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Each year, economists at the state College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, aided by the State Ag Statistics Service, discuss where the several segments of the state's $3 billion-plus farming industry has been and where it may be going -- with the understanding that unexpected events like droughts, floods, freezes, wind and wars can reduce early predictions to sheer nonsense. Here are some of their findings and brave forecasts:

Dairy -- Milk making, accounting for more than half of New York's farm economy (drinking milk, cheese, ice cream, butter, condensed milk, specialty drinks and powder), had a tumultuous year with up-and-down prices and lawmaking. The state's nearly 8,000 dairy farmers will manage about 701,000 milk cows. Their continually improving per-cow output is expected to average 17,300 pounds or 8,100 quarts, still slightly below those in warm-weather states. New York dairy farmers should have ample, low-priced grain, but can expect lower milk prices, higher-cost replacement cows and a shortage of quality hay. Uncertain is the impact of pricing in newly created, multistate Northeast Regional Market. A 1996 Cornell study of 305 dairy farms showed that farm profits rise as herd numbers increase, largely because of labor and management efficiencies. Marketing trends show a declining use of drinking milk and expanding consumption of milk used to make cheese, butter, ice cream, etc.

Vegetables -- While the number of farms has slowly dwindled to about 2,700, production acreage, responding to the current healthy diet emphasis, has climbed to more than 167,000, up 12 percent in a decade. The preliminary 1999 farmgate value of the drought-affected crops fell below the $260 million estimate for the 1998 crops. Similarly, the value of potato and dry bean crops also dropped. So did the values of peppers, pumpkins, squash and melons. The state's top three fresh market vegetables are cabbage, sweet corn and onions. The top vegetables that were frozen or canned are sweet corn, snap beans and sweet peas. Potatoes, the state's largest single vegetable crop, showed a rising 145-pound per capita consumption rate. People also are eating more asparagus, broccoli and snap beans but fewer carrots, head lettuce, cabbage and cucumbers. Onions are the one constant, a small, steady annual rise. Genesee County, with $48.8 million in 1997 sales, is the state's largest vegetable growing county. Orleans County, with sales of $29 million, ranked third.

Fruit -- Larger 1999 apple and grape crops were the major factors in boosting the farmgate value of all state fruits to $223 million, a one-year jump of 31 percent. As usual, returns to individual growers varied. The value of the 29.3 million-bushel apple crop was held to an estimated $141 million, up $15 million above that of the short 1998 crop. Lower prices and an export slump limited the gain. Domestically, the wide gap between what farmers receive and consumers pay for fresh apples continues. In October, the prime harvest month, growers averaged 16.9 cents a pound for fresh market apples, but consumers are paying from 99 cents to $1.29.

Grapes are another story. Strong demand and solid prices for juice grapes lifted the value of the 205,000-ton grape crop to a record $57 million, up $18 million above the 1998 mark. Except for a few varieties, the smaller wine grape crop, 15 percent of the state total, sold at flat prices. Even so, prospects for the state's small, but expanding, local winery industry appears bright. Strong sales are anticipated in 2000. Tart cherries with a 17.7 million pound utilized harvest, often in greater supply than demand, had one of its better years. The peach and sweet cherry crops experienced slightly higher prices amid relatively unchanged harvests.

Ornamentals -- New York is part of the nation's rapid expansion of floriculture and ornamental crop production. The major exception is cut flowers such as roses, now mostly imported. The 1997 Census of Agriculture lists 3,346 farms that sold trees, potted and bedding plants, cut flowers, shrubs, vegetable flats and shrubs and sod valued at $290 million, up from $168 million in 1987. Some 24.9 million square feet of growing area was in greenhouses and more than 47,000 acres were outdoor plantations, triple the amount of 1987. The big gainers are bedding garden plants, potted flowering plants, flats of vegetables, other flowers apart from roses, hanging baskets, nursery crops such as trees and shrubs, and, to a lesser degree, sod.

Exports -- The recovering Asian economy will help U.S. farm exports to rise by $1 billion to $50 billion. In international trade, only U.S. farm products show a favorable balance. After applying for and receiving state funds and becoming a Western New York leader in farmland preservation, the Amherst Town Board last week took a backward step by reversing a prior policy and voting to replace the Western New York Land Conservancy as custodians of the town's last 1,200 acres of open land that had been planned as a passive use nature park. Critics suspect that the new Town Board is thinking of a more intensive use of the 1,200 acres that could negatively affect the adjacent 1,400-acre Amherst Agricultural District.

To honor the late Nelson Shaulis who died Jan. 15 after a lifetime of viticulture and peach tree research, a fund has been set up in his name to pay for additional studies. Gifts may be sent to John Murphy, Cornell University Foundation, 102 Prospect St., Ithaca, N.Y. 14850. Shaulis is best remembered for designing the Geneva Double Curtain system of growing grapes, a system that maximizes vine exposure to sunlight

Barnyard gossip -- In his hourlong State of the State address, Gov. Pataki's only direct reference to agriculture was a planned cut in farm taxes. He made no mention of debt reduction, a favored Farm Bureau cause. . . . The search is on for a successor to Dean Daryl Lund who plans to retire after serving for more than five years at the helm of the State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. . . . Gary Fitch of Wilson, who runs Ag Affiliates, an advisory service for area fruit and vegetable growers, has been given $5,000 by New York Farm Bureau to continue his work. Intermediate string overflow

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