When Paul E. Lehman grew up on a farm in Lewis County, 40 dairy cows supported the Lehman family. As Lehman, 62, prepares to retire after almost 38 years at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, big dairy farmers have replaced the many milk producers in Niagara County.
“We were a small dairy farm, and my dad did raise five kids on 40 dairy cows, but that class of dairy farm is rapidly disappearing today,” he said.
In the 1970s, there were more than 150 dairy farms in Niagara county; today he estimates there are 35. There was a strong consolidation of dairy farms and milk production has increased by a million pounds.
Since 1972, when Lehman joined the co-op on Lake Avenue, Niagara County has found alternatives, and Lehman has helped in the transition.
Lehman graduated from Cornell University in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education and spent three years in Nigeria with the Teachers Abroad program. Since then, he’s been guiding county farmers with big concerns and urban dwellers with a wide variety of questions.
The Cornell grad was in Nigeria from 1968-71, where he taught in a secondary school about 200 miles from a city in Africa’s most populous country.
“Those were interesting times because the country was at war,” Lehman recalled. “There was a lot more military presence with roadblocks and road checks.”
His school was insulated from the war. “I was very fortunate because the Danish government, through foreign aid, built a secondary school. I got to design my own laboratories, and the building progressed just nicely ahead of the intake of students. The students got to go to high school through competitive examination, so we got the creme de la creme. I cherish those times and have some fond memories.”
Lehman was working with a volunteer service program, and mission schools had a better reputation than the public schools. Two of his students are now governors of Nigerian states.
Lehman grew up as a 4-H member and was familiar with Cornell Co-op. He got a job in Lockport as a 4-H staff associate and served in that position until 1979, when he became the agriculture program leader.
There were about 20 specialists, and the buck stopped with Lehman, as far as accountability. Cornell Co-op has a strong rural linkage to the farms, but today, it serves all constituents.
“We probably get more phone calls on a daily basis from urban residents, because everyone has a garden or a backyard,” Lehman said. “We’ll go from the profound to the mundane. One minute you’re talking to someone about enterprise budgets on the farm, and the next call is about squirrels in the attic. We don’t find any dumb questions. We are a helping organization. Perhaps the widow with a squirrel making a lot of noise night at night is just as important as a person’s enterprise budget.”
Niagara County has diversified. Farmers want to know how much it costs to grow corn and soybean. Cows give more milk today, and production has gone from 15,000 pounds per cow to 20,000 pounds.
Jim Bittner and John Sweeney of Appleton were early 4-H students of Lehman when he came to town in 1972. Bittner is now the president of the Niagara County Farm Bureau board of directors ,and Sweeney is on the board.
Lehman taught in the tractor driving program, set up the course and made sure the youth were paying attention.
“Paul is quiet and hard-working,” Bittner said. “He always sees what needs to be done and gets it done,”
Sweeney, a former supervisor of the Town of Somerset, has been working with Lehman since the 1980s on agricultural programs.
“He’s a very down-to-earth man and likes to give the community what they’ve requested,” he said. “He will get that information and doesn’t leave you hanging. He follows up on calls he receives and does the job that’s supposed to be done. He’s an easy man to talk to and has an excellent rapport with the agricultural community and the staff at Cooperative Extension. He works well with everybody and has for years and years. He does a good job and is a man you can depend on.”
Niagara County is adjusting to agriculture changes. The county devotes about 7,000 acres to soybeans, which was not a New York crop in the 1980s. There has also been a proliferation of wineries, and farmers are growing more grain corn to supply the ethanol plant.
According to Lehman, Niagara County offers more alternatives than other counties. Farmers have converted to cash crops and sell their hay to others. Lehman carried out programs and projects for small farm operations, including startups. Other programs covered included agricultural marketing, farmland protection, general agriculture, natural resources and energy conservation.
Lehman received grants that enabled Cornell Coop to complete projects in recycling education, farmland protection planning, agricultural worker education and farm market development.
However, there have been cuts at the Cornell Co-op, and it is not certain that Lehman’s position will be filled very quickly or in the same way.
“Western New York, and Niagara County in particular, have been good to my family and me,” Lehman said. “It is a bit unusual to remain with the same employer as long as I did, but the opportunity to give back to a community and to call it home for an extended period of my life is very satisfying. I will continue to volunteer, do contractual work and travel.”
Paul and Jane Lehman are from the same town in Lewis County. Their son Joel, 27, works at a newspaper.
A farewell gathering for Lehman is set for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Training Center, 4487 Lake Ave. The event includes a $14 buffet with various beverages. For reservations, call Karen Krysa, Cooperative Extension administrative assistant, at 433-8839, ext. 221.
Contact reporter Bill Wolcott at 439-9222, ext. 6246.