually, as far as Florida. When we thought we were going to have a horrible year, we had an OK year.”

Laura expresses gratitude that they were lucky enough to make a shift before their harvest season.

“People are still going to eat, they’re just going to eat in different ways,” she says. “That’s one place where we were so fortunate here because this thing started in March, which was before our harvest season began. Whereas the farmers down in Florida were in the middle of harvest and, all of a sudden, their markets changed overnight.  We had an opportunity to make some changes and make some adjustments before we actually got into our harvest season.”

Thanks to the successful change in their marketing strategies, Rick and Laura enjoyed a successful production season. However, they knew that people were still struggling locally. The Pedersens saw an opportunity to pay forward, and connected with BluePrint Geneva, a local food and environmental justice organization.

“Pedersen Farms was so generous with us through this pandemic in helping meet people’s food security needs,” Dr. Jackie Augustine, Blueprint’s executive director, says.

In April, the Pedersens offered up more than 75,000 pounds of butternut squash to be distributed through a local mutual aid network coordinated by BluePrint.  To make the donation more accessible and facilitate storage, the squash was processed, cubed and frozen in small packages that could be easily handed out at distributions events managed cooperatively by the City of Geneva and Foodlink.

The Pedersens donated another 3,600 pounds of organic butternut squash this fall, along with 15,000 pounds of kale.

“He was able to get that squash cleaned up and out to us for distribution to people directly right before Thanksgiving,” Augustine says. “There was also kale available.  Rick’s crew was able to get that kale washed and boxed so that we could bring that kale to our sites. We’re definitely so appreciative. They went above and beyond.”

Laura says she takes pride in being able to provide high quality food to her community.

“It makes you feel good that you can produce something that people really enjoy and it’s healthy,” she says. “They think that it’s really good.  That’s the thing that is most important for me. This year has been especially meaningful that way. Obviously, we can’t give away all of our food, but the food that we’ve been able to donate, people really wanted it, really needed it.  It’s a good feeling that way.”

The Pedersens join previous Farmer of the Year award winners Wiledio Naboho of Burkina Faso (2019), Patience Koku of Replenish Farms in Nigeria (2018), Kaleb Kamure in Uganda (2017) and Amy Hepworth of New York (2015).