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Stein spearheading dairy tourism in New York

Karen Lee Published on 05 June 2009

There’s a movement stirring in western New York and it’s powered by the belief one dairy woman has in promoting nature’s most perfect product and what it takes to produce it.

Shelley Stein farms with her husband, his two brothers and his nephew at Stein Farms LLC in LeRoy, New York. This family operation milks 750 cows and farms 2,500 acres for forage and grain to feed the herd.

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Similar to the role of many dairy women, Shelley takes care of the management and administration of personnel, payroll, accounts receivable and accounts payable, cattle records in DairyComp 305, paperwork and reporting for CAFO permits and public relations.

A wearer of many hats, it’s the public relations cap that has been a mainstay as of late. She took it with her on a trip to visit a friend at Tillamook Cheese in Oregon during the summer of 2005. There an idea got caught under the hat of this New York dairywoman that set an ambitious undertaking in motion.

By the time this same friend came for a visit in New York that December, Shelley had arranged for them to attend a meeting with her county’s economic development committee.

The idea was to create a center for tourists geared towards education about the dairy industry. What they learned at the meeting was that if producers wanted greater visibility they had to see to it themselves, Shelley recalls.

So she began spreading the word and rounded up allied industry, processors, producers, elected officials and funding sources all in one room. Together they applied for an agritourism grant from the state of New York.

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Unfortunately the grant was turned down the first year, but the committee found ways to strengthen the proposal through partnerships and networking with processors. They used corporate instead of individual names and did some additional legwork in awareness of the proposal and agriculture’s impact on the economy as the state’s No. 1 industry.

Once awarded the grant in 2007, they formulated a committee. David Crisp, co-leader of the grant, helps to lead the committee. He is the director of marketing for O-AT-KA Milk Products Cooperative, Inc., a balancing plant in the western portion of the state that packages national and international branded products. It uses the “extra” milk produced to make award-winning butters, infant formula, evaporated milk, body-building drinks, yogurts, milk products made with liquors, and kitten and puppy formula.

Also on the committee are representatives from Farm Credit of Western New York, the county’s Economic Development Center and the county government. An architectural engineer, an ag educator and Shelley as a dairy producer round out the group. “Together we make up the core of the group,” Shelley says.

The grant was given to allow for a feasibility study on the creation of a dairy tourism center. It was to analyze the center’s ability to tie the tourism opportunity in the state with the current tourism traffic patterns. In New York, tourism is the third-largest industry.

“To have a center such as this would complement a facility that’s already in place,” Shelley says. The New York Wine & Culinary Center shares the importance of the grape industry in the state. “Together they will tie into the banquet of New York- produced foods.”

Two years later, the feasibility study is still in process. Thus far, Shelley reports, the committee has secured the public relations department of Osborn & Barr to conduct focus groups. They’ve also drafted what the center will look like and how much it will cost to construct.

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Currently, the committee is working to develop the center’s logo and communication plan, which will include a website and branding tactics.

Throughout the process they’ve welcomed and received participation from the industry, including that from the Northeast Dairy Foods Association, New York Farm Viability Institute, American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Dairylea Cooperative and DFA, and Upstate Niagara Cooperative.

Shelley mentions she’s also had the fortune to learn from dairy visitor centers across the country. She’s talked with or visited Hilmar Cheese Co. in California, Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, and Cabot Cheese and Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont. At each location, Shelley looked at how they were achieving their goals and purpose and hopes to learn from their experiences.

The dairy tourism center in New York will be rather unique in that it will be a not-for-profit center, with plans to be supported by checkoff dollars and outside funding to benefit the entire dairy industry in the state.

As far as location, the committee has selected Batavia, New York, as the prime site for the tourism center. A city of 16,000 residents, Batavia is located between Buffalo and Rochester and attracts 1.3 million visitors annually, Shelley says. It is less than an hour from Niagara Falls, Letchworth State Park and Lake Ontario and less than 30 minutes from the Genesee Country Museum, one of the largest outdoor living history museums in the country. Darien Lake Theme Park Resort is also nearby.

The outcome from the focus groups supports this location, Shelley adds. She mentions they identified the center needs to be local in relation to the state’s farm country.

Batavia was also recently awarded a $3 million grant for an agri-technology park and this tourism center has the ability to have land in that park. This particular center will focus solely on dairy, however other companies located in the park could take on their own tourism opportunities and create a destination location for visitors.

“It’s looking like the stars have all aligned in Batavia,” Shelley says.

The final feasibility study report will be chocked full of what they learned. Once completed, Shelley anticipates the county’s economic development team, along with the core supporters of the center, will start to seek funding for the project in the hopes a building will be in place in three to five years.

Five core principles have driven Shelley to pursue this project. First, it’s because dairy producers have the most perfect food product. The industry is economically viable to the community and the state. The population has become very removed from its ag roots. A local, fresh food supply is on consumers’ minds now more than ever before. And, lastly, she says she would like to be able to help educate the importance of dairy and increase the awareness of the industry’s connection to food, land and resources, and the state’s social and economic climates.

Everyone wishes dreams could become reality overnight, but Shelley is not deterred by the time this process is taking. “We still move forward every day,” she says. “All good things don’t come overnight.”

This effort is something she strongly believes in and would be willing to go at alone if needed. However, she is thankful for everyone who continues to step to the plate and play their role in the project. From the area dairy producers who support the idea to the focus group participants that leant insight and from the companies that give of their employees time to work on the project to Monsanto Dairy, which put a serious monetary investment in matching the feasibility study grant, with their help, the tourism center grows into a better place each day.

“I’m thrilled to have the cooperative vision to make this happen,” she says, “and I look forward to having this facility up and running." PD

Shelley Stein
Stein Farms
LeRoy, New York

Karen Lee
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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