Jim Barber, a fifth-generation Schoharie Valley farmer, is running for New York State Senate.
Barber, D-Middleburgh, is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican state Sen. Jim Seward in the sprawling 51st Senate District. The district is comprised of nine counties, including the towns of Locke, Moravia, Niles, Owasco, Sempronius and Summerhill in Cayuga County.
Barber owns Barber's Farm, a 162-year-old family farm in Middleburgh, Schoharie County. He has held other agriculture-related positions, including seven years as executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency in New York and a two-year stint as special assistant to the commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
In an interview with The Citizen Monday, Barber said he will bring a different perspective to the state Legislature. If elected, he would be the only full-time farmer in the state Senate.
"I have this real desire to be involved and try to make things better for the communities I live in, both in my local community and the farming community," Barber said. "I see this as a real opportunity to take it to a different place than I've done before."
That perspective isn't limited to agriculture. As a small business owner, he thinks that will be an asset in the Senate. His family farm had a mid-sized dairy operation and grew crops. After ending the dairy part of the business, Barber's Farm added a greenhouse and now grows approximately 100 different crops on 200 acres of land. Most of the crops — 90%, according to Barber — go to the retail market.
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There is another component to the business which was added within the last few years. Barber opened 1857 Spirits, a distillery which produces vodka made with potatoes grown on the farm. Barber's son, Elias, is the distiller.
The Senate race will be a new venture for Barber, who served on the Middleburgh school board but has no other elected office experience. It's a challenging race for a Democrat because Republicans hold the enrollment advantage — there are nearly 11,000 more GOP voters than Democrats, according to the state Board of Elections. But there are more than 36,000 voters who didn't register with a party.
Seward, R-Milford, has the incumbent advantage. He was first elected to the state Senate in 1986. In 2018, he won his re-election by 28,491 votes.
Seward hasn't said whether he will seek re-election in 2020. He recently announced that he's receiving treatment after a recurrence of bladder cancer. He was first diagnosed with the disease in 2016.
Barber acknowledged that Seward has advantages in the race. Not only is he an incumbent, but he has a large campaign war chest. As of July, he had $231,721 in the bank for his reelection bid.
But Barber believes he can be competitive where other candidates haven't been in the past. He noted that other Democrats, namely U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, have been able to win in different parts of the district. He hopes to do the same.
"I think I bring some real skills and experience to the table," Barber said. "I've been a business owner. I've worked every day of my life trying to make things work. I think that's certainly something that's not there now."