Cornell's vital agriculture and veterinary roles stressed by N.Y.'s new senator during campus visit

In her first visit to Cornell as New York's junior U.S. senator, Kirsten Gillibrand pledged to advocate for the university's agriculture and veterinary programs as a way of revitalizing New York state's economy. "Clearly the work that Cornell has done over the decades is not only state-of-the-art but provides leadership worldwide," she said. "You've been leading the charge on how we continue to grow our economy through our farms and through our agribusinesses."

Gillibrand (JILL-uh-brand) spoke at a 45-minute agriculture and economic development roundtable April 7 at the College of Veterinary Medicine's Shurman Hall. Her visit was part of her effort to connect with constituents before the U.S. Senate convenes. Gov. David Paterson appointed her in January to replace Hillary Clinton, now the U.S. secretary of state. "I really look forward to hearing from our panelists about ideas they have for economic growth," she said in her opening statement.

The panelists included leaders of Ithaca and Tompkins County in banking, tourism, nonprofit, health care, government and higher education. Representing Cornell were Alfonso Torres, the College of Veterinary Medicine's associate dean for public policy; Helene Dillard, director of Cornell Cooperative Extension; and hosting deans Susan Henry of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Michael Kotlikoff of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

In her opening remarks Gillibrand said agribusiness could help restart New York state's economy. Moreover, a safe, wholesome food supply is a matter not only of public health but also of national security, she said. "If we think it's bad getting our oil from the Middle East, think about how it would feel to get our milk from China."

The panelists asked how they could help in her efforts to boost the economy and suggested areas in which legislation would help their stakeholders. Gillibrand's answers focused on her current and past legislation related to economic revival.

The $700 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which won her vote, offers state and federal funding for biofuels and other types of research conducted at Cornell, she said. The act also aims to help constituents of Cornell Cooperative Extension, such as dairy farmers, reduce their energy costs. Gillibrand said she intends to ask the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to hold hearings on revamping the system by which the federal government sets the price of milk. "Our farmers are getting paid less for their milk than their cost of production, which is crazy," she said.

Gillibrand, noting that she is the first New York senator to sit on the agriculture committee in about 100 years, said her representation is important because the state is the country's third-largest producer of milk.

Kotlikoff talked about the need for state funding to support animal welfare and health to prevent disease from entering the general population. Torres followed by pointing out that a shortage of veterinarians -- and the heavy loans that prevent students from entering the field -- exacerbates the problem.

Gillibrand took notes on their comments and talked about a bill she will sponsor that would offer free tuition to junior and senior undergraduates who major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She also advocated programs to get high school students interested in the life sciences.

Henry commented that the pipeline for those students needs to widen. Many students interested in agricultural and veterinary studies are from rural areas, where schools often lack resources, such as advanced placement courses, that would make those students competitive in higher education, she said. "In many cases these rural schools are as underfunded as inner city schools, and yet less attention is being paid."

Prior to her appointment as U.S. senator, Gillibrand was an upstate New York congresswoman known for bold political moves and centrist policies. A Democrat representing the state's heavily Republican 20th district, Gillibrand has advocated for gay marriage and women's rights and opposed gun control. Prior to her political career, she was a securities lawyer. She lives in Greenport, N.Y.

Stephen Philip Johnson, vice president for government and community relations, called Gillibrand's visit significant for Cornell. "We've worked with her as a state representative, and she's been very helpful," he said. "She's been a great supporter of our work."

About 250 people attended the event.

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Simeon Moss